One of the eternal debates around making SharePoint search usable revolves around folders vs. metadata. Colleagues that are so ingrained in deep, neolithic file structures seem very opposed to trying new ways of storing and managing files (such as metadata). This opposition can often be hard to overcome. Yet for those of us that work professionally within IT, the advantages to using metadata seem rather obvious
The perks of using SharePoint Metadata
- Show colleagues how to create handy views and pull together a list of documents or items relevant to their requirements
- Make SharePoint do some of the classification heavy lifting by setting default values based on the appropriate content type to simplify document classification
- Explain how metadata allows for library configuration that enforces consistent document classification
- Explain how consistently applied metadata across document libraries will help improve the user's search results
In this post, we’re going to take a look at how metadata can turbo charge your search experience and the utility that they provide, which folders are hard pressed to match.
What's SharePoint Metadata?
It may be useful if we backtrack a little though and actually define what we mean when using the term “metadata.” A technical definition that’s often bandied about is “data that describes other data.” That’s a bit of a dry definition though, so let’s make it a bit more accessible.
If you or I were to create an Excel sheet on the desktop, there are some properties about this file which are automatically captured. These will be the name of the file, the file size, the name of the author and so on. All of 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 of their own, which can then be applied against list items and the contents of a document library. There are several options here, when defining the type of metadata, such as limiting it to a string, a number, currency and so on.
SharePoint 2010 onwards also provided us with managed metadata term sets (in-depth introduction here). Terms sets are collections of metadata items that are managed in a central location, although these can be site-specific or global in their scope.
Narrow down search results with the help of SharePoint metadata
The strength of metadata comes from the fact that it can be mapped to something called “managed properties”. These managed properties can appear within refined searches performed by users 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 different document templates have different names for the property that identifies the author, which one would you search on? 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 documents templates appear in search results, you have the ability to map each of these crawled properties to the “Author” managed property.
In simple words, a managed property is a little bit of 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 to add Refiners on a Page
- You need to access the web part refinement options via Edit Page → Edit Web Part.
- In the subsequent Web part Configuration options, click the “Choose Refiners.”This section allows you to pick the available refiners and the order in which they’re displayed.
- These refiners will then be shown on the left hand side of the given search results page and be available to end-users.
Further options, such as adding counters per refiner and changing their display format are also possible.
Folders are so 20th Century
Folders? What are they? Are we even still talking about them at this point of our journey?
Hopefully you've realized that the search potential provided by managed properties and search refiners are 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 useful experience. Folders may still be valued for storage and convenience purposes but they don’t add anything else to make your user’s working life any easier.
So tell me, in your experience, are folders still used or you already leverage Metadata with your content?