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The battle for Metadata in SharePoint 2010

[ 17 ] March 7, 2011 |

There seems to be a battle going on out there in the world of SharePoint between those who think that metadata is fundamentally important and others that resist in using it because of user adoption concerns.

This is worrying in many respects, not in the least the fact that SharePoint 2010 leverages metadata in many different forms. However many implementations refuse to invest in adequate metadata planning and implementation because of the worry that users will find it too complicated.

I see the problem in the SharePoint world as two fold. Firstly we cannot accurately describe the benefits of using metadata in the platform with all the advantages that it offers. Secondly users are unaware that they have been working with metadata ever since they started using a computer and that the concept of classification/tagging/taxonomy, whatever you want to call it, is very intuitive for users.

In this article I am going to try and give some ammunition to start fighting the good fight and encouraging users to use metadata by being able to articulate its purpose, its functions and general goodness J

Metadata – You are already doing it!

Many users will be very hesitant to fill in 3 pieces of metadata because it is simply too much work. For instance see the diagram below:


However the same users are more than happy navigating a folder structure 20 levels deep in order to save a particular piece of content such as below:


Users are unaware that they are already assigning metadata by using this approach. Instead of metadata via fields they are assigning metadata via location. If you can explain that instead of 20 clicks they now only need to choose three fields this is a lot more palatable.

The fact is that users interact with metadata on a daily basis; however this new way of SharePoint seems more cumbersome simply because of a new method. But many functions that users perform in their day to day activities already involve the assignment of metadata. Classifying meetings in Outlook, adding labels to messages in Gmail, organizing their music library in ITunes, even organizing cookbooks based on cuisine are all examples!


Metadata – What does it do?

Explaining metadata to users can be confusing to both parties, especially when you start throwing in SharePoint specific terms like metadata navigation, managed metadata, content routing and a whole host of other nomenclature.

Instead I prefer a much more simple approach:

“Imagine that you have a book, whose cover has been wrapped in wrapping paper. How much use is it to you currently? Not much. Now you start to peel off the top part of the cover and you see the title of the book. Now it is more useful but you don’t really know enough about the book as of yet. As you peel off more of the wrapping paper you start to find out the author, where the book was written, where it sits in the library, the date that it was published and finally a brief description about what the book is about.

Now just by looking at the cover you know what the book is about. Also there is one vital know a lot about the book but you haven’t even opened the book up yet to peek inside. This is metadata – telling you what you need to know, without the hassle of opening and reading the entire book

Now imagine going into a library and being able to quickly find the information you are looking for! Instead of a mountain of books we have them nicely organized. This is the other side of metadata – organizing quantities of information to make it easy to find what we need”

The real power of metadata is the power of being able to look quickly at content and determine what it is. This means for end users that they don’t have to trawl through document libraries, opening up content they can glance and move on. It’s a very normal human process to group and categorize vast amounts of information; metadata is simply the classification that we choose.

In the end it comes down to a couple of things:

  1. We can easily make sense of vast quantities of information quickly
  2. We save time and effort in doing so

In SharePoint metadata helps to answer questions such as ‘What kind of content can I create?”


Or “Is this something I am interested in?”


Yes you can talk about taxonomy, Information Architecture, Governance and so forth. But for an end user the main advantage of metadata will be time saving and a great user experience.

It can also be used to see if content is relevant to me:


Metadata – Where do I see it?

Users will want to know where metadata manifests itself in the platform. There are plenty of great examples to give:

Individual Items

Items all contain metadata. All make it easy to categorize and then find information afterwards. For instance an individual item:


We can also expose metadata through the Office client, making the process of adding it even easier:


Lists and Libraries

Metadata is most useful to categorize quantities of information for views, allowing users to create pre-defined views that they can access with some added functionality like grouping, counts and so forth:


We can also aggregate content together through the use of web parts and exposing it in other locations:


What about metadata with some extra functionality? The Document ID provider is a great example of this. Not only does it uniquely identify a document but it will also has some added functionality as well:


Now I can type in this metadata into a Document ID Search Web Part and instead of being taken to my results page, the document will open straight up!


Or how about being able to automatically upload documents and know that they will appear in the correct location? Well using metadata and the Content Organizer feature users can upload a piece of content, and depending on the rules established it will be routed to that location:


Now we can be sure that nothing is misplaced!


Metadata – How can I interact with it?

A common question is “OK so I have taken time to enter in metadata, how can I use it to save me time?

Once again lots of great examples:

Navigating huge amounts of information is problematic at best. Why not use the metadata that we enter to navigate? Metadata driven navigation allows us to do just this.

But why not just use folders for this purpose? Simple. Folders only allow us to categorize content in one dimension, location. Metadata makes it possible for use to categorize in multiple dimensions:


We can also filter, providing the ability to slice and dice data in whatever way users see fit:


Of course search is probably the most well know application of metadata and SharePoint 2010 is particular strong in this area. We see metadata in the actual search results:


However we can also use metadata to refine our results down as well:


We can also search just on metadata


But above all metadata is there to solve a business issue and help users become more efficient. Sure there are plenty of tools within SharePoint 2010 that will both consume and expose metadata but be careful that you are striking the right balance between user needs and technical efforts.

