Office 365 provides by default a public website which is usually located at an URL similar to this:
The pages folder is already set up with public permissions. This allows the site to be visited by non-authenticated users. The pages on this site are created with the root.master page. This master page can’t be modified to brand our site. The main reason is because there is a WYSIWYG editor available for these pages that allow you customize the site with predefined styles and themes. Any attempts to modify the root.master files would cause the website to break.
How do I brand my Office 365 website?
Depending on your expertise on web design and SharePoint Online (This is on what Office 365 is built on); you can brand an Office 365 with the following options:
Option 1 – Default Public website with WYSIWYG editor
Use the default public website with the default themes and styles right from the browser. This is the easiest approach, and it will deliver a basic website design with a basic layout and theme. You will be able to add a header, footer and navigation menus. We can also change the layout structure by adding different zones to the page. We can also add page title, description and keyword Meta tags to aid on SEO. Most people are really not happy with the results they get from this option.
Option 3 – Public Website with SharePoint Designer
When the first two options are not providing all the flexibility you need, you can now start using SharePoint Designer. This is a developer tool that allows us to open an Office 365 site and have more control over the design of the site. We can open the website pages with this editor and fully customize the HTML (within the Container tags that are required by the master page). Once we start doing customization at this level, the WYSIWYG editor on the browser will no longer work. This approach makes designer and developers happy because there is more control on the design and folder structure of the website without the need to know SharePoint specifics.
Option 4 – Create pages with a different master page and SharePoint Designer
If you are ready to move away from the root.master file, this is the approach for you. With SharePoint Designer, we can attach pages to a different master file. This master file can be customized to meet all of our design needs. For example, we can create a HTML5 master template with all the branding requirements and attach the new pages to this new master template. This however increases the complexity level because your master page needs to meet a few requirements to be a valid SharePoint master page. At this level, SharePoint knowledge starts to become a dependency. There are however a few basic templates that can be used as a starting point.
Option 5 – Create a new sub site and make this your public website with SharePoint Designer
Office 365 allows us to create sub-sites which are created private by default. We can however change the access setting and make it public. Once we make a sub-site public, we can set any page in the sub-site as the site home page (this is a global site setting). This tells SharePoint that when a person navigates to your domain http://mydomain.com that the browser should be redirected to the home page which now resides at the new sub-site. This is how it works for the default public website. SharePoint basically redirects users to http://mydomain.com/pages/default.aspx. For a sub-site, SharePoint redirects the users to something like: http://mydomain.com/sitepages/home.aspx.
With this approach, you now need to know more about SharePoint administration and development. The benefits are that we can now integrate SharePoint features to the public website. For example, we can display a document library, calendar, lists, custom web-parts and custom business solutions. For public users to create new records in a list, you will need to explicitly provide public write access to that list.
Main Difference between SharePoint on premises VS SharePoint online
The main difference between SharePoint on Premises and online is that you can only deployed Sandboxed solutions on the online edition. A Sandboxed solution is isolated, and SharePoint will block it if the solution starts to become unstable. The reason behind this is because this is a Multi-tenant environment, and it is not convenient to have one tenant’s solutions affect other tenant’s sites. This also implies that certain resources are not available for a Sandboxed solution compare to a Farm Solution which limits what you can do for your custom solutions.
SharePoint branding is not as easy as a normal HTML website, and depending on your skill set, you may choose any of the listed options above. If you are not familiar with SharePoint, you may want to partner with a company that has this expertise. I hear from many designers and a developer how frustrating is to work with this product, but like anything, certain level of expertise is required to know how to work with a particular technology.
I hope I was able to show you a few approaches on how to brand your SharePoint public website.