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Why do folders get such a bad press?

The SharePoint community seems pretty united in their dislike of folders. The overwhelming consensus is that metadata is superior, while folders are merely a hangover from the bad old days of legacy file shares. Blog after blog has provided lists of reasons why folders should be avoided and why metadata is king.

However, I have a bit of a confession to make. I actually quite like folders and get the impression that I’m probably not alone. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m very much in favour of metadata too, I just feel that the two should be considered as complimentary, rather than substitutes for one another. Using both combined can result in great solutions.

Just for complete clarity – I’d never suggest that anyone uses folders instead of metadata, I just believe that folders should be viewed as useful tools when deployed in conjunction with metadata. Perhaps SharePoint professionals should bite the bullet and think again about folders.

The case for the prosecution

There are a range of reasons given by SharePoint professionals as to why folders are a bad habit; the most frequent arguments I’ve heard include:

  • Folders have a negative impact on usability

I’m not sure that this is actually the case. Having worked with staff in multiple organisations across different sectors, I’ve noticed that most people seem to find folders an intuitive mechanism for grouping and managing their content. In situations where metadata is being used in conjunction with folders, I don’t see that the folders are themselves introducing any usability negatives. In other words, it’s the lack of metadata, not use of folders, which inhibits usability.

  • Folders force staff to use a single structure

The argument that I typically hear is that forcing all users to adapt to a single structure makes it more difficult for files to be found and potentially leading to content duplication.

While folders do indeed impose a single structure, SharePoint provides alternative ways for staff to view the same content:

  • Views can be set up to ‘Show all items without folders’ – enabling different members of staff to consume the same content however they’d prefer to.

  • SharePoint makes extensive use of search, providing various search-based web parts to help users explore content. These provide staff with direct access to content, typically without showing folder structures. Delve, for example, uses the Office Graph to surface content that is likely to be relevant for your team from across Office 365, but does so in a way that helps staff to bypass folder structures.

So, while it’s true that folders do partially require staff to make use of the same structure, they don’t restrict your team from discovering and consuming content in multiple ways. Given this flexibility, I’d argue that folders don’t actually lead to increased content duplication. Certainly, I feel it’s safe to suggest that more content is duplicated through restricted permissions (or even intentionally) than because of the use of folders.

  • Folders increase the length of URLs

Yes, this is certainly true, folders in SharePoint libraries add to the length of the URL. This can cause frustrating issues for your staff, with content failing to upload, and the ubiquitous ‘Sorry, something went wrong’ error message. For this reason, asking your staff to stop using folders made a lot of sense in older versions of SharePoint (2007/2010).

However, a couple of years ago Microsoft increased the URL length limit in SharePoint Online from 256 characters up to 400 characters. This small, but significant change, significantly reduces the likelihood of staff encountering the issue.

  • Folders make it difficult to change your structure

Older versions of SharePoint made it surprisingly difficult to move content between folders. There simply wasn’t any functionality out of the box designed to help end users remodel folder structures on their own.

Thankfully, SharePoint Online now provides (long overdue) tools for moving and copying files, making the process of changing folder structures relatively simple. Remodelling folder structures is no longer a complex and frustrating task. It’s now probably no more complex for a user to move content to a new folder structure, than it is for them to change metadata – and in many cases will probably be a lot simpler. For example, I imagine that most users will find it much simpler to add a new folder and make use of the modern Move function, than to, say, add a new Managed Metadata Term and apply it to existing content.

The case for the defence

  • Folders are easy to use

Staff tend to find folders intuitive – so why not let them use them? People tend to understand folders, what they do, and how they can be used; I’ve never heard of anyone needing training to understand folders.

  • Folders can be secured

You can’t set unique permissions on metadata, but you can on folders. Now sure, this is a bit of a double-edged sword, but in a well-planned solution, folder permissions can be really useful.

  • Folders help mitigate SharePoint’s “5,000 item limit threshold”

I’m sure many of you will have encountered SharePoint’s infamous query limit, which prevents more than 5,000 items from being displayed at a time. Even the arrival of Predictive Indexing hasn’t resolved this issue.

Folders can be used to help reduce the likelihood of the query limit issue being encountered. They don’t resolve the issue altogether but can certainly be used to great effect.

I feel that judicious use of folders can help to reduce how often large volumes of files are queried simultaneously – making the humble folder a potentially useful architectural component.

  • Microsoft seem to love using folders

Many of the more recent tools introduced by Microsoft make use of folders, while making it difficult to apply metadata. For example:

  • Microsoft Teams – files you upload into Microsoft Teams are stored within folders. Each channel you have within a Team stores files inside a separate folder. Support for metadata within Microsoft Teams is imminent (which is a superb step in the right direction), but under the hood, folders are still central to Microsoft Teams’ architecture.

  • OneDrive – OneDrive’s user interface currently makes it very difficult for anyone looking to make use of metadata. While, custom metadata columns can be used, at the moment they can only be applied by navigating to the (hidden) library settings page, or via script.

As such, folders are pretty much the only tool provided for anyone looking to manage draft or personal content within OneDrive (that is, anyone without technical expertise).

  • OneDrive for Business sync client – this tool provides a great place to work, it’s very simple to use and is very familiar to most staff. I personally love it – it’s how I choose to work. However, given that currently the sync client doesn’t show Office 365 metadata, I feel that it’s essential for it to be used in conjunction with folders. Quite simply, default metadata values set on folders allow staff to use the sync client while still getting the benefits of metadata. This for me provides a perfect balance between streamlined working and compliant classification.

  • Known Folder Move – OneDrive’s relatively recent Known Folder Move feature synchronises content that is stored in certain ‘known’ folders on your local machine to Office 365. This means that content stored on your Desktop, or local machine’s Documents or Pictures folders can be stored and backed up within the cloud.

As with the other features listed, there is no metadata seen, but it’s very easy for staff to create folders in the familiar File Explorer interface:

  • Folders can actively improve the quality of your metadata

Applying metadata can be a pain – I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who enjoys tagging their files.

In my experience, organisations tend to either:

  • Enforce mandatory metadata – which typically results in frustrated staff, inconsistent tags, and even in reduced productivity or shadow IT.

  • Make metadata entirely optional – frequently resulting in patchy and inconsistent classification and a potential compliance nightmare.

I feel the optimal solution is somewhere in between. By setting default column values on SharePoint libraries and folders, we can ensure that metadata is applied consistently and contextually. As such, if you can guarantee the quality of the default values that are applied to your libraries and folders, the bulk of your content will get classified with minimal effort.

The verdict

Perhaps it’s time we admit that as a community our condemnation of the humble folder might have been a little too zealous at times. Sure, we wanted to encourage people to see the benefits of metadata, but perhaps the two constructs aren’t quite as mutually exclusive as many supposed.

When used together, folders can actually help to improve the quality and consistency of metadata, while simultaneously reducing ongoing effort. Perhaps it’s time we give folders a slightly warmer reception?


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