Metadata Pros and Cons in Modern SharePoint

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Now that I’ve got your attention with the donuts… 🙂

[UPDATE January 20, 2020] Added Document Sets to post

I was recently asked what the pros/cons of metadata versus folders were and if my opinion has changed in the modern SharePoint world. I’ve documented my complete list below for metadata, folders, and document sets and have highlighted (*) what I’ve added to address the new, modern capabilities of SharePoint.

Understand the pros and cons of metadata versus folders versus document sets in Modern SharePoint! It's a new world! Click To Tweet

In SharePoint, you have 5 options for organizing content in a library:

  • no folders nor metadata (Use only search and sorting to find a document)
  • metadata
  • folders
  • combination of metadata and folders
  • document sets

Metadata Pros

  • Allows for easy filtering/grouping/sorting by metadata on-the-fly *
  • Microsoft Flow logic can leverage metadata *
  • You can set a retention label based on a metadata value *
  • Can update in Office clients in SharePoint property pane *
  • Reducing/eliminating nested folder structures results in a shorter URL length
  • Changing metadata does not change the URL (changing folder does)
  • Better for new people (they don’t have to know folder structure)
  • Flexible to change a value after-the-fact
  • Higher data integrity with metadata value names (more controlled than folder names)
  • Metadata is indexed and therefore searchable

Pro-tip: standardize metadata thru the use of site scripts and site designs for common sites across your environment (Team sites, Project sites, Community sites, etc.)


Metadata Cons

  • Viewing an entire library thru File Explorer (OneDrive Sync Client) can be confusing since there are no folders to organize, only metadata. (You can’t see metadata in File Explorer)
  • Takes time for end-users to fill in; perceived to be slower than creating a folder
  • Maintenance of metadata configuration requires training
  • Cannot set permissions based on a metadata value
  • Requires setup prior to documents being added (unless you allow fill-in values)
  • If metadata is set as Required (not Optional) in SharePoint, when it is synced using the OneDrive Sync client, all files in the library will be locked from File Explorer (whether the metadata is filled in or not) *

Folder Pros

  • Folders are returned in search results *
  • Retention label can be defaulted at a folder level *
  • Can set permissions at the folder level
  • Can share at the folder level
  • Can sync at the folder level (OneDrive Sync Client)
  • Can see folders in a synced library using File Explorer
  • Easy for end-users to understand
  • End-users can self-serve folder creation

Good-to-know: A Microsoft Teams channel provisions a folder in the Teams’ document library in the SharePoint site associated to the Team.


Folder Cons

  • You can’t filter on folder name
  • Too many nested folders cause long URLs
  • End-users generally create too many folders and complex structures
  • End-users not familiar with the folder structure may not find it intuitive
  • Limits you to 1 way of organizing content
  • You need to click into the folder to view files inside of it
  • To move documents from 1 folder to another will change the URL (breaking links)
  • You can’t set a different default view inside a folder from outside a folder in the modern library experience *

Pro-tip: Left to their own devices, end-users will create folders (and usually a lot of them) to self-organize their content. You can turn off folder creation at the library level, however before doing so, ensure you have a strong metadata story for the library and a good training program for end-users.


Document Set Pros

  • “Best of both worlds” by allowing metadata on a folder
  • can be configured to copy metadata to all documents within document set
  • can set a retention label at a document set level
  • well-suited for event-based retention
  • Can set permissions at the document set level
  • Can share at the document set level
  • Can sync at the document set level (OneDrive Sync Client)
  • Can see document sets in a synced library using File Explorer
  • You can set a different default view inside a document set from outside a document set

Document Set Cons

  • Requires additional configuration
  • Not as intuitive as a regular folder for end-users **requires training

I frequently use Document Sets in SharePoint business solutions as they offer a lot of functionality and are a great option for working with groups of documents as 1 unit. E.g. Patient files, Student files, Legal files, etc.


What’s better?

It depends of course. 😉  First question I ask… are you on a collaborative site or a publishing site? An abundance of metadata does not play well in pure collaboration sites… tread carefully here.

If I’m building a solution around a business process and structure is required to be able to automate it, a Document Set is a great choice. It doesn’t always suit the need though and sometimes metadata or a combination of metadata with a level (or 2) of folders for high-level organization is the way to go in those cases. You can flatten the views without folders if it makes sense to do so and if you don’t run into the listview threshold limit. There are caveats to this as experience over time has shown me, particularly in SharePoint collaboration sites and not the more-structured publishing sites.

