Plan content on sites

If you are someone who is responsible for planning the content on SharePoint Online you may be wondering where to begin or how you should customize your sites to meet your needs. This article outlines some of the key considerations involved in planning the structure and content for your sites. It will also help you decide what content features you may need to use to support your business goals.

In this article

What kind of content will you have on sites?

How will your users find and access content?

What do users need to do with content?

How will content be managed through its lifecycle?

What kind of content will you have on sites?

It is a good idea for site owners to do some planning about the content that will reside on these sites. The goal for this content planning is to determine:

  • What kinds of content types you might want to create   . Content types help you customize how you handle and track specific kinds of content.

  • What kinds of metadata (site columns) you want to associate with content types   . Metadata is information to help describe and categorize the content.

  • What kinds of terms sets you want to create and what metadata columns you want to associate with content types   . Metadata columns can help you ensure that certain kinds of content always get categorized in specific ways..

  • What kinds of information management policies you want to configure for content types   . Policies help you determine how types content are managed, such as the amount of time it’s kept.

  • What kinds of lists or libraries you want to create to organize content   . Libraries can be used to store documents and other files, while lists can be useful for tracking tasks or issues.

Your organization may want to conduct this type of planning in a centralized way (especially for content types). In many cases you will need to coordinate closely with the site collection administrator, as well as the SharePoint Online admin, as the decisions that emerge from your content planning may require that features be configured at different levels.

Do you need to define content types?

Content types enable site users to quickly create specialized kinds of content by using the New Item or New Document command in a list or library. Content types are useful because they provide site owners a way to ensure that content is consistent across sites. Content types also make it possible for a single list or library to contain multiple item types or document types. Site owners can pre-configure specific details about the content when they set up content types for a site, list, or library.

Drop down from New Document menu showing a Sales Contract content type.

Site owners can define content types for list items, documents, or folders in SharePoint Online in all Office 365 plans other than Office 365 Small Business. The settings for a content type can specify:

  • The columns (metadata) that you want to assign to items of this type (including Managed Metadata columns).

  • The custom New, Edit, and Display forms to use with this content type.

  • The workflows that are available for items of this content type.

  • The custom solutions or features that are associated with items of this content type.

  • The information management policies that are associated with items of this content type.

  • The Document Information Panel, that displays in compatible Microsoft Office programs for items of this content type.

  • The document template for new items of this type (document content types only).

You may find it useful to define content types for some of your content if your content meets any of the following criteria:

If this is true:

Content types may be useful to you in the following ways:

You have specific types of documents that have a standardized format or purpose and you want them to be consistent across your organization.

Configure site content types for these types of documents at the top-level site in your site collection so that they are available for use across all subsites. This way, all users in your organization will be creating these documents in consistent ways.

You have specific templates people must use for specific kinds of documents.

Add these document templates to the relevant content types so that all new documents created from the content type will use the template.

There is a standard set of information you like to track for specific types of documents or items.

Add columns to your content type to track this information. If any of the information is especially vital, you can designate those columns as required. You can also provide default values for specific columns when you configure the content type.

There is a defined business process for how specific types of documents are always handled or reviewed.

Consider configuring workflows for specific content types. You can use workflows to manage business processes like document review or approval.

After you identify content for which you might want to define content types, you should think about where you want to define content types. If you define site content types at the top-level site in your site collection, they will be broadly available for reuse in lists and libraries in all subsites of the top-level site. Individual site owners can also define site content types for their sites, although these content types will be available for use in lists and libraries only on that site and any sites under it. Additionally, you can share content types across SharePoint Online site collections by designating a specific site as a hub for content type publishing. Content type publishing helps organizations manage content and metadata consistently across their sites because content types can be created and updated centrally, and updates can be published to multiple subscribing site collections.

When planning content types, you might find it helpful to create a spreadsheet or table that captures the information you want to include when you define your content types. For example, you could start by creating something basic like the table below, and then adapting it to include whatever additional information you might find useful to track, such as the sites or teams who will be using the content types:

New Content Type

Parent content type


Document Template


Information Management Policies

Specify the name of the content type you want to create.

Specify the parent content type from which it will be created.

