So how does metadata work in a SharePoint document library? The answer is however you want it to. Unfortunately, from my experience “in the field” so to speak, it seems to be rather extreme, one way or the other. Meaning, organizations choose not to use metadata at all, or they try to use too much.

Remember metadata is used to help locate information. Of course, it stands to reason that the more metadata columns you have, the easier it would be to locate information. This isn’t always the case, as too much metadata can make it cumbersome to locate data. Additionally, when prompting users to assign an excessive amount of metadata, it really slows down user adoption of the SharePoint platform. The most egregious example I saw was a library that had thirty-three metadata columns! Every time a document was uploaded, a user would have to assign thirty-three metadata fields for the file to get saved. What happened? It’s obvious isn’t it? Users stopped saving their documents to SharePoint.

Implementing Metadata

As I said, this is the extreme case. Most often, very little metadata, unfortunately, is collected in the real world. Libraries end up looking something like this:

Typical SharePoint Library

Essentially, the metadata ends up being the exact same as if it were on a file share: Filename, Modified Date, and the person who last modified the document.

Many will use the same methodology as a file share, and create folders. Something along these lines:

Folders in SharePoint

This does make it slightly easier. If I want to find an Invoice for a particular year, I just go to the correct folder. I always make the analogy that using folders in a SharePoint document library is like using a traditional old paper filing cabinet. Do people remember these? Basically, you’d store a bunch of papers in hanging folders with labels. These labels are like the foldering method in a SharePoint document library.

You locate the folder you need, and then shuffle through the papers within the folder to find what you want. Although this works… kind of… it’s not really that efficient.

The problem with this method (and the filing cabinets of old) is that you are limited to essentially ONE metadata field. And although you can find information this way, there’s a better way. Have a look at this:

No Folders

There’s no folders in this library. All the documents are stored in the root of the library, and have appropriate metadata associated to them. So now if I want to see all the Invoices from 2016, I don’t go into the folder. Instead, I simply use the UI filter for the Invoice Year column.

SharePoint Filter UI

Upon using the filter:

Library after filter has been applied

Now you can filter by another column to find what you want.

Library filtered by column

So now I can locate Invoices from 2016 by the ACME Explosives Company. But let’s say you want to find all invoices from this company, regardless of the year.

Just clear the Year filter:

Clearing filters

And you’ll get your results:

Results of clearning filters

This is something you can’t do when foldering in SharePoint (or when using a filing cabinet for that matter). When using filtered metadata columns, you have much more flexibility on what data to display.

Even More Ways to Filter Results

You can create a view that only displays Invoices that are greater than a specific amount. In this example, I’m going to use 1000.

Filtering by amount

Here’s the result:

Invoices greater that $1000

If you wanted to find this information without using metdata, you would have to navigate to each year folder, open each Invoice, and then record those whose amount exceed 1000. Even better, you can still apply filters to other columns. So, If I want to see only Invoices exceeding 1000 by Spacely’s Sprockets, I just use the Company filter.

Invoices greater than $1000 for a specific company

As you can see, using metadata will make you SharePoint life easier. But, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, you don’t want to use too many columns. You’ll burden, frustrate, and turn off your users to the idea of SharePoint. Too much of a good thing, and all that.

Keep Your Users in Mind

The ideal number of metadata columns is four to six. This won’t overburden the users when saving content. And really, with nearly any kind of content, you could categorize the content by using six columns. In our example of Invoices, we use Company Name, Invoice Year, Invoice Amount, and Invoice number. These columns allow a user to locate a specific Invoice so long as they know some of this information.

And once users understand how easy it is to locate specific invoices using metadata, adoption and acceptance to the platform is only a matter of time. Ultimately, that’s what we all want. An easier and less bothersome way to perform our daily tasks. SharePoint document libraries, when using appropriately assigned metadata, accomplishes this.

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