How to Get the Most out of SharePoint Content Types – Part 1

Content types are groups of metadata specific to types of data. Each column captures an attribute of interest and provides rich, searchable context.

By Cathy Dew

So, What's in the Box?

You can do a fair amount with SharePoint right out of the box. For instance, if you are planning on using SharePoint for document management, you can set up document libraries and start uploading files immediately. However, if you want your documents—and every other piece of content on your SharePoint intranet—to be easily searchable, navigable, and discoverable, then you will need to spend some time setting up SharePoint content types.

SharePoint is the Document Library expert. To learn the fundamentals, check out our topic page "SharePoint Document Libraries: The very heart of the SharePoint experience."

In this two-part series, we’ll first discuss what are Content Types, why they are helpful and then apply them to managed navigation for your target library. In our next post, we’ll cover hierarchies, and content syndication.

Content Type = Metadata

For the purposes of discussing SharePoint organization and discovery, the terms “content type” and“metadata” can be used interchangeably. Indeed, content types are merely a form of “managed metadata.” You implement content types on your SharePoint sites and in your SharePoint document libraries and lists primarily to control and streamline the use of metadata.

So how does it work?

To understand content types, we first need to understand metadata. In the simplest of terms, metadata is data about data. Say you are uploading a document into a document library. The document itself is a piece of data that you are storing in your intranet.

You might apply metadata tags — e.g., information about the document — to make it easier to organize and search. The metadata applied to the file might include the type of document it is (such as invoice or contract), the creation date, the client account to which it is related, and more. Ideally, metadata is put in place to aid in discoverability. Since document titles can’t include all the relevant information about a file, it’s good to have metadata to store that information..

The weakness of metadata, though, is that everyone uses it a bit differently. One team member might upload an invoice and tag it with the company name and nothing else. Another might include company name, date added, and invoice number, among other things. This inconsistency can make it difficult to find individual files when you need them. It’s also just sloppy, which is something you probably want to avoid when it comes to a crowded SharePoint document library .

Enter Content Types

That’s where content types enter the equation. Content types are groups of metadata columns that you can apply to specific types of data. Instead of just letting each person who uploads a file to SharePoint decide for themselves what kinds of metadata tags to include, content types require specific metadata columns for specific documents. For instance, if you upload an invoice using the invoice content type, then SharePoint also knows to require a few other metadata columns for that document—including date, company name, and invoice number.

If you upload a tutorial document, on the other hand, it probably doesn’t need to have an invoice number metadata tag. As such, you’d use a different content type that would only require metadata that is relevant to training documentation.

Content types are useful for other reasons. They are reusable, which means you don’t have to manually add a bunch of metadata columns for each document type you want to store in your new library. They ensure that you have all the metadata columns needed for each specific document type you are targeting. And you can configure as many content types as you want, which means you can have one for each type of document you typically add to a list or library. Content types guarantee a more consistent use of metadata across your SharePoint document libraries. You can even associate certain content types to workflows, such as if you require approvals on all invoices or contracts.

If you want to read more about the basics of Content Types, here are a few great places to start:

Metadata Navigation

Content types by themselves do a lot to streamline the organization of your SharePoint document libraries. However, if you really want to enjoy the full discover-ability benefits that SharePoint content types can provide, you need to set up metadata navigation.

When you enable metadata navigation on your list or library, it appears as a navigation tree on the left hand side of the screen. From there, you can select any content type added to the target list or library. This method is a quick way to refine your SharePoint view, so it only shows you the files or items with the selected content type.

By default, your list or library will not have metadata navigation enabled. To enable it, navigate to Site Settings, click “Manage site features,” and search the features list for “Metadata Navigation and Filtering.” Once you find it, click “Activate” to enable metadata navigation.

Metadata navigation is essentially taking the effort you put into configuring content types and harnessing it for an incredibly useful filtering tool. If content types ensure consistency in the use of metadata across your sites, lists, and libraries, then metadata navigation helps speed up the document search and discovery process by allowing you to find files based on those content types.

As you might expect, metadata design and organization are processes that need a well thought out approach to get the best value out of your document storage and retrieval needs. If you need assistance with these processes—or with any of the other tactics described in this article, from content type creation to metadata navigation enablement, all the way to navigation hierarchy changes—2Plus2 can help.

In the meantime, get an intro to organizing your SharePoint Document Library with folders and metadata.

Our SharePoint experts can assist you with all questions pertaining to SharePoint content types. Go online to schedule a free consultation with our team or call 510-652-7700 today.

Cathy Dew
Cathy Dew – CEO + Information Architect
Cathy focuses the company on our mission – Real results. Every time. Information architect and strategist, Cathy is passionate about making software work well – the function, the feel, the result.
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