Friday, September 6, 2013

SharePoint Metadata: The Basics

If you are new to SharePoint or a casual user who wants to understand it better, I highly recommend that metadata be one of the first concepts you focus on learning.  SharePoint can be applied to a number of different uses (intranets, internets, extranets, collaboration, document management, etc...) but no matter how you use it, you will (or should) use metadata throughout the implementation.  Once you understand how metadata works in SharePoint, you will be able to review your content and start determining how to setup the metadata to best fit the needs of your organization.  In this post, I will show you the basics of metadata in SharePoint.  In future posts we will look at some of the more advanced concepts like site columns, content types and the content type hub.

Since everybody is use to working with documents, this post will compare a documents stored in a traditional file system (local machine, mapped drive, etc.).  It is important to know that in SharePoint, metadata can be added to other types of contents like announcements, calendar, discussions, tasks, etc....

What is is?

Metadata is data that provides information about other data or a way of identifying your information.  In the context of SharePoint, I would elaborate by adding that it is properties of the content that can be extracted out so users can easily navigate to it, search for it and automated processes can inspect these properties process and apply business rules.

Why is it important?

Metadata is essential in SharePoint for the following reason:
  • Navigating the information
    • Filter views by one or more pieces of metadata
    • Sort items by the metadata
  • Searching for information
    • Display the metadata in the search results
    • Search for all items based on the metadata
    • Refine your results based on the metadata
  • Process Automation
    • Workflows can inspect the metadata to determine what actions to perform based on the business rules
    • Route you content to the correct list/library or folder based on the metadata

Guess what?  You are already using it...

... in your folders

Traditional file systems are hierarchical in nature, typically each level represents a different piece of metadata for the document.

This image is a typical folder structure for a sales or consulting company.  The levels are defined as:

Level 1:  Represents the sales territory
Level 2:  Represents the companies found in that sales territory
Level 3:  Represents the types of documents
Level 4:  Represents the status of the document

Using this example, if a document was located in the Won folder, one could deduce the following metadata from it.

Sales Territory: North West
Company: MomCorp
Document Type: Proposals
Status: Won

... in your file names

It is typical of users to also embed metadata into the name of their files.  This is an example of file naming convention I commonly see when I am working with clients.  You can see that the document version and the date this version was effective is embedded into the file name.

How NOT to use it in SharePoint

At this point you may be thinking "If folders can specify metadata AND you can use folders in SharePoint, I can just keep doing things the way I'm currently doing them".

Sorry friend, it is not going to be that easy.

First of all, you won't be able to take advantage of any of the things I mentioned earlier that makes metadata so important in SharePoint.

Secondly, there are some fundamental issues with the folder approach.  Our earlier example works great if you are looking for files in this order.  First by sales territory, then company and then document type and then status  But what if you wanted a list of all proposals that are currently sent to the client.  You would have to open up the folder for every sales territory and every company.  Depending on the number companies you have, this process can take a long time and also be very error prone.  In addition, it is very easy to accidentally move a file to the wrong folder.  There is a time and a place for folders in SharePoint that we will explore in a future post.

Last, you really don't want to be storing the version number or date of the version in the document title.  SharePoint has automatic version numbering and version history built into it.  There are many benefits to using it and we will explore in a future post .

How to use it in SharePoint

In order to take advantage of what makes it so important in SharePoint you are going to have to take that data an put it into fields (or columns, based on your corporate vocabulary).  When the user uploads a document they will key in that metadata.  Below shows you how the same metadata we were capturing in the folders and file name looks like in SharePoint.

Now if I want to see all documents that status is 'Sent to Client', I just click on the column header and specify what values I want to see.

One last thing

The way I setup this metadata in my SharePoint example is the most basic way of doing it.  There are many other ways of setting up your metadata  using multiple libraries, site columns and content types and there is no "one way" it should be done.  It is all based on how you need to consume that content.

We will look at some more metadata concepts in future posts.

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