List the new or existing column you want to add to the content type.

Specify whether there will be a document template associated with the content type.

Specify whether there will be any workflows associated with the content type.

Specify what information management policies might apply to this content type.

For more information about working with content types, see Create or customize a content type.

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What types of apps do you want to add?

In addition to thinking about content types, you may want to think about the other kinds of information that will be stored on sites, or the kinds of tasks that people in your organization would like to use sites to manage. This will help you plan the different kinds of apps that you might want to add to sites to get started. For example, if you know you want a place to store documents, then you will probably want to add a document library. If you know you want to keep track of important dates, you will probably want a calendar.

You do not need to add all of the apps you might eventually need right away. Site owners can add and remove new apps over time, as business needs change. But early planning about how you want to customize the content on your sites can help ensure that sites are immediately useful to users.

SharePoint Online includes built-in apps that are useful for a range of business purposes, from document storage and management, to project management and tracking, to communication. You can add multiple instances of these types of apps to a site. You can also buy and add third-party apps from the SharePoint Store to your site.

For more information, see Add an app to a site and Buy an app from the SharePoint Store.

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How will your users find and access content?

Devote some time to planning how site users will find and use the content on your SharePoint Online sites. This kind of planning will help you make decisions about how to configure both navigation and search for the Team Site and its subsites.

What sites do you want to include in your global navigation?

To plan your navigation, you might find it helpful to create a diagram of the sites in your site hierarchy. If you already created a diagram while planning sites, then you can start with that diagram and modify it. Include all of the subsites of your Team Site. You might also want to include any important lists or libraries that exist on Team Site and its subsites. This will help you identify at a glance the important destinations that site users might want to find if they are starting from the home page of your top-level site.

On SharePoint sites, the top link bar provides what is known as global navigation. This top link bar appears at the top of all pages in the site, below the site title.

Top navigation of a site

By default, each site uses its own top navigation, but you can decide to allow sites to inherit top navigation from the parent site so that the navigation experience is consistent across all sites. You can configure what sites appear on the top navigation. You can also include links to any other URL that you want, in case you want to integrate links to external resources into the navigation of your site. For more information about customizing the top navigation, see Customize the navigation on your team site.


If you have many subsites in your site collection, you may not want to expose all of them on the top link bar because this could be overwhelming for site users. But you also don’t want to make important sites or content undiscoverable. Use your site hierarchy diagram to identify the key sites you want to expose in your global navigation.

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How will people navigate within sites?

In addition to the top link bar, sites also display a navigation element on the left side of the page called the Quick Launch.

Typically, the Quick Launch displays links that are specific to the current site, and it can be used to highlight the content that is most important.

The Recent link on the Quick Launch displays the recently created pages, lists, and libraries

As with the top link bar, you can customize the Quick Launch to add or remove links to the lists and libraries on the site. You can also group links under custom headings. If you choose to have all subsites inherit the global navigation, then it will be important for Site Owners to customize the navigation on the Quick Launch, as it will be the primary way users will find content within a site once they arrive on it. If you opt not to have subsites inherit global navigation from the top-level site, then users will be able to use both the top link bar and the Quick Launch on a subsite to find the content within it.

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How will users navigate within lists or libraries?

If you plan to create use the Managed Metadata features available in SharePoint Online to create term sets, which site contributors can use to tag content with managed terms, you will have additional options for enhancing the discoverability of content on sites. You can configure metadata navigation to make it easier for users to find content in large lists and libraries. Metadata navigation enables users to dynamically filter and find content in lists and libraries by using a navigation hierarchy tree control to apply different metadata-based filters to the view. Key Filters can be used in combination with the navigation hierarchy to refine the list of items that are displayed.

Metadata navigation control

For more information about configuring metadata navigation or working with Managed Metadata, see Introduction to managed metadata.

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What should you think about when planning search?

As a SharePoint Online admin, you can customize the search experience for users by using the Search administration page in the SharePoint admin center. This customization includes defining searchable managed properties in the search schema, identifying high-quality pages to improve relevance, managing query rules and result sources, and removing individual results. You can also evaluate any changes by viewing reports about usage and search.

