Metadata vs Folders

Occasional Visitor

Attending Microsoft Ignite 2018 which Rocks!  But I noticed all presentations with SharePoint, Teams, OneDrive were using Folders and not metadata.  No one spoke of metadata and constantly referred to Folders.  Is there a change in the wind when it comes to Folders?  I would hate to put my users thorough this change to find out that Folders are recommended.  So what is the future?  Metadata or Folders



13 Replies
best response confirmed by John Reeb (Occasional Visitor)

The answer is both! Folders are connected to channels in Teams - and they really aren't evil! They do help organize content and if you want to work with content offline, you often don't want to sync an entire library - so having folders really helps. The challenges I find with folder are when you have multiple levels of nested folders. That's where metadata often provides a much better organizing framework. Metadata is far from dead - in fact, it's just as important as ever - but for many simple collaboration scenarios, folders are a good way to organize information. So, it's not either/or - it's both, as long as you try to limit to 1-2 levels of folders. There may be some use cases for more levels, but it makes information discovery much more complicated so it's not a great approach from an information architecture perspective. That's where metadata can really help, especially when content really "belongs" in two contexts. One of my favorite announcements is that very soon, you will be able to see and interact with metadata in the context of Teams - bringing the rich metadata you get in SharePoint everywhere you interact with a file. I think that investment shows that metadata is still really important!

So how would you present this idea to users?  They have used folders in the past on file servers and like to use them in SharePoint.  When we talk Metadata (and we have a great way here to do that) they get it but they still like the folders as it is what they are used to.  MS I see has curtailed the use of Metadata on OneDrive (harder to add columns) but they use Folders as well on Teams.  I can see users pushing back and saying see Folders are good.  Any thoughts on ways to get folders to assign Metadata as that would solve a lot of problems :)

I second Susan's response. Both are acceptable, I usually only use metadata on big file repositories. Not in the area's of collaboration. But at the same time some larger groups want metadata and you can always use folders but add optional metadata so that they can use that meta data and build views / search of that as well when / if needed. 

Look at Column Default Value settings in library settings. That feature has been around for a long time and automatically applies metadata when content is uploaded to a folder. It is not a perfect solution but it can help. You need a view with folders for uploading and a view without for display. I usually show a before and after metadata scenario to show how many “questions you can answer/discover” about your content with metadata vs. folders. But I think this is most helpful for intranet/communication sites. For team collaboration, I think the most important thing is that the team understands how they are organizing content. Search finds content in folders or not - but assumes you know what you are looking for. Metadata is great for discovery - when you don’t know what you don’t know and don’t have time to dig through folders.

Hmmmmm.  Thank you Susan and Christopher gives me something to think about and digest now.  We have had lots of talks on our team around the folder vs metadata thing.  We really like the metadata but the users like their folders.  I like a hybrid approach so both of us are happy.  I knew about the default values but that only goes so far.  I do like the modern libraries better for folder use since you can have it apply metadata when dragging and dropping onto the folder automatically - real slick. 


Now to digest this conversation and keep bugging MS for when they are going to allow us to actually allow a way to use search to query inside a folder in OneDrive.....:)


Thanks again.

One other thing to consider speaking on OneDrive. You cannot use metadata with the OneDrive client so if offline capability is a requirement you’re sort of forced into folders for metadata.

Oh that is a good one will have to remember that.  Well it is hard to use Metadata there for the normal user anyways, so folders are what is there and they use for the most part.  Just wish you could do foldername:searchquery while in OneDrive.  That would make a lot of my users very happy. 

I think metadata is valuable in context of organizing data in a sort of few to many. Example document library with policies, manuals and other type of "definitive" version.

Using metadata and enforcing it in collaboration context where multiple users are working on different files and possibly "dumping" large amount of files, I don't think it can work out.

When it comes to folders, I think the guidance should be to limit nesting, keep name short and relevant (same for file names).

Overall I think you want your users to put their files into SharePoint, highly organized or not. After the search could always help with finding stuff... I think search will only improve with time backed with more AI.

We use OneDrive as the users personal drive and they determine the folder structure as this is not a collab area.  When Teams gets the SharePoint experience that will be great!  As that will help with collab.  I'm surprised to hear voices say, do not use metadata for collab context or large file repositories.  That was the one area I was focused on.   I wish Microsoft would clarify their stance, since there is no way to prevent users from creating folders 8 layers deep.  It's not realistic to say only create 1 or 2 folder levels.  Users like to hide their data in folders and when they leave the company the new person creates their own folder structure.  My understanding was metadata did away with all of this...But Microsoft has gone somewhat quiet...

My view on this is that the metadata trend comes from old classic SharePoint on-premises.

Things are different nowadays, in Teams they create one folder per channel in the default document library and the natural way would be to create more folders under that, and not adding columns.

Metadata can still be used when it's appropriate, but I don't think we can say it's a realistic for day to day files repository.

But I guess there will be always some debate around this.

I avoid folders whenever and wherever I can.  There's nothing worse than trying to find something buried in a folder. Oh wait... which folder ?  … That folder :) .  The issue I have with people using libraries this way, is that they are not thinking about the end user.  If you spend the time up-front and put more effort in the design and containment of content, your users who have to eventually "Consume" it will love you.

As long as you have a consume type scenario, most people especially project Teams have an archive mentality so they don't see the fruits of their labor as much. But still try and show them that searching is so much easier when setup with metadata properly.

I've been going the hybrid approach. Metadata with folders, and the reason is lots of external collaboration and borders around security, and using folder structure allows for that segmentation and then metadata and views that don't use folders for lookups / searching for documents for org employee's. Works well so far.

Folders work best for the person that sets them up. When others come to look for something, it can be like walking through a maze. As you branch down and open and close folders, you can easily get lost. As a hybrid approach consider setting up and organizing by metadata and then creating “Group By” views for the old-timers on your team who like the branching-down folder like discovery. As for me, I can’t wait until Microsoft comes out with a Windows OS that uses metadata instead of folders! Thanks @John Reeb