One of the most powerful features in SharePoint is metadata. If you’ve ever attended a SharePoint conference or gone through an expert-led SharePoint training, you’ve probably heard this term come up a number of times, though it’s likely you walked away confused or wondering exactly how you apply this super tool in an everyday way that would make your life easier. And now that metadata can be used in the modern SharePoint experience in Microsoft Teams, it’s even more useful.
Metadata has a black magic reputation. You’ll walk away thinking if you can harness the dragon that is metadata, that file you’re looking for will just present itself to you when you want it. But don’t be fooled: metadata’s not magic. It won’t automatically make your files easier to find or increase your search result quality tenfold. Metadata is super powerful, but to get something out of it, you have to work for it.
Metadata schemes need to be planned and set up, you have to get your colleagues to use it, and most importantly, you have to stick to it.
Getting the most out of metadata is like getting the most out of a personal budget. It takes time to start budgeting, and you need to be dedicated to it indefinitely to continue reaping the benefits. When used correctly, a personal budget can have great effect over your life. Same with SharePoint metadata.
So let’s start with the basics.
What is metadata?
The most common definition I hear from SharePoint experts goes like this: “Metadata is data about data.” Now that description may be a tad tongue-in-cheek from my geek brethren, but there’s no denying that it clears things up about as much as a bucket of mud splashed on a window.
Fortunately, it’s likely that you already know what metadata is, and that’s thanks to Edward Snowden and the US National Security Agency. Regardless of your viewpoints on NSA surveillance, you heard all about metadata back in 2013 when Snowden released details about NSA’s bulk phone metadata collection program.
NSA was recording information about domestic phone calls — like the date and time of the call, originating phone number, receiving phone number, and call duration — but not the content (the latter being illegal, even for NSA). The information about the phone call is called metadata.
As a practical example, let’s talk about your metadata. Your name, social security number (for US citizens), address, phone number, height, hair color, weight, and basically anything else you’d find on your government-issued ID is data about you, your metadata.
This information allows the government and anyone else with that database (looking at you, telemarketers) to organize their information into a system that makes it easy to search and find people of a certain type — or even a specific person — based on their characteristics… their metadata.
In much the same way, SharePoint metadata is the information about your files, not the content of the files. So, the file name, title, author, creation date, last modified date, last modifier, file size, etc. are all metadata. You can see the metadata in a standard document library view: each column is a metadata field.
Although I’m partial to the Urban Dictionary definition of metadata, actually.
Indeed, my metadata is flaring up today.
In SharePoint, some of these fields are auto-populated, and some are there for you to provide input. In a brand new document library, SharePoint only shows you limited metadata, basically the four columns in the screen shot above: file type (icon), file name, modified date, and modified by. But there’s actually a ton of metadata fields available in a document library out of the box.
Below is a screen shot of all of them. You only really see these when you create a new view. You can display them all if you’d like; although your library will have so many columns you’ll likely have to scroll left/right to see everything.
As an example, I created a new view that includes the original fields plus four more: created by, file size, version, and checked out to. (Incidentally, if you use check in/out in your sites or libraries, “checked out to” is one of the most useful fields to display because it’s not uncommon that people forget that they’ve checked files out.)
And this information is extremely useful if you’re trying to find files that you know something about. If you’re looking for a PowerPoint slide deck that you know had a video embedded that was last updated in 2015, using some common sense you can sort and filter by modified date, file size, and file type.
Simply keep your eye out for a slide deck that’s really large (it contains a video) and was last edited in 2015. The metadata can get you to your files much more efficiently than working your way through the entire document library. And it can definitely be quicker than doing a search.
Create your own metadata
The out-of-the-box metadata is useful, but the real power from metadata comes when you use it to categorize the content you keep in a document library. Make it work for you.
Metadata comes in the form of SharePoint columns. SharePoint calls them columns because they display as columns in the general view of a library, which looks similar to an Excel spreadsheet. And spreadsheets are made up of what? Say it with me: rows and columns.
But columns could just as easily be called fields. When you update them, you’re filling out a form and an entry space in a form is called a field. Either way, the entries that go into the column or field are your metadata.
Presuming you’re a site owner, you can create columns in your document library by going to the ribbon and clicking Library tab > Create column. And as long as you have Contribute access within the library, you can update the metadata by clicking the check box next to a file name, going to the ribbon and clicking File tab > Edit properties. (Note: much of the out-of-the-box metadata is more a record of what’s happening and not editable; e.g., “Modified by” tracks who modifies files. You can’t update or fake that.)
Generally, I like creating a number of metadata fields for document types at the very least. And I don’t mean the difference between a Word doc and a PowerPoint slide deck. It’s useful to separate different types of documents, organizational separations in your company, etc.
There are a number of columns you should consider creating in your document libraries. Here are a few to consider:
- Branch office: This is useful for filtering documents that only apply to or are relevant to certain geographic locations in the business.
