SharePoint Online metadata basics

One of the problems with files stored on a local hard disk is that you are typically relying only the file name to describe the contents of the file. We all of course know that most businesses don’t have policies and procedures around how their files are name. They therefore end up with a ‘dog’s breakfast’ of gobblygook that makes sense to no one.

Studies show that most employees spend at least 30% of their week looking for information and having files in unintelligible locations with random names doesn’t make that job ANY easier! This is where moving such files into SharePoint can help.


As you see above, if I simply upload documents to a SharePoint Document Library they are just as ‘higgildy piggidly’ as they would be if they were stored on your local hard disk.


If I now press a column heading, in this case Name, you’ll find that the documents are sorted A-Z and if I press it again, Z-A. Nothing unusual about that, you can do that on your local hard drive.


If now however I select the File Type column heading I see the above which lists all the file extensions that appear in the list. If I select say the docx option what I get is:


I now see a filtered version of my files based on the file extension I selected (i.e. only those that match the filtered criteria). I can of course select more than one file extension if I want. You can tell that the list is filtered by the little filter icon net to the file type column heading.

To remove the filter just select that column heading again and select the option Clear Filter from Type.

You can of course perform this filtering on any column but even better you can add your own columns to describe the files. This is know as adding metadata.


To do this select the Library tab top left of the page to reveal the Ribbon Menu and from the right hand side of the Ribbon select Library Settings.


Scroll down this page until you locate the Columns heading. Under the list of existing columns select Create column.


Give the new column and name (here Customer), select the type of column it will be (here a choice) and add a description. Scroll down for more options.


In this case we’ll elect to Require that the column has information, which is not the normal default. This means people can’t add documents to this location WITHOUT also selecting which customer they apply to, which is great for enforcing compliance.

In the choice box you see 4 choices have been entered (Starbucks, Microsoft, HP and Other). These are the options that will be available for this field. You can always return and edit these if necessary later.

All the other fields are left as default and the OK button is selected at the bottom of the page to save the changes.


When you return to the Document Library you will see an extra column, Customers, to the right as shown above. Obviously, any existing files won’t have a value for this field since it is new, however if you edit an existing entry you will be required to enter one.


If you edit the properties of the first file you can see that there is now an additional field called Customer displayed. You will also notice that it has a star (*) next to it indicating it is a required field. You will also find a drop down selection box, which when selected will display all the options entered when the column has created.


Since it is a required field, if you attempt to leave it blank you’ll get a message like that above and you won’t be able to save any updates.


You can now go through and update the customer field for every item in the Document Library. The easy was to do this is to use the Quick Edit option from the Ribbon Menu which displays the entries like a spreadsheet so you can easily move between fields using the arrow keys and even copy and paste between cells.


When you return to the list you can now select the new column heading you created and you’ll again see a list of entries on which you can filter.


In this case, just selecting Microsoft will filter the list of items to only display those that have Microsoft in the Customer column as shown above.

It’s really that simply to add metadata to your SharePoint items. Don’t forget adding metadata works on just about everything in SharePoint, Document Libraries, Lists, Calendars, etc and is a great way to help you filter, sort and most importantly locate your data. Now isn’t that better than what you might be using with you local hard disk?

You can of course extend the concept of metadata way beyond the basics demonstrated here, however the most important thing is to think about, and define you metadata up front. What columns do you need? What type of information will they contain? How will you display the information? etc. 

Remember, SharePoint is an immensely powerful tool like most other Office applications. If you want to get the most from it you need to invest some time understanding what it does. Hopefully, this post will get you started on that path but watch out for more posts on making the most of SharePoint.

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