Folders. The standard file storage tool for decades. Viewed by many as the pinnacle of tidiness in the digital world—more folders and subfolders means better organization. Dumping all your files into one big heap requires an intervention from the Hoarders TV show. How could you ever hope to find anything in such a heap? So you fix the problem by creating folder after folder and moving all your files into nice, neat little spaces. Every place has its thing, and everything in its place.
The problem is, SharePoint and Windows Explorer are not the same thing. Aside from sorting by most recent document, Windows Explorer provides no means of filtering or grouping your files outside of using folders. But SharePoint provides much more versatility than Windows Explorer. SharePoint does in fact have filtering, grouping, and sorting available to you. And that means that folders quickly become outdated relics that clutter up your lists and libraries.
So why shouldn’t you use folders in SharePoint?
SharePoint is a web application, which means every file hosted on it has a specific URL that points to that file. Document URL paths have the following format:
Of course, this string will vary depending on the number of sub-sites and subfolders you have in your architecture, whether you’re using a host-named site collection, and whether your site is the top-level site in the collection. But as you can see, the string can get unwieldy pretty quickly.
There is a 256 character limit in the URL path. That includes all the components of the string as shown above. In some cases, if the URL of a document exceeds this limit, you will receive the following error:
In short, this means that you can’t use the file where it’s located in SharePoint. You must re-upload it somewhere else in order for it to be usable. If there’s an entire library full of documents with this error, then you have a full site re-architecture project on your hands. And anytime you change the location of a file, the existing links to that file will break. Anyone who has favorites or saved links will need to be updated. Talk about tedious!
If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you may click through a maze of subfolders before finding the file you need. If the site owner hasn’t designed an intuitive folder structure, searching for files becomes a huge hassle. Sometimes there will be folders that never have any documents in them due to poor (or lack of) planning. And then it’s up to each of the users to upload new files into the correct folders. Don’t think there will be any mistakes? Think again. And then you’ll have to deal with the following.
As mentioned above, moving a file changes the URL that points to the file. Saved links won’t work anymore. But in addition, SharePoint does not provide a quick way to move files from one location to another. It can’t be done directly through the interface. That means workarounds, and a workaround is not the same thing as a solution.
SharePoint provides two roundabout ways to move content. The first is through the Content & Structure feature, found on the Site Settings page. Even in SharePoint 2013 this interface is clunky and requires copious mouse-clicks to get the job done. The second way is to open both the source and the destination libraries or folders in Windows Explorer and drag and drop files between them. This will move the file from one location to the other.
But because this is so tedious, chances are pretty good that it will fall by the wayside. And that means documents in the wrong folders (Active vs Archived, 2015 vs 2016, etc) which only makes finding things even worse.
There has to be a better way!
Infomercial jokes aside, yes, there is a better way, and SharePoint is naturally suited to it. The correct answer is metadata, and yes, that means no folders.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Doesn’t that mean no organization? Don’t we have to call Hoarders?
No. Because in SharePoint, a giant heap of documents is actually better than a labyrinth of folders. Allow me to explain.
Everything is a List
Exactly what it says on the tin. In SharePoint, everything is a list. Document libraries? Calendars? Discussion boards? All lists. Or apps, if you’d prefer, but we’ll stick with the wordlist as it has a longer history with the software.
Lists are like Excel spreadsheets or Access tables—rows and columns of data. List Items are the rows in your lists—they’re the documents, the calendar events, and the discussion board topics. They’re the tuples, for those more math-minded. The columns in your list are the metadata.
Metadata is information about information. Data about data. So you have a piece of data: a list item or a document. The metadata is the information about it—its file type, when it was published, who uploaded it, its title. Those are your default columns in a standard document library. But SharePoint gives you the ability to add as many additional columns to your list as you want.
SharePoint columns give you a lot of options regarding what types of data you can capture in your list. Below are the options available to you:
Ideally, these columns will take the place of folders. What are some common strategies for dividing the files? Things like whether it’s archived or active, what “type” of document it is (like Meeting Minutes vs Weekly Reports), what fiscal year it belongs to, among other things. All this information can be captured by column values. Choose the column type that best suits the information you’re trying to capture (Yes/No checkbox, Choice, or Number, for example).
Once you’ve added the new column, you’ll be prompted to fill that column out whenever you upload a new file or add a new list item. You can also fill out those column values for previously existing items by editing the properties of those items.
The column is added as a field on the input form. It is displayed, by default, as a new column in the existing view.
Using Metadata as an Organizational Tool
So you’ve captured the information in columns. Now what? It’s still just a big heap of documents, right?
The value of metadata is that it can be used to sort, filter, and group your content. Any column other than Multiple Lines of Text can be filtered and sorted on. So that means you can pick a value for Category and filter out all other values. Only want to see Project Plans? Filter out Reports and Minutes. Want to show the most recently edited documents on top? Sort by the Modified column. You can manipulate your files because they’re not segregated into different folders. If they were, sorting and filtering would be limited only to what’s outside those folders.
Taking it a Step Further
So that sounds great and all, but it still doesn’t beat the organization that folders provide. It’s still extra work to go through and filter out the information you don’t want to see. The good news is that SharePoint provides additional functionality to control how your content is displayed to the end user from the beginning. It allows you to create additional views on your list.
Views display the content of a list according to the settings you specify when creating it. You can have predefined sorting or filtering on a view—say, if you want to show all archived documents or all the documents added within the past week. But you also have the ability to Group By a particular column, and this is the true replacement for folders.
SharePoint shows you the Category column as a grouping, each value of which can be expanded to show the content tagged with that category value. You can also see the number of items within that categorization.
But here’s the real kicker—you never have to move files. Re-categorizing simply involves modifying the properties of the existing items. SharePoint takes care of the rest automatically. Accidentally mislabeled a file as a Project Plan when it should be a Report? Just change the column value and the grouping updates. Need to archive a file? Check the Archived box and the user-defined filter hides the document from sight.
Views also each have their own URL, which means you can link to a specific view on the navigation menu or when you send emails to your users. No one on the front end even has to know the secrets behind the curtain—to them it’ll look just like a sectioned-off library. Your organization secrets can be kept secret.
The main advantages are fairly straightforward. You don’t have to worry about URL issues, since everything is stored at the list level. There are no subfolders to add characters to the URL. And since everything is stored at the list level, it’s all in scope when you try to sort and filter—folders aren’t segregating the content, so filtering affects everything in the list. Now that you don’t have to move files around, you can re-categorize simply by changing a column value. Now that’sconvenient!
In Conclusion, Ladies and Gentlemen
Folders have been the digital standard of organization for years and years, so it’s natural to want to use and abuse them in SharePoint. But don’t be tempted by the siren’s song. And definitely don’t be afraid that Matt Paxton and Cory Chalmers are going to come knocking at your door for keeping your documents in a big pile. SharePoint isn’t Windows Explorer, nor does it need to be. Technology is marching on. Folders are yesterday’s news. And though SharePoint continues to support them (much to the frustration of many an admin), it may just be that they’re on their way out.
About Anexinet Managed Services:
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About the Author:
Brian has been with Anexinet for 3 and half years as a SharePoint administrator and has a certification in SharePoint 2013. With experience in services such as SharePoint installations, migration end user support and training, and general Administration; across several industries including healthcare, legal services and finance.
- End user support and training
- General admin
Worked across several industries including health care, legal services, financial, marketing and communications. Is MS certified MCSE and SharePoint 2013