Optimized SharePoint Filtering With Minimal Folder Hierarchy

Optimized SharePoint filtering is better than folder structures for a SharePoint environment. Large quantities of files present a challenges in SharePoint.

By Cathy Dew

If you’ve read any articles or blog posts about optimized SharePoint filtering and navigation, then you’ve probably stumbled upon a consensus among SharePoint experts: folder structures are rarely a good idea for a SharePoint environment. This belief is prevalent among SharePoint consultants and businesses that use SharePoint for document management. However, it can be difficult to understand why—at least at first.

After all, most of us use folder structures as a means of organizing documents. Whether your personal computer is a Windows machine or a Mac, it inevitably uses a folder structure to store and organize documents, photos, mp3s, video documents, program data, and other information. If the average person is used to navigating and finding files based on a folder structure, then what could possibly be wrong with using a similar infrastructure for managing SharePoint documents?

The Drawbacks of Using Nested Folder Structures in SharePoint

The type of folder structure that you are probably familiar with from your computer is a “nested folder” structure. This kind of structure is essentially a system where you have one folder stored inside another folder stored inside another folder—and so on and so forth. (In fact, the term “nested folder” is often used interchangeably with the term “subfolder.”)

When you are managing your own file system, nested folder systems usually work fine. You can establish folder categories based on what makes sense for your own life and work style. When you need to find specific files, you know where to look based on your personally tailored folder and subfolder system.

When you need to design a document management infrastructure that a lot of people are going to be using, though, nested folder structures become a lot more cumbersome.

Too Many Documents

First off, you are probably dealing with many more documents than any one person would ever have stored on their hard drive. This factor means that:

  1. you need more folders and subfolders to organize everything logically, and
  2. it’s harder to use the search function to find the file you need based on keywords alone.

Nested File Systems

Secondly, nested folder structures only really make sense to the person who builds them. What makes sense to an administrator may not make sense to end users spread out across various departments. If you have six layers of folders and subfolders, it’s going to create a confusing labyrinth that isn’t user-friendly in the least. Sure, it’s entirely feasible that your team could get used to the nested file system, but the period of familiarization will probably lead to costly productivity losses.

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Large quantities of files present a challenges in SharePoint. Metadata views to the rescue.

Technical Issues

There are also multiple technical reasons that folders—while supported by SharePoint—are not the best option for SharePoint libraries. These include:

  • URL Limits: SharePoint has a 260-character limit for URLs (soon to be 400-characters). Every subfolder layer adds extra characters to your URLs, eventually rendering them meaningless.

  • Changing URLs: When you move a file from one folder or subfolder to the next, you must change the URL, which can lead to a lot of confusion downstream.
  • No Preview Option: SharePoint won’t let you preview documents without opening the specific folder where the file resides. If you are searching for a particular file and aren’t sure where it is, this limitation can make the discovery process a lot more work intensive.
  • Security: You can set up different permissions settings based on folders and subfolders. The problem is that permissions inheritance and overall administration of document accessibility can quickly become a tangled mess when you are dealing with a nested infrastructure.

Each of these factors can make the management of your SharePoint documents an absolute nightmare. Collectively, they eliminate all or most of the benefits of using SharePoint for document management in the first place. Luckily, there is a better way to organize your documents without turning each of your SharePoint libraries into a rabbit hole of different folders and subfolders.

Embracing a Flat Folder Structure and Using Metadata for Optimized SharePoint Filtering

So, what is the better way to organize your SharePoint documents?

Metadata, of course

Because nested folders are such a familiar way to organize files, many administrators start out thinking that they are going to be able to develop smart, efficient folder infrastructures for their SharePoint environments. All those articles and blogs out there that warn against this practice are there for a reason. Changing a folder structure after you’ve set it up is a lot of work. It’s a smarter move to focus on metadata from the get-go, with minimal reliance on folders.

Tagging, Tagging, Tagging

Of course, building a metadata taxonomy for your SharePoint libraries is no cakewalk itself. You will spend a lot of time tagging existing files with metadata and dictating how new files will be tagged. Ultimately, though, this upfront time investment will create a more user-friendly environment for searching and file discovery, saving your end users time in the long run. In contrast, building a nested folder infrastructure that is five or six subfolder levels deep will take a long time upfront, but will also lead to hours of wasted or inefficiently spent time for your team. In other words, there’s no contest: metadata beats nested folders every time.

If there is a reservation that SharePoint administrators have about ditching the nested folder infrastructure, it’s that doing so will make it harder to view files based on specific categories or other search criteria. With folders, you can have different groupings of files for various departments, clients, projects, pay periods, or what have you. On paper, it’s all very logical. The problem is that, for someone who is new to the system or doesn’t understand how the categories break down, it can be difficult to figure out why a certain document is in subfolder X instead of subfolder Y which can lead to mis-filing issues.

Perks of Flattening

One of the main perks of “flattening” your folder structure—eliminating all those subfolders and storing all (or most) of your documents in the same place—is that it unearths those documents that have previously been embedded deep in folders or subfolders. No one needs to worry about searching for a document in subfolder X or subfolder Y because all the files are right there on the same tier. This factor alone makes documents easier to search, preview, and find.

Of course, there is a disadvantage here if your enterprise has a huge quantity of SharePoint documents to manage. Putting all your files in one place when you have tens of thousands of different documents to manage creates its own usability issues.

Metadata Filtering

Luckily, it’s here where metadata kicks in to provide the biggest benefits it has to offer. With a comprehensive managed metadata system, you can use different metadata terms to filter the documents in your SharePoint libraries. You can tell SharePoint just to show you files tagged as invoices, or just documents that pertain to a certain client. This filtering process puts the documents that are most relevant to your query at the top of the library for your perusal and previewing.

While you could feasibly use this system to find documents in a nested folder structure, it wouldn’t be as useful. There would always be the possibility that files relevant to your search are in a different folder or subfolder than the one you are currently viewing and thus concealed from view. By flattening your folder structure and keeping larger quantities of documents in the same place, you alleviate this concern and eliminate the time spent conducting the same searches and using the same metadata filtering tactics in half a dozen different subfolders.

Custom Views Using Metadata Filtering

You can also craft and save an unlimited number of custom views using metadata filtering. You can save these views on a personal or public basis, which means you can set up a “standard” or “universal” selection of views, but also give your end users the freedom to create personal views that make sense to them. This personal customization element gives metadata filtering a big leg up over nested folder infrastructures, where one person’s organizational preferences dictate how everyone else on the team will be able to explore and find documents.

Get Help Developing Managed Metadata and Custom Views for Your SharePoint Environment

For some smaller enterprises with fewer employees, it’s possible that folder infrastructures will work just fine for document organization. If your company has more team members, though, or if you are trying to use SharePoint for bulk document management needs, then managed metadata, custom views, and smart filtering techniques are your best bet.

At 2Plus2, we can help you create a SharePoint document management system that makes sense for you and your team. We are experienced in collaborating with businesses large and small and can assist you in troubleshooting some of the issues that tend to arise when you use SharePoint to manage large quantities of files. If you are interested in learning more about metadata, views, and optimized filtering in SharePoint, we can help. 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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