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SharePoint Managed Metadata Service creates efficiencies

Manually applying metadata to SharePoint deployments is time-consuming and can create inefficiencies. The overlooked Managed Metadata Service can help.

The ability to search for and easily retrieve content is a core function of SharePoint, but poor metadata and taxonomy practices can undermine that capability. The good news is that Microsoft's venerable collaboration platform includes a management service that eases some of the headaches of wrangling SharePoint metadata. The bad news is this service is often overlooked and underused.

Simply put, metadata is information that organizations use to label content for future retrieval through a search engine. Managed correctly, SharePoint metadata is effective, but time-consuming manual processes and other stumbling blocks can hamper its effectiveness.

The SharePoint Managed Metadata Service can address these issues. It's included with all versions of SharePoint Server since 2010 and even the cloud-based SharePoint Online, available in the business productivity suite Office 365. But my experience has been that few SharePoint administrators have explored the Managed Metadata Service and really understood it. In this piece, we'll dive into SharePoint metadata and benefits of managed metadata.

Why managed metadata matters

Metadata summarizes the basic information about a piece of content, with the goal of making it easier to locate. Terms and descriptions with associated values that fill in particular details about those terms are attached to every object store within SharePoint; there are many types of metadata, and there is no universally consistent set of terms. It makes sense, if you think about it: The relevant descriptors and attributes for a spreadsheet file are different than a calendar, for example.

Users can also create some SharePoint metadata, typically by tagging items. This is similar to categorizing content; however, multiple tags can be applied to a single document, whereas a document might be able to live in only one category. Tagging, therefore, lets documents and other objects appear in more than one place, depending on what a user searches for.

Unless there is a central taxonomy of terms to manage all of the tags, things can get unwieldy. Without the taxonomy, a SharePoint administrator could quickly find themselves in charge of a long list of terms that include typos, differences of opinion (one person might label training materials a guide, while another might tag it with the word manual, for example), and other complications.

The SharePoint Managed Metadata Service handles this problem for you and defines a central taxonomy that permits managed tagging, without the downside of your term vocabulary growing by leaps and bounds due to mistakes and interpretive differences. There are a few benefits to implementing managed metadata:

  • You can create a more consistent taxonomy. You don't have to add terms manually to the database as a result of typos or differences in regional spelling -- flavor as opposed to the British spelling of flavour, for example. You also benefit from being able to define terms ahead of time and restrict the addition of new terms to individuals whom you trust. Since you can perform automated functions within SharePoint based on how a file is tagged, having tags be a known quantity is crucial to making automation consistent. It is important that a content management system have consistency across all facets of the operation, and managed metadata helps to solve that issue in this area.
  • Managed terms mean that you can update terms later without having to manually retag a bunch of files and documents. This is useful for internal projects that are initially referenced by a code word before the big reveal. In that scenario, if you are not using managed metadata, you would then need to go back and tag each of those files again with the new name. With managed metadata, you simply update the tag with the new name and SharePoint will do the heavy lifting of switching the names in all of the relevant places.
  • Search results are better and more targeted because all users are searching based on common vocabulary, rather than trying to figure out how their co-workers would name, refer to or label some item.

Accessing the SharePoint Managed Metadata Service

Managed metadata is administered through the Term Store, which you can access through the SharePoint Central Administration website. Access the Open Central Administration area and click Service Applications, and then click Managed Metadata Service. Click Term Store Management, and from here you can choose to work on the following subsets:

  • Groups, which are terms that have the same security-level assignments -- you can restrict the usage of certain terms to security groups by assigning those terms to a term group, which then is security trimmed to any given Windows security group.
  • Term sets, which contain a list of terms applicable for a given theme or type of data.
  • Terms or tags, which are the basic vocabulary of the taxonomy.

Maintaining consistent tags and terms is more than half the battle of implementing managed metadata. To do a thorough job of deploying managed metadata, consider all the content stored within SharePoint document libraries and lists, then understand how users might discover that information, work with it, change it and then file it away again. Then, the challenge is coming up with term sets that contain terms that will work in all of those scenarios.

When approaching that task, the following are some good questions to consider:

  1. What terms might describe the purpose of this document? Is it a proposal? Is it for internal or external use? Does it describe a procedure, relay information on a product or service, or is it reference material?
  2. What department owns the information?
  3. What lifecycles might that information have? Would the information go from draft to proposal, to approved, to expired? If not, then what other terms might apply?
  4. For what audience is the information intended? Is it useful for customers? Is it meant for partners? Is it relevant to stakeholders for a given project, customer, product or something else?

If you find your users tagging uncontrollably or inconsistently or, worse, that tagging efforts were suspended a long time ago because your taxonomy became too unwieldy, consider the SharePoint Managed Metadata Service feature. Aside from a bit of complexity and training on the front end, it is a good way to get a handle on document classification and tagging.

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