The changes you make from the Search administration page are valid for your entire SharePoint Online environment (tenant), but you can also customize search on site collection level and on site level.

How content becomes available in search

The search service is scheduled to crawl SharePoint Online content every five minutes. After an item is added to a SharePoint Online site, there will be a period of time before it is indexed and returned in search results. This amount of time varies based on current user activities. Tasks like site migration, upgrade, and maintenance increase the load on the indexing pipeline. New content items should typically display in search results within an hour

For more information about configuring search, see SharePoint Online search administration overview.

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What do users need to do with content?

It is a good idea to incorporate specific questions about content use scenarios into the content planning process because these questions will help you determine how you might need to configure specific sites, lists, or libraries, and what specific features site users may need to use in conjunction with content.

It is also a good idea to review the Software requirements for Office 365 for business so that you can anticipate whether specific individuals in your organization will encounter issues when working with SharePoint Online content based on the configuration of their local computers.

Questions to explore:

Considerations for content configuration:

Do you need to track versions of specific kinds of documents or list items?

  • Consider enabling versioning on these list or libraries.

  • Consider requiring that documents or items be checked out before they are modified

Will site users need the ability to work or collaborate simultaneously on specific kinds of documents?

  • Consider enabling co-authoring for relevant libraries, to facilitate collaboration.

Do specific kinds of content need to be approved before they are broadly accessible?

  • Consider enabling content approval for libraries, or using workflows to manage approval.

Are certain kinds of documents subject to specific business processes or human workflows?

  • Consider creating or configuring workflows for the content types that apply to these documents, or for the libraries in which these documents will reside.

Will you be using lists to drive or manage processes?

  • Consider creating or configuring list-based workflows for processes such as issue tracking and management.

Will sites contain sensitive content that needs to be restricted from general access?

  • Consider creating specific sites or libraries that are configured with unique permissions to store sensitive content.

  • Consider applying Information Rights Management to lists or libraries that will store sensitive content. For more information, see Apply Information Rights Management to a list or library.

  • Consider turning off external sharing for site collections that will contain sensitive content. For more information, see Manage external sharing for your SharePoint online environment.

  • Consider item-level permission if there is minimal need to restrict access to content.

  • Consider using audience targeting to display different content to different users.

  • Consider whether specific lists or libraries need to be excluded from search indexing.

Will content need to be managed as records, with control over how long they are kept or when they expire?

  • Consider creating a Records Center or setting up in-place Records Management.

Will your organization potentially be asked to produce eDiscovery documents for a court case or investigation?

  • Consider setting up an eDiscovery Center to manage content for cases and investigations.

Will users need to receive updates about content changes?

  • Consider enabling RSS for key lists and libraries.

Will users be publishing Microsoft Access databases on sites?

  • You may need to ensure that Access Services is appropriately enabled and configured for your site.

Will users be publishing Microsoft Excel workbooks on sites?

  • You may need to ensure that Excel Services is appropriately enabled and configured for your site.

Will users be working with many videos, images, or audio files, and managing information about those files?

  • Consider setting up an Asset Library, which is pre-configured to use special features that help you manage rich media assets, such as image, audio, and video files.

Will users be publishing Microsoft Visio diagrams as Web drawings?

  • You may need to ensure that Visio Services is appropriately enabled and configured for your site.

Will users be creating form-based solutions?

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How will content be managed through its lifecycle?

As you plan the content for your sites, think about the lifecycle for this content. That is:

  • How or why is this content most likely to be created? For example, will it be created to support formal deliverables, or will it be created in the course of day-to-day work and collaboration?

  • How long will people need access to it?

  • How much will it grow or change while it is in use?

  • When will it no longer be actively needed?

  • What needs to happen to it when it is no longer actively needed?

  • Are there business or regulatory reasons why specific kinds of content might need to be retained beyond its period of active use?

Your answers to these questions will help you plan and monitor storage, and they will also help you plan for things you might need to implement in-place records management, such as expiration policies.

For more information, see Choose how to store and manage records and Implement Records Management. Also, see Site closure policies.

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Return to SharePoint Online Planning Guide for Office 365 for business.

Applies To: SharePoint Online, Office 365 End User

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