When should you utilize metadata, content types, folders, or document sets?

When should you utilize metadata, content types, folders, or document sets?

Most end users are familiar with utilizing folders to ‘categorize’ information in SharePoint document libraries. Still, not everyone is aware of additional choices, such as document sets or the use of metadata or content types to accomplish similar ‘grouping’ results.

These parameters can be used to categorize material in a document library. However, in addition to the default folder selection, some consideration should be given to the actual function and end-user experience for the other three options.

This post offers some advice on when to utilize what.

In summary:

  • Use folders most of the time, but attempt to keep them to no more than two layers (by end-user communication). Any more, and it might be wiser to start over.
  • Use document sets when there is a (valid) requirement to aggregate documents with additional metadata and security constraints. Metadata may be a preferable alternative in some circumstances.
  • Use content categories (including document sets) selectively and for specific business objectives, rather than simply categorizing document types in a single library where metadata, naming standards, or different libraries may provide a better result.
  • Use metadata columns to present content organized and filtered by that metadata.

Document libraries are logical record collections.

First, remember that SharePoint document libraries are logical aggregations or ‘containers’ for records.

When a SharePoint site is associated with a business function, the libraries in that site might be associated with or named after the activities that generate records.

Mixing records made by multiple business activities (typical in the default ‘Documents’ SharePoint library, especially the site tied to a Team in MS Teams) is generally not a brilliant idea from a recordkeeping standpoint.

Access controls and data retention are substantially more challenging in single libraries containing records from various business operations.


Metadata can be used to categorize content in a document library.

SharePoint sites feature an almost infinite amount of information that may be applied to the material in document libraries. The default ‘Name’ and ‘Title’ metadata fields and system-generated metadata are included in all document libraries.

SharePoint also provides the Managed Metadata Service (MMS), which enables the construction of a centralized set of hierarchical metadata terms based on taxonomies and thesauri available across all sites.

Microsoft said in April 2020 that it would be updating the SharePoint Managed Metadata Service (MMS) and that the upgrades “will be critical to bringing new premium value to Project Cortex later this year” (2020).

Metadata must be contributed to a document library in two ways: (a) through a content type with one or more site columns or (b) as a ‘local’ library column. Both of these alternatives are capable of connecting to the MMS.

Once the metadata has been added, the metadata can be used to group documents in a view. They are sorted in the example below by the metadata column ‘Document Type.’


The following are some of the advantages of using metadata:

  • Capability to use global terms defined in the MMS.
  • The ability to group and filter content is very beneficial in large libraries. It should be noted that specific columns, especially those containing MMS words, cannot be aggregated.
  • It supports several predefined views that can be used instead of searching (handy now that faceted searching has been deprecated).
    Help with recordkeeping obligations.
  • Search assistance.

The disadvantages of using metadata are related to usability and synchronization.

  • When uploading a document, end-users prefer not to include more than two pieces of metadata.
  • End-users don’t appear to understand categorization or grouping based on metadata (although they don’t seem to mind predefined views).
  • In libraries synced to File Explorer, metadata columns are not visible.
  • If a metadata column is required, the synchronized library becomes read-only.
  • The global metadata defined in the MMS may not be suitable for all areas of the business. We discovered that even a simple set of terms to identify ‘Document Type’ (e.g., ‘Meetings,’ ‘Agenda) varied across the organization.

Content Types

Content types specify the content and are a vital building block of SharePoint.

SharePoint has long embraced the concept of a ‘Content-Type Hub,’ where all Content Types are theoretically centralized.

This will be replaced shortly by the new ‘Content Types Gallery’ option, which will be accessible via the SharePoint Admin portal.

All content categories are descended from the top-level ‘System’ content type, which defines the ‘Item’ content type and the ‘Document’ content type.

New content types can be added to a library by permitting content types (from Library Settings – Advanced) and then adding them from ‘Existing Site Content Types.’

This procedure comprises document sets, which will be explored further below.

Given their close relationship with metadata, there may be a tendency to create a large number of content types whenever additional metadata is required and to apply multiple custom content types to a single document library to define a variety of content when other options, such as metadata selection or even folders, may work better.

The library column in the example below displays the Content-Type for the specific item. This column can be grouped in a view to display different library information categories.


