An Introduction to Taxonomy and Classification for SharePoint

By Charmaine Brooks, CRM

This article appeared in the Spring 2017 digital issue of DOCUMENT Strategy Magazine and was number 11 Document Strategy’s Most Read Stories of 2017.

Individuals and organizations alike are experiencing one of the paradoxes of the information age: As we gain access to more and more data, it is becoming harder to find the information we need. Metaphorically speaking, we are drowning in data yet thirsting for information.Information Governance

Vocabulary control improves the effectiveness of information storage and retrieval in web navigation systems, content management systems, records management systems and other environments.  These systems seek to both identify and locate desired content via some sort of descriptive language. The primary purpose of vocabulary control is to achieve consistency in the description of content objects to facilitate retrieval and content lifecycle management.

A taxonomy, or classification scheme, is a tool for the systematic identification and arrangement of business activities and/or records according to logically structured conventions, methods, and procedural rules, which are represented in categories or grouping of terms. The classification scheme is used to identify terms by which documents are grouped together to facilitate retrieval, compliance, storage, and lifecycle management (including disposition). A classification scheme is a controlled vocabulary. Developing a master classification or taxonomy schema for content management systems allows an organization to apply consistent vocabulary control for all content across the enterprise.

Metadata drive SharePoint vocabulary control —metadata that is required to describe context, content, and structure of content/records. With SharePoint, a classification scheme serves as a master set of controls for terms within managed metadata, such as:

  • Lists
  • Hierarchical structures
  • Libraries
  • Metadata schemas
  • Term stores
  • Term sets

As part of your organization's Information Governance and Records and Information Management programs, SharePoint metadata management supports a range of approaches to metadata, from formal taxonomies to functional classification structures to user-driven folksonomies. In addition to managed term stores, enterprise keywords and social tagging can be used to enable SharePoint site users to tag content with keywords of their choice.

Careful planning is required before using managed metadata, however. The amount of planning depends on how formal your taxonomy or classification structure requirements are and the need for controlled metadata (which is highly recommended).

An informal plan allows users to add keywords to content and then organize these keywords into term sets, as necessary. This can lead to inconsistencies in how similar content is categorized and makes it very difficult to apply business rules to manage content through its lifecycle. If you look at shared drive structures (i.e., taxonomies), which organically develop over time and mostly without pre-planning, you will understand the variety of ways that content is organized and managed. Metadata will help tremendously, but its effectiveness is limited if inconsistently applied.

Organizations that want better control over their records and content will need to develop managed term sets for a more formal taxonomy with agreed-upon terms.

There are three main types of metadata in SharePoint.

  • Intrinsic (file size, item type/format (extension), such as .docx, .xlxs, .pdf)
  • Derived (user log in, file name, created by, modified by, modified date)
  • Declared (metadata from a list, library fields, terms, document properties)

Both “Intrinsic” and “Derived” are system-generated and can be leveraged to minimize the burden on users to classify content. However, “Declared” metadata will need to be managed to ensure consistency.

Metadata can be managed in:

  • Term Stores: A web service that manages the enterprise terms
  • Term Sets: Predefined lists of applicable terms—controlled vocabularies, such as states, locations, jurisdictions, projects, etc.
  • Terms: Applied to content through metadata fields in columns

The managed metadata features in SharePoint enable the ability to control how users add metadata to content. When the same terms are used consistently across sites, it is easier to build robust searches, processes or solutions that rely on metadata. Additionally, it is faster and easier for site users to apply consistent metadata to their content.

SharePoint products offer flexibility in choosing how much structure and control to use with metadata and its scope. For example:

  • Apply control globally across sites or make local to specific sites
  • Configure term sets to be closed or open to user contributions
  • Use enterprise keywords and social tagging with managed terms or not

The purpose of controlled vocabularies is to provide a means for organizing information. Through the process of assigning terms selected from controlled vocabularies, the material is organized according to the various elements that have been chosen to describe them.

When metadata navigation is set up for a list or library, the SharePoint site displays a tree-view control on the left-hand side of the page. Site users can use the navigation tree to browse a list or library by folder or by metadata. When users select a managed metadata term in the navigation tree, the view displays only content that is tagged with that term or its descendant terms. To filter for a particular term without its descendant child terms, users can select the content again. Metadata navigation works together with other filters for lists, such as views and column filters.


The semantic schemes in the diagram are all controlled vocabularies. Harmonization is required for ensuring consistency across metadata sets. This happens when you create and maintain only one set of metadata and map it to any number of related metadata sets. The use of harmonization vastly simplifies the development, implementation, and deployment of related metadata through the use of common terminology, methods, and processes.

Contact IMERGE for help with developing YOUR classification schemes.

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