Sharepoint 2010 : Metadata Architecture (part 1)

1/10/2014 3:10:15 AM
Metadata (literally, data about data) defines the structure of the content within your SharePoint solution—the attributes that you will use to classify and organize your content the way a librarian organizes content in a library. Why do you need to think about metadata? Metadata makes it easier for users to find content; in other words, “findability” is the key rationale for metadata, just like the other elements of your information architecture. Metadata can also provide context for content, helping users quickly identify whether a document or other asset will be helpful—without having to examine the content of the document in detail. Metadata provides a far superior organizational framework for document classification than the dreaded “F-word” (folder), but please review the next sidebar, “Folders ... They’re Back,” as you think about the best approach for your metadata architecture. SharePoint 2010 introduces new features that will significantly improve the way you can manage metadata in your organization, but the new features add complexity to the planning process.

For the most part, users think of metadata as attributes that are assigned to documents, but you can use metadata attributes to classify and organize any type of list content. The basic design principles are the same, no matter what type of content you are organizing, but we talk primarily about document metadata in this section.

There are three elements of SharePoint 2010 that you will use to design your metadata architecture: Content Types, Columns, and Managed Metadata.

  • A Content Type is a collection of settings that define a particular type of information, such as a project plan or financial report. A Content Type can be defined at the portal level or at the site level and reused across multiple document libraries and sites. A new feature of SharePoint 2010 allows you to define Content Types across your entire SharePoint farm and share Content Types across multiple Site Collections, functionality that used to require third-party tools in earlier releases. A Content Type defines the attributes of a document, a list item, or a folder.

  • Columns are the “properties” or attributes of a particular type of content. For example, the Columns of a document Content Type might include Name, Description, Author, Status (such as Draft or Final), or Region. Columns can be defined across the entire portal (Site Columns) or for an individual site or Site Collection and across your entire farm or one or more Site Collections. This is one of the most exciting features of SharePoint 2010 because sharing metadata across multiple Site Collections was not available out-of-the-box in earlier releases. Columns can also be defined inside a particular list (List Columns). The primary difference between Site Columns and List Columns is reusability. Site Columns can be reused on any lower-level site. List Columns are unique to the list or library in which they are created. As a best practice, you should define Columns at the site level unless they are only applicable within a single list or library.

  • Managed Metadata is a new type of metadata for both Content Types and Columns. Managed Metadata is just that—metadata that is controlled and managed centrally.

You will need to plan how you will use these features across your entire solution as well as in individual sites, lists, and libraries. Metadata planning requires careful thought and a significant interest in details. However, a wonderful feature of SharePoint is that your metadata architecture can evolve and grow as your business and knowledge about users’ needs changes. Your metadata architecture should be thoughtfully planned, but you do not have to agonize over every decision that you make. Put a stake in the ground, try it out, and continue to monitor your solution over time.

Folders . . . They’re Back

One of the most challenging jobs for any information architect is convincing users about the benefit of organizing their documents with metadata rather than folders. Folders, the traditional organizational framework for documents in file shares (and file cabinets), have several problems:

  • It takes lots of clicks to get to the content you are looking for.

  • Folders are inflexible—you either put the same content in two different folders if it applies to more than one folder, which immediately creates version-control challenges, or you have to live with the structure you created and make sure all users understand how to correctly put documents “where they are supposed to go.”

  • Using folders to organize content assumes that you and your colleagues all have the same mental model for content organization.

  • Folders don’t let you easily sort, filter, and create ad hoc views of your content—folders assume you know today how you might want to see your content tomorrow.

Metadata is a better organizing principle for several reasons:

  • It’s easy to see what content is available in a library or list.

  • Users can look at, sort, or filter content by any dimension that is useful to today—and use a different dimension tomorrow.

  • Metadata improves the ability to serendipitously discover what is available in a content repository—it surfaces rather than buries content.

  • With metadata, you have the option to use “group by” in views if you need to collect content of a similar type to create an organizing experience similar to folders but still have the flexibility to group your content along multiple dimensions.

  • Metadata improves search engine results. Most search engines factor the content metadata into the algorithm that returns results. In essence, it provides bonus points that can boost the content’s position or rank on a results page. In addition, some search engines can be customized to support searches on specific metadata elements.

Information architects and good SharePoint designers have spent many years trying to break users of the “folder habit.” However, with SharePoint 2010, folders have an opportunity for a comeback because they are the vehicle through which “location-based” metadata is assigned. In SharePoint 2010, you can assign default metadata values to a folder using the Column default value settings feature in Library Settings (see Figure 1), and then all the documents that you create in or upload to that folder will “inherit” the metadata value associated with the folder automatically. Now that folders can actually provide a valuable “service,” they may have a renewed place in your information architecture—especially if you create views that show your items without folders.

Figure 1. Setting the default value of a Column for a folder

In addition, the new Content Organizer feature can be used to automatically “route” content to a specific location or folder in your site.

Does this mean that we are now recommending that you use folders to organize your content by default? Absolutely not. However, you now have additional options you can consider for your information architecture, depending on the type of repository you have and whether or not you want to take advantage of the new content management features in SharePoint 2010.

  •  Sharepoint 2010 : Planning Your Information Architecture - Page Architecture
  •  Sharepoint 2010 : Planning Your Information Architecture - Site Architecture
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