I’ll go out on a limb and share the typical things I consider:

  • how open are your end-users to change? This can have a significant impact on the success of moving from the folder paradigm to metadata
  • is this on a collaborative team site where there’s no requirement for structured business process automation? If so, you can use some limited foldering to organize it (although not required) and skip the metadata unless you have a reason to justify it
  • is this for a collaboration team site that is fairly short-lived? If so, you can use some limited folders to organize it (although not required). Skip the metadata unless you have a reason to justify it
  • how structured do you need the content to be? Is there business processes built off of the content that require metadata to function? If so, use either metadata or document sets
  • will you require automated retention to be set at a document level based on a metadata value rather than at a container level? (folder, library, site) If so, use metadata
  • do you need to set permission based on content within a grouping of files in a library? If so, use folders (and metadata if required) or document sets
  • Do you need to sort/filter/group documents based on multiple criteria? If so, use metadata for the criteria you need to sort/filter/group by
  • is there a requirement to sync a portion of files using the OneDrive Sync client? If so, use folders (and metadata if required) or document sets
  • do you expect there to be more than a couple hundred documents in the library? If so, use metadata to help filter/group/sort them
  • do you expect there to be thousands of documents in the library? Watch the listview threshold issue and the metadata column types you’re wanting to group/sort/filter by. Refer to my blog post for more details: List View Threshold Error… watch your column types!

Are these recommendations true in all cases I come across? No. This is where experience can help, however they’re true for the majority of cases and a good place to start.


Share these pros/cons with Site Builders and Adoption/Training teams across your organization so they understand them and can tailor their solution and training accordingly. If you know the pros and cons, you can make an informed decision about what to use for your own use-case.

Thanks for reading. 🙂

-JCK

Credit: Photo by Alice Pasqual on Unsplash

13 comments

  1. Hi Joanne, while very much in the Meta Data is amazing camp, i have taken to actually allowing both (so that one drive sync works) and then using the ‘ignore folders’ on all the views we create leveraging the meta data. Ideally we can get some of the meta data auto populated via flow whenever a file gets created or added to a folder 🙂 what a great time to be alive!

    1. Hi Mark, this is also my message. Perhaps I didn’t word myself clearly. Both are right in the right circumstance.

  2. Hi Joanne. Thank you, a very helpful and timely post. In my experience, there are some other pitfalls with metadata. If poorly designed, you can end up introducing inefficiencies, say if a user loads a file named ‘Contract 123’, adds a suitable term ‘Contract’ and a retention label ‘Contract’. Metadata doesn’t work at scale, say with 20,000 plus items in a library. It becomes very slow to sort, group, etc. using metadata, assuming you have indexed columns. And if the view is changed to ‘ignore folders’ you get the dreaded ‘exceeds 5,000 items’ threshold screen. Also, the use of metadata unravels as so many items end up with the same tag (say applied by default or bad user behaviour) that they become valueless in views and search (unless you go more complex and granular with the metadata which introduces more inefficiencies and errors). Whereas folders keep the large library responsive and, ideally, well structured (aligned to your channels in Teams). Obviously, you can start creating lots of libraries to address scale but that becomes inefficient and error prone, particularly as the ‘Documents’ library is the new focal point it being wired into Teams, Outlook, etc. And in this library you can’t avoid folders when Teams creates them for channels and both Teams and Outlook create them for email attachments and messages.

    1. I agree with your points completely. My stance is to rely on search almost exclusively in a large library. (If you’re lucky enough to know what to search on) Folders definitely help in a large library. I will update the post to reflect these points. Thanks for your input.
      -JCK

  3. Another couple pros for metadata:
    When using a view grouped by a metadata column, users can expand / compress groupings to be able to compare the files in a grouping with ones in another (or multiple other) groupings. This is easier and more intuitive compared with using multiple browser / file explorer windows to compare the contents of different folders.

    Site members (people who can add/change files) can’t add metadata choices (unless the column allows fill in); choices are managed by the site’s owners & designers.

    Another con for folders:
    Renaming a folder breaks links to it and files/folders in it.
    End-users (with more than read access) can self-serve folder creation (is both a pro and a con).

  4. Good stuff Joanne. Thanks! Do you happen to use SharePoint Slide Library? If so, which did you prefer? Folders or metadata?

    1. Hi Antonio, no i don’t. If you’re on Office 365, i don’t think it’s part of a modern SharePoint site anymore. I don’t know what the nuanced differences would be between a regular library and a slide library as far as metadata being leveraged goes.

  5. Great post, Joanne! In my experience, it is a mix of metadata and folders. One key aspect of IA is to consider the UX of a site — which is not just the top or side nav, but the flow and navigation of the site itself. What are the common terms used and steps taken within your site, and how can you structure your site (and folders) in a way that users can quickly find the basic information they need? And have you designed the search controls in a way that helps these users best leverage the metadata to find the right content at the right time?

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