- Status: Track where your files are in the process of getting them out to your customer. It can be useful to know whether the file is draft, peer reviewed, manager reviewed, CEO approved, or delivered to client, for example. Each time a step is completed, that person updates the status for everyone to know.
- Document type: Categorize your files based on invoices, agendas, meeting minutes, presentations, charts, policies, letters, announcements, or any other type that makes sense.
Defining your categories and tags
This is probably the hardest part. Strategically defining what your categories are and what options within those categories your company’s going to go with is hard. Nobody really goes to school for this, not even information science specialists.
Basically, you’ll have to create a taxonomy. And that’s not a simple endeavor. Taxonomies are large dictionaries of related terms. The best-known taxonomy is probably the life taxonomy. You know, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species? That’s a taxonomy. The Dewey Decimal System could also be called a taxonomy, though that’s using the taxonomy definition a bit more loosely.
I can’t cover how to build a taxonomy in a blog post. Or a dozen. If you’d like more info on this, I suggest reading The Accidental Taxonomist by Heather Hedden. Yes, it’s a whole book, specifically on building your document tagging categories. But it has a lot of good examples and it’s written by someone who wasn’t in the information management — or taxonomy — field. She found herself assigned the task, realized nobody really knows how to do this, and documented her experience in this book.
The fact that there’s an entire book on this topic should tell you to tread carefully as you begin investigating this, especially at an enterprise/corporate level.
Local versus global metadata
When you start playing with metadata, you can create these columns in libraries as necessary. But eventually you’ll probably want to see these tags be available in other libraries as well. Maybe even other sites. Well, you can do both.
SharePoint provides support for site-wide metadata, called site columns, which can be made available in all libraries within a site (and its sub-sites, actually). So, if you’re on the employee benefits team and own a site that contains multiple document libraries and want to tag your files with a similar taxonomy regardless of which library the files happen to live in, you can do that. That way, your files can be categorized based on whether they’re related to the health plan, vision plan, life insurance, short-term disability insurance, long-term disability insurance, 401(k), investment options, and the like.
If you want tags that are more universal, available across all sites in a site collection, you can use term sets. Term sets are useful for, say, a list of departments in a company. This information should be universal across all sites the company has in SharePoint. You shouldn’t have to update these at the library or even site level. They should be the same no matter where you are.
So you have lots of options: local tags in libraries, global ones in sites, and universal ones across your site collections and possibly the whole SharePoint system.
Metadata only works if you keep up with it
If you haven’t already come to the realization, in order for metadata to be of any use to you and your colleagues, the metadata has to be kept up to date at all times. That means whenever a file is created or uploaded, you need to tag it with the categories that are correct, otherwise they won’t show up under those categories. If you’re dependent on those categories, then these files are essentially invisible.
That means if you introduce metadata in a document library for your team, you need to talk that through with them so they understand the value. You’re adding a bit of a tax on them: the time it takes to categorize the files. So make sure your colleagues agree that there’s value (or understand that management does), so performing the task of updating metadata will be seen as a positive thing.
Metadata and search
All too often, good metadata is sold as an equivalent to being a panacea of significantly improved search results. Tread cautiously on this assumption, because metadata is great for refining your searches to remove extraneous results, but just tagging some item with a metadata category isn’t going to pop it up higher in your search results.
Think about it: if you have a new tag called “meeting minutes” for documents in your library, yes the file will work its way higher up in your results if you include meeting minutes in your search. But, if you eventually have a hundred or a thousand or more files tagged with that term, you’ve diluted the value of that term. So many other files include that term that the search engine isn’t going to give you a ton of value.
Where you will get the value is the ability to filter your results. If you’re familiar with the refiners on the SharePoint search results page, you’ll be happy to know that you can add custom refiners on a search result page that includes the tags you use in your site or within SharePoint as a whole. Just ask your IT team.
Using the example from above, if you’re only looking for meeting minutes, you can search the terms you would otherwise and check the box next to meeting minutes under your metadata category of Document Type (or whatever you call it). Now, every file that’s not tagged as meeting minutes will vanish, removing what will likely be a huge number of irrelevant results.
But, that example should show you the importance of keeping up with tagging. If the file you’re looking for wasn’t tagged correctly — or at all — it’s not going to be in your results when you refine. Therefore, it’s critical to keep up with tagging, otherwise it’s a wasted endeavor.
Metadata can provide you amazing results, but:
- It takes time and effort to set it up correctly, strategically, and smartly;
- It requires buy-in from your colleagues to apply it; and
- It requires consistent adherence to tagging indefinitely.
Otherwise it can be an extremely expensive project that provided absolutely no business value.
On the plus side, you can start small and scale, which provides you the opportunity to run a number of proofs of concept, sell and see the business value, implement, then repeat.
And yes, my metadata is still flaring up today. Good luck with yours!