SharePoint has extremely robust content storage capabilities. Being such a robust framework, there are no “wrong ways” to use SharePoint. Sure, I’ve seen SharePoint poorly implemented, but that actually speaks to the capabilities of the platform. Due to the feature rich toolset, there are literally hundreds of ways to configure and use SharePoint. Some are great, some not so good. That is a primary reason behind the concept of best practices. Unfortunately, best practices are generally taken as the only way to do something in a technology platform, but in reality these best practices are usually just prescriptive guidance based upon experience, usability, functionality, and performance.
So what is the best practice related to document libraries with regards to folders? Do you use folders or not? Here is my prescriptive guidance…
Using folders is such a great concept that the idea largely hasn’t changed since the advent of paper. In fact, even Multics utilized the concept of folders in the early 1960s. The idea of using folders is simple – store related content items close together to make them easier to find when you need them. In fact, I use folders all the time at home. I have a an entire file folder cabinet that I use to store papers in their relevant folders. I have folders for bills, folders for tax info, folders for warranty information, etc. I use these folders out of necessity because the content that I store in them is physical – not digital.
Folders have persevered through nearly all versions of computing devices from websites to mobile devices. Does it make sense to keep doing something just because that’s the way we’ve always done it? Folders may be easy to understand and explain, but is it really the best use of technology?
I don’t think so. I think folders are an antiquated way of storing and retrieving content, and I’m not alone in this. Google agrees with me. Yes, the multi-billion dollar organization has a singular hive mind – and this massive mind agrees with me. Don’t believe me? Gmail doesn’t have folders. Gmail has labels.
Labels, tags, keywords or metadata are terms that people use interchangeably. Labels can be applied to any piece of content to help describe the content item. Most things you purchase have labels: food, clothing, autos, computers, and even mobile devices. they all come with attached labels. Labels can also be attached to content. For example, if I upload a video to share of my child swimming and title it, “John’s kids at the beach”, you have no idea from the title alone that it is a video about a 7 year old child learning to swim to a floating dock. This is where adding labels to help describe the video can help. I will likely add labels with my child’s name, and then some very specific labels, such as Learning, Dock, Ocean City, MD, Swimming, etc. This enables me to go back and find videos at a later date based on a variety of sorting. I could easily find all videos with that particular child. I could easily find all videos marked as Ocean City. I could easily find all videos that were specifically about Summer 2010. These labels will also help other people locate the information that they are seeking.
Can you do this with folders? What folders would you create? If I create a folder for each child, then there is no way to group by activities. If I create a folder for each type of activity, then there is no way to group by child. A major difference between folders and labels is that each piece of content can only exist in a single folder but can be marked with many labels.
SharePoint supports both folders and labels (though in SharePoint labels are called metadata and columns). So which should you use? I think the answer is clear: use metadata. Though they are definitely not mutually exclusive, here are some other good reasons to use metadata INSTEAD of folders.
- Metadata can be used to create views. Sure, views can be created within a folder as well. But views cannot span 2 folders.
- Metadata can be a required property. In SharePoint, you cannot dictate which folder items get stored in. You can dictate that uploaded content will be classified by as many properties as you see fit.
- Folders do not give you ‘counts’ of how many items they contain until you open them. With metadata, you can easily see counts in grouping, views, etc.
- Any single content item can have as many pieces of metadata as you wish, thus being shown in as many views. However, content cannot exist in multiple folders.
- In SharePoint, folders make unnecessarily long and complicated URLs (and don’t forget the URL length is still limited).
- Updating a single column to change the metadata of an item is easy. Moving content from one folder to another requires more thought.
- Navigating through a folder hierarchy can only be efficient to the people that know the entire folder hierarchy. After about 2 weeks, this is no one.
- SharePoint 2010 allows you to modify the navigation to leverage metadata and content types. You do not have to utilize the giant collapsible tree of folders that is inherent within Windows Explorer.
Of course, you will still run into folders in SharePoint. In fact, SharePoint 2010 has many new enhancements around using folders. Plus, folders are comfortable. Some people will mention view limits in SharePoint as a reason for folders. SharePoint 2010 throttling makes this argument go away. Some people will still stand by organization. Other people will say that security is a reason to use folders. While it’s true that you can put security on a Folder (and thus the items within the folder), managing security at the subfolder level is both time consuming and a management headache. It is much easier to manage security at the library/list/site level, as typical best practices would prescribe. I mean, you have item level security too, but who wants to manage security at the item level? This is an exception and not the rule.
Am I saying that I avoid folders where possible? Yes. Am I saying that there is no place for folders? No. Folders can still be an effective tool if used correctly. Are folders and metadata mutually exclusive? Of course not! Even if you elect to use folders, you should still use an effective metadata structure.
Please wield this powerful folder weapon wisely…