Making effective use of SharePoint tags

There are different philosophies regarding the best way to make sure SharePoint tags do an effective job of helping users.

SharePoint tagging doesn't mean the same things to everyone. End users, for example, might tag a document that they have read as a way of helping them to find the document again. SharePoint administrators, meanwhile, might create tags as a way of facilitating e-discovery or as a way of conveying the way that document content should be handled (private, public, and so on).

Creating an effective tagging taxonomy in SharePoint can be a daunting task. The taxonomy needs to be broad enough to handle any situation, but it needs to remain simple enough to be effective.

There are different philosophies regarding the best way to make sure SharePoint tags do an effective job of helping users to find the information they are looking for. My recommendation is to use managed terms, but not enterprise keywords.

Managed terms are ones that have been carefully chosen by someone tasked with the job of establishing the organization's SharePoint taxonomy. Enterprise keywords are tags that are entered by the user. While there is nothing wrong with letting end users tag SharePoint sites and documents, those users should be using the established managed terms rather than creating their own enterprise keywords.

Creating an effective tagging taxonomy in SharePoint can be a daunting task.

Common SharePoint tag problems

I recently was asked to look at a deployment for an organization that was having trouble with out-of-control user-generated SharePoint tags. Some of the problem tags included:

  • Misspelled terms that would have otherwise been OK;
  • Terms that were meaningless to anyone other than the user who created them;
  • Terms that were completely inaccurate (for example, applying the phrase finance department to documents belonging to the marketing department); and
  • Terms that were misleading.

Those kinds of problems highlight the pitfalls of allowing users to create their own terms. Even at that, it is a good idea to keep the taxonomy structure as simple as possible. If you give users too many terms to choose from, they may not tag their data at all or they might use meaningless tags.

The good news is that SharePoint allows you to create terms in a hierarchical manner so that users aren't overwhelmed with choices. The way to accomplish this is to form a term set, or a collection of individual terms.

To create a term set, click on the Site Actions menu and then choose the Site Settings option. When the Site Settings page appears, click on the Term Store Management link, located in the Site Administration section. When the resulting page appears, click on Managed Metadata Services (in the tree on the left), and then choose the New Term Set command from the resulting shortcut menu.

At this point you will be presented with a dialog box that asks you to enter some basic information about the term set that you are creating. Most of the options on this page deal with naming the term set and then specifying the set's owner, contact, and the like. There are three important things to pay attention to on this page.

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First, pay attention to the name that you assign to the term set. A term set is a collection of terms, so the name of the set should accurately reflect its purpose (and it should be spelled correctly). For example, if you were creating a term set to hold the U.S. states, you might call the term set States and then have individual terms within the term set for the 50 individual states.

The second thing to pay attention to is the Submission Policy option. This can be set to either closed or open. If you set the submission policy to closed, only those with the appropriate permissions can manage the list of terms. If the submission policy is set to open, then users will be able to add terms to the term set.

The third thing that you should pay attention to is the Available for Tagging check box. If you fail to select this check box, users will not be able to use the terms from within the term set to tag SharePoint data.

As you can see, working with SharePoint tags is something of a balancing act. You have to give users enough flexibility to do their jobs, but users shouldn't be able to make the entire tagging system meaningless by adding tags that really don't belong. The solution is to create a meaningful and carefully thought out taxonomy of terms that can be used for tagging.

This was first published in October 2012

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