Efficient searching: The key is SharePoint metadata

Sharegate Image Featured 07

You want everyone in your organization to collaborate effectively. By ensuring your data environment is tidy and easy to navigate and that the files within it can be found without a hitch, you can rest easy knowing your organization is performing at its peak.

In Microsoft 365, SharePoint metadata is key to maintaining an efficient and organized environment.

SharePoint metadata helps users find the right files quickly and easily through the collection and indexing of more detailed information. It gives people working with Microsoft Teams the ability to go from chaos to calm.

Managed metadata helps to create a more ordered, user-friendly system in SharePoint environments where files are scattered across different SharePoint groups and various network drives.

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into SharePoint metadata, including how it can turbocharge your search experience and tips for creating and managing metadata in SharePoint. Let’s go!

What is SharePoint metadata and why is it important?

Metadata is commonly defined as “data that describes other data.” While this is technically true, to fully understand metadata, you need to know its purpose.

Metadata exists because organizations today collect enormous amounts of digital information that must be organized to find and use it. So a better definition would be, “Metadata is descriptive information about your files that you can use to ​​​​​​​classify, organize, label, and understand them to make it easier to search for them.”

Most software applications, Microsoft 365 included, automatically add some basic metadata to a file when created. For example, if you were to create an Excel sheet on the desktop, some properties about this file would be automatically captured. These will be the file’s name, the file size, the author’s name, and so on. These are automatically captured and require no intervention or action on the author’s part.

SharePoint takes this metadata concept even further and allows users to create metadata terms of their own, which can then be applied against list items and the contents of a document library. There are several options when defining the type of metadata, such as limiting it to a string, a number, currency, etc.

Let’s take a look at how Arkin, one of the largest mental health providers in the Netherlands, uses SharePoint metadata to bring order to their environment.

Use case: Leveraging SharePoint metadata

According to Vera van Es, Arkin’s Microsoft 365 administrator, they were able to leverage SharePoint metadata to create a well-organized, highly searchable SharePoint environment by eliminating folders.

“Before Teams, there was a lot of clutter. We were using network drives and SharePoint groups, and people didn’t understand how to use SharePoint’s metadata to organize their content. They wanted folders like they used on network drives.”

Vera van Es, Arkin

They started with their folder structure in Teams. All Teams files are stored in SharePoint, and because the two apps work together, leveraging SharePoint metadata makes it much easier for end users to find and organize data in both. However, if you’re still using a folder hierarchy to organize your documents in SharePoint or Teams, you won’t get even close to the full value SharePoint metadata can provide.

Poor SharePoint folder hierarchy can lead to chaos

Using folders in SharePoint can quickly become a mess, especially at scale. If you add to it all those folders sitting in orphaned SharePoint Groups and Teams, you’ll end up with files everywhere and with little visibility into what they contain, making them harder to search and secure.

Limiting a folder hierarchy to no more than one or two layers of nested folders can help. But it only works if everyone on the team understands what goes where and where to find content.

Education is the key

The advantages of using metadata are obvious to those of us that work in IT. However, getting end users to give up their familiar SharePoint folders and rely on metadata to find what they need can be challenging.

With a good change management strategy, you can help to clarify those advantages and educate end users on how to leverage metadata in their daily work. This will not only help to increase adoption but will also minimize their desire to use (and have to dig through) a folder hierarchy in Teams. 

The benefits of using SharePoint metadata in your document library

When you’re working with people to help them understand and use SharePoint metadata effectively, you’ll want to emphasize the biggest benefit: improved discoverability of content across SharePoint.

Few things are more frustrating than needing a specific file and not being able to find it. But the folder experience doesn’t have to be this way. SharePoint metadata can save end users from drilling up and down through their folders to find the file they need.

With SharePoint metadata, all they have to do to find a specific file is use the SharePoint search and key in something they know about it. Of course, it helps to remember one or two things about the file, such as the file type, the author, or when it was last modified.  

End users can also use SharePoint metadata to create handy views by searching and pulling together a list of documents or items relevant to their requirements.

Managed metadata

As a Microsoft 365 administrator, you can do a lot with managed metadata to make it easier for end users to work with metadata and ensure they use it more consistently across their document libraries. 

You can use a managed metadata column to map to an existing term set or create a new one specifically for that column. Term sets are simply predefined metadata of terms, which are words or phrases that end users can tag their content within SharePoint.

For example, you might have local term sets that are relevant to specific site collections and visible only to users of that site collection. You could also have ​​​​​​​global term sets available for use across all sites with managed metadata.

Enterprise keywords

You can enable enterprise keywords at both the list and library levels. In contrast to managed terms, enterprise keywords allow end users to use any word or phrase to categorize an item or document.

If it makes sense for your organization, you can configure your keyword lists to be closed to keep them from getting too long. However, in a self-serve environment, enterprise keywords are a good way to allow your end users to describe their files in ways that make sense for them without impacting other types of metadata.

Keeping your keywords list open also helps admins identify the most common keywords and create a new managed list when needed. ​​​​​​​​

Keep reading to see how metadata can turbocharge your search experience, create an end-user experience no folder structure can match, and make your job easier in the process.

Narrow down search results with the help of SharePoint metadata

Metadata’s strength lies in its ability to map to something called “managed properties.” Managed properties allow end users to create custom searches based on the stored content in SharePoint.

These managed properties can appear within refined searches and are the foundation on which more successful searches can be launched. As that’s also a bit abstract, let’s look at how that might work in practice.