The following are the advantages of employing content types:

  • Metadata can be used to help define content.
  • Include a template document that can make use of the item’s metadata. For example, as a content control, automatically insert metadata into the body of a Word document.

The disadvantages of employing content types are as follows:

  • There can be an excess of content types.
  • End users dislike selecting a content type, especially when the sole purpose is to specify a document type (for example, ‘Meetings’ vs ‘Agenda’). A simple metadata column would suffice in this scenario, or document naming guidelines might be used instead.
  • End users dislike having to enter information after selecting a content type.
  • The synchronized library will become read-only if any column in the content type is required.

Document Sets

Document sets are similar to super folders in that they perform similarly to regular folders but have far more capabilities.

As previously stated, document sets must be enabled as a feature before appearing in the list of accessible content types. Once enabled, they can be added to a document library from the list of possible content types. The option to ‘Allow management of content types is enabled in the Library Settings (under ‘Advanced’).

Document sets can be highly beneficial when (a) a unique identification for a folder within a library is required, (b) additional metadata to assist in characterizing a group of documents is required, and (c) access constraints that differ from the library are required. (Please note that this final option is also available with folders; see below.)

While document sets may appear appealing to business departments looking to ‘hard categorize’ content in a document library (for example, every document set comprises a policy, as well as related processes, forms, and so on), they can make it more difficult for end-users to access information. On the other hand, if there is a legitimate need to limit access to information, it can be precious.
Regarding content types, document sets are seen in the screenshot above. When they are added to a document library, they appear in the ‘New’ menu, as illustrated below:


Document sets have the following advantages:

  • They can have a unique ID (depending on the Document ID setting in the library); the Document ID is the same as the one used for the documents.
  • Metadata can be automatically added to the body of template documents contained in document content types related to the document set (through content controls).
  • They can be used to impose restrictions on access.

Document sets have the following drawbacks:

  • It can make it more difficult to find information, especially if there are more than 30 in a library.
  • Searches can only return one document. It will also not return the document set. There could be different papers.
  • Because of the interdependence between document sets and linked document content types, it may be more difficult to replace with other options.
  • Document sets appear as folders in synchronized file libraries. As a result, any library that uses document sets should include at least one necessary column to make the synced version read-only.
  • End users should ideally not have to sync these libraries.


Almost everyone understands what folders are and how to use them. Every SharePoint document library allows you to create folders. End users can create folders in File Explorer when they are synchronized.
It is possible to prevent the formation of folders in SharePoint by using the Library Settings – Advanced – Folders option. However, this should be used only in extreme cases.
You may also display all the content in a library without using folders by updating the view (or creating a new ‘No folders’ view) and changing the option in the ‘Folders’ section from ‘Display items in folders’ to ‘Show all items without folders. It is not uncommon to see fewer documents than folders while using the no-folder view. It can be an excellent technique for administrators to demonstrate the advantages of using metadata columns instead.

The following are some of the advantages of using folders:

  • Everyone understands how to utilize them.
  • They may be made using File Explorer.

The disadvantages of using folders include the following:

  • There are far too many files and levels.
  • Folders replicate the last words in the URL route, such as the site and library names.
  • One-word folders, such as Meetings
  • Folders with specific permissions.

Maintain simplicity.

  • If you’re trying to categorize records in a way that makes sense, it’s a good idea to keep things simple and deploy the options that best match the organization’s goals.
  • Folders are the ideal way for most end-users to interact with a library, even using File Explorer. Use extra metadata sparingly, such as ‘Document Type,’ having in mind that such metadata is not (yet) visible in libraries synced to File Explorer.
  • Metadata produces read-only views of records or other content stored in a library (for example, policies), and a small number of people manage that metadata. Utilizing metadata to organize content in this manner may be preferable to using folders or document sets. Keep in mind that views cannot group all columns (even MMS columns). However, they can be filtered.
  • When particular metadata needs to be added to records (and used in templates), employ custom content types such as document sets, or group them in sub-files in a document library. Folders can be used in document sets to categorize material further.

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At Alcero we offer personalized advice on everything you need to know to make it the perfect management tool for your company. Learn more about the benefits of using SharePoint. Ask for more information about our EDM services at 514-316-5064 or [email protected].