What is SharePoint Metadata?

I’ve been involved with SharePoint for probably 12 years, and as a consultant daily for 9 years.  In all of that time, I would say the most common thing I see my clients and others struggle to understand is the concept of metadata.  What is it?  What does it mean?  I’ve often times explained it only to have someone say “Can I come by your office later so you can explain it to me?” 

Today I will do my best to put it in simplistic terms as it pertains to SharePoint.

You use metadata all the time in your daily life, you just may not realize it.  But its a critical thing to understand in the context of SharePoint if you are going to use it for more than storing files and folders.  I see so many people just upload files, create folders, rinse and repeat and never do anything else.  They are missing out on so much!

What Is Metadata?  By Definition

If we look at wikipedia or the dictionary, we find that metadata is defined as:

a set of data that describes and gives information about other data.

  • Person asking: Um ok.  I don’t get it.
  • Me: In other words, metadata is “data about data”. 
  • Person asking: That’s nice, but what is metadata again? 

What is Metadata – Explained

The key point in this definition is that it describes and gives information about an object.  In other words, it gives context, purpose and value to that object.

Think about your car sitting in the driveway.  That is our main piece of data.  What would describe it?  It has a year, make, model, color, weight, engine, type, top speed, etc. 

Metadata about a car

These are properties of the car that give it context and value and collectively we call that metadata.

What about SharePoint?

In SharePoint, we are generally talking about files so that is our central object that we are describing.  A file can have a size, who created it and when, who last modified it and when, a filename, and other properties.  Some of these properties are generated by SharePoint and we can’t control, others we can create and edit.  This data is shown in columns in the library:

SharePoint Metadata

Perhaps a document has a Status (if it’s approved or not), or what Department it belongs to, any other myriad of properties that could exist.  It all depends on your documents and how you want to further describe them. 

What the minimal amount of properties are that you need to adequately describe your file to provide efficient sorting and filtering, can only be answered by you! But ideally for documents you should only have a few.  Lists on the other hand can have many columns of metadata. 

This just scratches the surface of metadata and how it should be used (I didn’t even mention taxonomy), but hopefully now you have a better fundamental understanding of what it really is.  Reach out to us if you have any questions or would like us to help you define metadata for your organization!