If three document templates have different names for the property that identifies the author, which one would you search for? One document template might label this property “Author,” another “Writer,” and a third “Property3,” end-user logic in full effect!

Although all three are crawled properties (noted down as a searchable item by SharePoint), only the templates with the “Author” property appear in search results when a user queries by author.

To be more efficient and ensure that all document templates appear in search results, you can map each of these crawled properties to the “Author” managed property.

Simply put, a managed property is a little information that will help users narrow down search results.

In SharePoint, these managed properties can be set up from within the site collection Search Schema configuration options or from within the Search Application itself. Any changes that you make on these levels will subsequently need a full crawl to be made available elsewhere, and not an incremental one.

Once available for use, these can be applied via the Refinement Web Part. This web part is typically included in most default search pages and as you can probably guess, it assists users in narrowing down search results. You could change the linked Search Results Web part to which filters are applied or alter which refiners are actually shown.

How do I add SharePoint metadata to a document or item?

Adding metadata to a SharePoint document or item is easy! Navigate to the library or list where the document or item is stored and click on the item to open its detail pane. Then, click on “Edit all” to see all the available columns and their values. Fill in the values for each column, including any custom metadata you may require. Once you’ve entered all the necessary metadata, click “Save” to apply the changes.

What’s the difference between SharePoint columns and metadata?

SharePoint columns and metadata are two terms that are often used interchangeably, but they are not exactly the same thing.

A column in SharePoint is a specific field that is added to a list or library to capture information about an item or document. For example, a document library might have columns for Title, Author, and Date Modified. These columns can be customized to meet the specific needs of the organization.

On the other hand, metadata in SharePoint refers to the overall set of information that describes an item or document, including both the columns and any additional descriptive information, such as tags or keywords.

So, while columns are a part of metadata, metadata includes additional information beyond just the columns. Understanding the difference between these two concepts can help you better organize and manage your SharePoint content.

Five tips for creating and managing metadata in SharePoint

As a Microsoft 365 administrator, managing metadata for your tenant will require planning and configuring your metadata, managing terms, term sets and groups, and specifying properties for your metadata. While metadata management is no small task, here are a few tips to get you started.

1. Identify key pieces of information that need to be captured 

Every organization will have its own unique types of metadata that reflect all the types of information it needs to capture for the different types of files in its SharePoint lists and libraries.

Further, metadata can vary by individual teams, too. So, it’s important to work with end-users in different areas throughout your business to ensure that you are fully capturing all the metadata they need.

As you’re working on this, you’ll want to take advantage of the Term Store management tool in SharePoint, which will help you create and manage term sets and the terms within them, whether global to the organization or specific to an individual team or business unit.

2. Create a consistent taxonomy and an accessible glossary for users

Taxonomies are formal classification systems that are constructed to help people organize information. A taxonomy groups the words, labels, and terms that are used to describe something, and then arranges those groups into a hierarchy.

The power of taxonomies lies in how they help people find the information they need. However, taxonomies are only useful to the extent they are consistent and accessible to the people that need them. So, when working with SharePoint metadata, your goal should always be to ensure the consistency of the taxonomy upon which it is based. 

3. Use Managed metadata

They allow you to create a controlled vocabulary of terms that users can select from when adding metadata to content in your Sharepoint libraries. Managed metadata also allows you to organize your metadata in ways that make it easier for end-users to find and apply terms correctly.​​​​​​​

4. Use metadata to drive automated actions and workflows

Did you know you can use SharePoint metadata in Power Automate to automatically route documents to the appropriate team or department? You can even use it to trigger automated approval processes!

For example, you can set up an automation that recognizes when a team member uploads a document to Teams and notify a manager that the document is ready for review. You can also provide a link in the notification the manager can click on to indicate whether the document was approved or rejected.

5. Regularly review and update your metadata schema

As your organization’s needs change, you’ll need to adjust your metadata fields and terms to keep them. Metadata can play an important role in document security, too, as it can control who has access to sensitive documents and allows organizations to store sensitive documents along with non-sensitive content safely. So, it’s essential to manage your metadata with the same care and attention you give to data governance.

Bonus tip: Manage content at scale with SharePoint libraries​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ 

When you consider that a single SharePoint tenant can contain up to a 15 GB file size and as many as 30 trillion documents, you might think that effective metadata management of your SharePoint libraries would be near impossible, especially if you have a large file store. But never fear, attention views are here!

With attention views, when you set a column in your document library or a list to be required, SharePoint automatically filters for any items missing that information. So, whether you’re dealing with thousands of files or millions, attention views will find them for you, making it easy to prioritize and complete the task of addressing the missing information. 

Folders are so 20th Century

Folders? With all the benefits SharePoint metadata provides, you wonder why we would still be talking about them.

Hopefully, you’ve realized that the search potential provided by managed properties and search refiners is well worth the effort they’d initially need to get working, particularly as you’re making the search experience for your end users a more unique and valuable experience.

Folders may still be valued for storage and convenience purposes. Still, they don’t add anything else to make your end users’ work any easier, no matter how simple the folder structure is. 

If you’re ready to level up your SharePoint metadata game and site administration, ShareGate can help you quickly and easily map your existing folders to SharePoint metadata columns.

Book a demo with one of our experts to learn how ShareGate can help your organization manage metadata in SharePoint.

What did you think of this article?

Recommended by our team

Getting started is easy

Try ShareGate free for 15 days. No credit card required.

Karuana Gatimu

INTERVIEW WITH KARUANA GATIMU How to achieve frictionless IT governance