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Metadata vs. Folders – the old debate re-visited in SharePoint Online

by Becky Driscoll SharePoint Microsoft Office Office 365

Metadata vs. Folders – the old debate re-visited in SharePoint Online

There has been a long running debate: metadata or folders – which are better?

Using folders…

Folders, in SharePoint, are familiar to many people experienced using network file shares and local PC drives as a way of organising information. Well thought through folder structures can prove to be a useful method of organising and securing electronic files. Folder hierarchies further allow an organisation to enforce a network file plan structure.


In many cases folder structures are not well governed and become overly complicated and out-of-date. If users are empowered to create folders, they will.

What makes sense to one user, does not necessarily make sense to other users. Naming conventions can vary dramatically. There is a danger that electronic files are duplicated multiple times. For example, if User A receives an important document via email, they may decide to add the electronic file to Folder 1; meanwhile if User B receives the same document via email, they may decide to add the electronic file to Folder 2. Deep folder structures can become hard to navigate making it all too easy to squirrel away information in different silos.

The metadata way…

SharePoint document libraries offer an alternative way of organising and displaying information. Although folders can still be used to organise information, library views can be configured to group or filter content based on metadata tagged to documents.


Today, users are becoming more familiar with the concepts of using metadata in everyday life. Take film streaming services, such as Netflix or Amazon Prime for example. Users can browse by genre or by recommendations. Alternatively, they can search based on film title, movie actor, genre, rating, or director.

Library views works to this advantage. Different users can browse and find documents in different ways, without needing to understand how to click through a folder hierarchy. Because documents can be tagged with multiple metadata values documents can be discovered in several different ways.


Information Managers and Records Managers love metadata because it enforces common metadata standards and compliance policies, whilst improving a user’s ability to later find information. However, like folders, metadata architecture designs can become over-complicated, making it frustrating for users to apply sensible metadata, whilst slowing down the process of adding electronic files.

The solution?

A simple SharePoint metadata architecture model involving content types and site columns. Information Managers need to plan and govern the use of metadata over time. Aim to use one content type per document library to restrict choice. Limit the amount of metadata that needs to be manually completed to 1 or possibly 2 columns. Where practical, automated metadata completion using column default values and other techniques (such as ConceptSearching auto-categorisation tools) should be adopted. Further flexibility may be permitted to allow Site Owners to apply additional column values, or users may be encouraged to add personal tags using an Enterprise Keywords column.

What challenges will your organisation face?

The primary challenge of adopting metadata instead of folders is getting users to adopt to new ways of working. Information Managers need to promote the advantages of using metadata to the business and to the individual.

It is important to recognise that folders should not be completely discounted, but they should be controlled by Information Managers (and not users). For example, if documents relate to a common theme, such as a case, employee file, or project, it may be appropriate to use folder or document set content types (a special type of folder designed to share metadata). Folders and metadata both have an important role in SharePoint. The Information Manager needs to help determine whether one should be used over the other, or whether a combination of folders and metadata is the best solution. These decisions need to be decided on a document library by document library basis.

Business benefits?

In summary, metadata should be considered instead of (or as well as) folders for several good reasons:

  • Enforcement of common metadata standards, including the use of managed metadata columns and naming convention practices;
  • Enforcement of compliance policies, including retention schedules applied to content types or classification labels;
  • Flexibility provided using document library views to filter and group how documents are presented.
  • Improve searching for information using multiple facets (metadata properties). Folders remain useful in situations where:
  • Documents need to be logically organised by a common theme, such as a complaint, or a project.
  • Security permissions need to be applied to document sub-sets.
  • External systems rely on folders to store documents, e.g. some Multi-Functional Devices.
  • Selected synchronisation of folder content is required.
  • Overcoming the SharePoint 5,000 list view threshold for large document libraries is necessary.

Deltascheme’s business consultants are here to help advise you on how to develop an effective information architecture, including how to apply metadata standards to SharePoint sites, Office 365 Groups, Microsoft Teams and more.

Find out more here.