SharePoint Metadata vs Folders

In this post we compare Metadata with Folders for organising content in  SharePoint Document Libraries. The use of Folders in SharePoint is a contentious topic but the right choice isn’t always clear cut.

There are in some cases good reasons to use Folders, however this should be well thought out. Metadata requires more effort upfront, but the longer term benefits may well be worth the investment.

Feature Comparison - Metadata vs Folders

Feature Metadata Folders
URL Complex URL with parameters The folder name forms part of the URL. Watch out for long URL's.
Search Metadata can be used as refiners. This is a powerful feature. No additional functionality
Navigation Can be implemented but requires planning and configuration of Views etc. Can be time consuming to implement. Traditional style navigation. Works in both browser and explorer view. Nested folders can affect usability.
Filtering Can filter on metadata fields No filtering features
Grouping Can group items No grouping features
Sorting Can sort by metadata columns Cannot sort folders
Explorer View Metadata isn’t visible. Can’t use Views. Users can navigate folders
Security No metadata specific security features. Folders can inherit permissions or have unique permissions.

Warning: complex security can easily become an administration nightmare

SharePoint Views can be configured to hide the underlying folder structure. This can be useful if you need security to some content and want to use Metadata features.

SharePoint supports a maximum of 5000 items in a Document Library without folders. Folders allow larger numbers of files to be stored in a single Document Library.

URL length can be an issue when using folders. The maximum URL length is 260 characters. Avoid nested folders and keep folder names short.

The Content Query Web Part and Search Query Web Part use Metadata to roll-up content from multiple locations into other areas of SharePoint. You cannot filter content based on Folders.

Third-party application support for Metadata features is often limited. Managed Metadata, Enterprise Keywords and Lookup fields are often not supported. Folders are generally supported. If you are intending to use third-party tools with SharePoint we recommend reviewing these requirements.

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