The Truth About Folders

By Laurence Hart posted 06-30-2011 16:01


Chris Riley wrote a post last week here at AIIM, complete with video, against folders. He gave lots of reasons and explained many problems, but he ignored the positives. I feel his opinion is tainted by his prolonged exposure to SharePoint. I’m not saying that the points he brought up are wrong, just that there is a flip side.

Some Background

The folder debate is old. I remember having these discussions back in the 90s, I discussed the folder v search debate in detail four years ago, and I expect we are going to have this discussion for decades to come unless I save myself and change careers. There have been two reasons that folders have endured, people and technology.

People are used to folders. They used them in DOS and then Windows. Before “My Documents”, people were creating their own mechanisms to save and track their documents. They use them in their email systems now to track things. Sure, younger people may prefer and depend on folksonomies, but there are still two older generations in the workforce. It is all about adoption. Chris Walker shows the difference simply in one of his previous posts here at AIIM.

As for the technology, it fails. Search engines are typically the hardest part of the system to optimize in any Content Management System. You can bypass that by using database fields, aka attributes, but as you increase volume, you have to make plans to scale up.

These problems will shrink every year, though they aren’t in any danger of being eliminated. Let’s talk about the positives.

Folders Help

Did you know that in most systems, content can reside in multiple locations? This means that if I think a piece of content belongs in one location, that doesn’t stop someone from placing a link in a second location, or a third.

Chris talked about taxonomies. He actually lost me there because taxonomies are most often implemented as a folder hierarchy. A well-executed taxonomy will automatically place content in all relevant areas. This allows content to be found through the concepts that are applicable when needed. While you can implement them without using folders, you are sacrificing performance and simplicity.

Of course as times change, the folder structure should change as well. I keep track of things and as my content changes, I modify my structure. Of course, prior to SharePoint 2010, when you did that you broke all links to that content. This isn’t a problem in 2010 or in traditional Content Management systems.

One of the problems that you get when you don’t use folders is that you can cripple most systems. While few systems claim a limit to the number of documents that can reside in one location, there is a practical limit. User interfaces become unhappy and some systems actually slow down as a whole because of how they implement document containers. You can swear that nobody will ever browse to that location, but unless you remove that capability, someone will do it. Heck, administrators like to browse to content to see if there is a problem with the search functionality.

Meanwhile, people can still search for the content to their hearts content. Folders don’t stop that. Sometimes you don’t know what you are searching for in detail, so metadata and full-text search is crucial.

Until search engines can read your mind reliably and always give you what you need, use folders.

For more reading, I highly recommend the post I wrote four years ago, referenced above, and titled Taxonomies, Good, Bad, or Ugly? It holds up now and I suspect it will hold up for a decade or two.

#sharepoint #Taxonomy #SharePoint #folders #ContentManagement