What is Metadata?
Metadata is information that describes, classifies or
identifies a piece of information. Metadata is
typically described as a set of attributes that help to
describe or classify an object.
What is a Folder?
Container of files and other folders within a
A folder has a name and a URL location.
A folder is a familiar metaphor for most people –
from the physical world (e.g. file folders, cupboards,
buckets, etc.) and the digital world (file shares, email,
Folders vs. Metadata: Folders
Imagine you have to categorize documents in three ways: Department, Year, and Publishing Status. This
is what a traditional folder structure looks like to categorize across MULTIPLE metadata elements.
Why did I pick Department first?
Lots of repetition
Multiple clicks to find the right files No way to filter easily
We have used this approach historically because we had no better alternative…and we migrated from a
Folders vs. Metadata: Metadata Site Columns
In SharePoint, we can assign multiple metadata attributes using independent site columns.
Each attribute acts as a “tag” or
“property” of my document.
I can filter, sort and view
based on any combination of
I can pick multiple values to tag per
attribute (e.g. my document could
be BOTH finance and IT)
Moving from Folder to Site Column (e.g.
Metadata Attribute in SharePoint)
to a Site
Advantages of Site Column over a Folder
Site Column definitions are re-usable across document libraries where folder hierarchies have to be
recreated each time.
Site Columns can be added to Content Types to define types of documents
Site Columns are can be used by search to filter search results
Metadata values can be validated (e.g. must be a date, a number, a user, etc.) where folders can be
any text value as a label
Document can have multiple selected choices instead of a single folder (e.g. document can be tagged
as both finance AND information technology)
Document can have multiple metadata attributes (instead of being locked into a single folder
Site Columns can have default values
Site Columns provide filtering and sorting including filtering by more than one column (e.g. show me
only items that where department = finance and language = English)
Site Columns can be hidden or displayed in views (folders are always visible)
Moving a document means the URL changes – changing a metadata property value keeps the URL
Deep folder structures mean long URLs
Some Reasons why Folders Can Still be Useful
Easier to create a folder than metadata structure and easier to adopt
Folders are security boundaries – can set permissions on folders
Easy containers to drop in large volumes of files
You can set default metadata values for each folder
SharePoint limits number of files in a view to 5,000 so folders can be helpful if you
have large numbers of files
File names in SharePoint must be unique – folders can avoid name collision
Plan out your taxonomy before organizing your documents – use re-usable site
columns to standardize how documents are classified, tagged or categorized across
Use Site Columns in SharePoint to store metadata instead of folders, in particular for
categorizing, tagging, searching and filtering documents
Folders should be used only for specific reasons where they are still helpful
Configure your search to leverage the metadata you have invested in creating!