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Not folders or metadata, why not folders & metadata?

Author by Drew Madelung

SharePoint is built and ready for content management but it can be a challenge to take advantage of the tools it provides. The question of whether folders or metadata should be used is a question that is asked over and over in every SharePoint project and SharePoint community. The 2 primary methods for organizing content in a document library is with folders and metadata. This is a topic that is very important and can make or break a successful SharePoint project roll-out. Everyone always asks what is the best strategy? Most SharePointers will quickly jump to "Folders are bad! Metadata is good!". As a consultant must say though, it depends.

Are folders evil?

Everyone knows what content management using folders looks like. Managing content in folders was happening well before computers. When I was in middle school I had my trapper keeper and then awesome folders for each of my classes. I had my primary folder which was my trapper keeper and my nested folders for my classes. That same premise was done in basic file shares in computers. That premise has since been migrated into content management solutions like SharePoint. Content is stored in a collection of nested folders in a document library and organized in a way that probably made sense to the person who set them up, but may or may not make sense to others.

There are multiple disadvantages to folders which are highly publicized. There are more that can be discussed but these are the major ones that come up the most.

  • URL length limitation   --   Overall URL length is limited to 256 characters
  • Forced grouping   --   Everything file HAS to belong to a folder and cannot fall into multiple categories
  • File URL   --   Moving a file from one folder to another means the URL of the file changes
  • Folder naming   --  Folder names cannot contain special characters
  • Workflows   --   They cannot be performed on folders
  • Lack of control of information architecture or taxonomy   --   A folder can be edited by anyone with contribute rights which could break a standard
  • Internal knowledge   --   When people turn over information is lost which can include the original rationale behind a folder structure

What about this metadata thing?

Metadata is one of the strongest factors that places SharePoint amongst the top collaboration platforms. Metadata allows for the tagging of content with attributes that classify the content. For example an mp3 loaded onto a computer has attributes like Artist, Album Title, Track length. These attributes help describe what song it is so you can quickly listen to what you want. Can you imagine going through a deep folder structure just to get to your songs? How about not being able to quickly sort by artist or doing a search by most plays? This metadata tagging has great advantages for content management. As with music tagging, once you apply metadata to documents it is then possible to provide better searching, filtering, categorization, grouping, and sorting. This allows you to look at data in different ways with the capability of enterprise metadata across multiple documents.

But metadata may not fit everyone's needs. There is a large planning and discovery phase that has to occur prior to launching a metadata structure to ensure it covers all different kinds of content across teams. After the discovery this structure needs to be developed and implemented. And after it is developed it will require more advanced change management and training than if folders were just being used. This can be a very new philosophy to people that can be challenge to understand as it is being adopted.

So what about those folders again?

After knowing the disadvantages of folders and advantages of metadata there is another point that needs to be made which is the advantage of folders. Foremost with any SharePoint projects is end-user adoption and acceptance. It should be a goal to have sustained adoption of your project. This involves an extended adoption that does not drop off over time. People love folders and at times taking a strict stance against folders can just push people away from your sites. You could build the fastest, prettiest, most secure SharePoint farm in the world but it would be completely pointless unless people use it. And user-adoption is not the only advantage of folders.

  • Permissions   --   They can be set at the folder level and any documents residing in that folder inherit permissions
  • Default metadata tagging   --   Default values for metadata can be set based on the folder it is located in
  • Bulk upload   --   It is easy to drag and drop many files into a folder either via the browser or in explorer view

Can we use both?

YES!  It is completely possible and in some circumstances best to use both. Why not give an end user the comfort of putting a document into a folder and automatically adding metadata when they do it? Why not build an admin view where the content owners upload their documents in a folder structure but end users have a view which "shows items in all folders" with sorting and filtering?

Now using a hybrid approach you still fall under the same disadvantages stated earlier in this post. That means proper governance and maintenance of an approach like this is required for it to succeed. There cannot be deeply nested folders or many changes to the structure. There needs to be proper planning up front for the long term goals of the library, folders, and content to ensure a sustained solution.

One solution that we at Concurrency provide is the creation of an effective content management strategy. This strategy will help decide the best use cases for taking advantage of all of the tools that SharePoint has to offer while ensuring end-user adoption and a successful SharePoint project.


Drew Madelung

Technical Architect