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I noticed that when I added and removed people to/from a group for a subsite (3 levels down), then it in fact added and removed them from the root site! I can swear I was being very diligent and I could clearly see the subsite title not just on the settings page but also in he url, but still when I switched to the settings page for the top-level root site, all the changes I did to the subsite were now appearing on the top level site. How is this possible? It is so ambiguous.

How can we prevent this from happening. One should expect that when they are adding/removing people to/from a group, they are doing at that site level on which they are on and not on the top level site.

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Back in SharePoint 2003, we had groups at both site collection (root) level and sub-site level.

From 2007, this does not exist anymore (unless with a deprecated API). All groups are now site collection groups. This means a group created at a subsite-site level is actually a site collection group, i.e. it's created at the root level, without any notice!

That's also a good reason to not mess-up with site collections/sub-sites architecture from the very beginning of your SharePoint deployment. Having one huge site collection for all purposes/projects/teams/applications will quickly lead to a real mess regarding groups and permissions.
[On the other side, with too many site collections, you'll end-up copying master pages, content types, groups and a lot of other artefacts from one collection to another]

  • Thank you @Evariste, but don't you think that every effort should be made to let the person know that they are making the changes at the root site. Like I stated before, there was no indication that I was on the root site. I could actually see the sub-site name on the page and in the url. Not only that, the settings page theme was also of the subsite which is visually so different from the root site. – Aamir Sep 1 '16 at 21:13
  • Ho, I did not say it was a good thing! I definitely agree with you. But this is only one of the many "improvement points" in SharePoint... and it's not been fixed for years, so... :( That's also why deploying (in a very general meaning) SharePoint requires knowledge of the product and upstream studies (see this as a good thing... for SharePoint consultants!). – Evariste Sep 1 '16 at 21:16
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Two things that might help you with multiple site collections ..

1 - Use a content type hub to centrally manage and publish content types and site columns.

2 - Use AD groups as membership in your SharePoint groups to manage permissions from AD

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