Tags: , , ,

Category: Change Management, Planning, Requirements and Analysis

About Michal Pisarek: Michal Pisarek is the founder of Dynamic Owl Consulting and a Microsoft SharePoint MVP. View author profile.

Comments (17)

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  1. Great article. Really useful to epxlain meta data to end-users.

  2. Ken Gobble says:

    Very valuable article to help boost user adoption of SharePoint as a platform. I hope this will help end users not be afraid to utilize metadata, and help them better understand just what metadata really is.

    Great Article!

  3. Sandi Curry says:

    The book analogy is a great way to explain metadata. Not only do users use metadata in their fileshare folder names, they also do the same in their file naming conventions!

  4. Kerri says:

    You know I was searching for shoes the other day when I realized that these giant shoe marketers have nailed their metadata process perfectly. Seriously, I can search easily on brown boots, size 7, heel over 2″, shaft taller than 11, and filter down according to price,material,manufacturer… and what is amazing is that my mother can do it too, any my teenage daughter because they have a handle on the UI. It makes sense!

    Our documents are our shoes. We need to surface them, they need to be indexed. Maybe some of the problem with understanding why metadata is so important is that we haven’t yet built that great UI that puts it into perspective. This isn’t a question of are you going to assign metadat or not? This is a question of how long you going to go without assigning it…because you’ll end up with a giant dump if you don’t.

    Thanks for the great article Michal!

  5. Bil Simser says:

    Good article with some key points about metadata that should be consumable by end users. The problem is this shouldn’t be a fight. It’s not that end users can’t understand it, it’s just that they won’t change. I have users who don’t even want to enter a filename let alone fill in a few piece of information to classify a document. It’s up the SharePoint evangelists and champions in your organziation to help people adopt this way of life. If they resist, let them. It’s a fight you’re not going to win. Let them die on their own sword because they will and eventually you’ll either fix what they screwed up or rebuild something the better way. Users who are headstrong in their “old” ways are not worth fighting to the new cool way. Eventually they’ll come over to the dark side or leave the company.

  6. Chris Poteet says:

    Michael. Based on the 4-5 times on Twitter I saw you asking for an opinion I guess it’s time (already subscribed and read it but thoughts based on your request).

    You gave clear arguments on why using (custom) metadata is superior to not using it at all. I think in addition to this post you include arguments for correct metadata and not just metadata in general. It’s one thing to create a bunch of columns, but it’s a completely other thing to go through an intensive research and design process and then testing to ensure it meets the needs of the organization.

    I don’t think (at least I hope not) that anyone would argue with you that metadata is a good thing, but the challenge is designing and creating appropriate and comprehensive metadata.

  7. Nancy says:

    Brilliant. Now I can present the best possible case for metadata and know I have not left anything out. Thank you for this great article.

  8. I would agree with Bill that it is a struggle to get users to apply metadata to anything using out of the box SharePoint tools. The key is to allow users to bulk tag and apply metadata on a mass scale. You can use something rule based like SharePoint’s content organizer (you have to create the rules) or you can purchase third party tools. We have a couple of blog posts that explain further.

  9. @Sandi – Another great analogy to do with metadata that of naming conventions!
    @Kerri – Although shoes seem completly different to SharePoint you are spot on. If only we could organise our shoes better :)
    @Bil – I agree with you completely. Maybe I am being idealistic but I feel that SharePoint is so underutilised in this particular area where a little effort can provide some significant benefits. Love the analogy of users dying on their sword however.
    @chris – Once again great point about having correct metadata rather than just anything, will include this in the next iteration.

  10. I just saw this article now. And just Loved it! So well articulated, great job! I’m posting to my sites and sending it to my clients.

    Thanks Michael. Keep ‘em coming!


  11. Bart Louwagie says:

    Hi Michael

    This is a great insightful article. You explain why MetaData is useful, not just how it can be done.


  12. Juan Guzman says:

    Great article! Love the analogy. At least now I know I am not the only one fighting this battle.

  13. Antonio Maio says:

    This is a great article! I think the benefits of using metadata in many different areas of software, not only in SharePoint but throughout our user experience with computers at work and home, is really important. For example, military and government personnel are typically manadated to classify documents and emails for security purposes and those classifications should/must/are saved with documents as metadata that travels with the document. At home, doing something as simple as playing digital music, I’m looking for songs based on artist, album, song name, rating and play list which of course is also metdata about my music. The majority of my work focuses on helping customers apply the appropriate security settings to sensitive content in SharePoint, and we do this based on a document’s metadata. With metadata being so intrisic to Microsoft SharePoint, it really must be considered, planned for and designed into a user’s experience with most deployments of SharePoint. Related to user adoption, from our expeirence we’ve found that starting with a small number of metadata fields at the time of SharePoint role-out and then evolving the taxonomy over time is a good way to help users adopt the practise of adding metadata to content.

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