Folders versus Tagging. Which Document Organization is Best?

How do you best organize growing documentation?

Your business documents can be ordered using one or a combination of two organizational strategies, folders and tags. In recent years there has been a gradual shift away from folders to tagging. In this post I examine why many major applications such as Google Gmail and Microsoft SharePoint have started to move away from folders and adopt tag-based organization.

The traditional hierarchical file structure has been around for a very long time and offers you some important advantages. Firstly, folders are easy to use and understand. They create a predictable and well-defined document structure on our desktops. Secondly, we have grown both familiar and proficient with using folders for our document organization.

In a Microsoft Windows environment, we have used several successive generations of Windows Explorer to locate and organize our documents with folders and multiple levels of sub-folders. Carefully designed and labeled, folder structures can prove effective and easy-to-use.

Folder labeling and organization can, however, prove problematic. Your photograph collection provides a good example of the limitations of folders as an organizational structure. Almost all pictures can be categorized in one of several ways (e.g., date, location, subject, photographer, etc.). As a result, pictures can prove increasingly difficult to locate in a large collection using a conventional hierarchical structure.

Consistent labelling and categorization can prove even more difficult, particularly when there is more than one person responsible for maintaining the organizational structure. Family members are likely to adopt different approaches to the labeling and filing of the same picture. This inconsistency then results in lengthy and repetitious picture searches. It also risks lost and/or redundant pictures.

Tagging provides an organizational alternative or compliment to folders. Tags are flat and offer no hierarchical structure through which you can navigate and narrow your search for information. Instead, tags are basically keywords (tags, labels, keywords and metadata are often used interchangeably) that can be attached to your documents. Tagging is a quick, simple, and highly flexible method of indexing your documents.

Tagging allows your documents to be searched, sorted, or grouped based on the tags that you have attached to them. You can tag documents with an unlimited number of keywords such as date, title, subject area, subject keywords, author, or publisher.

Tagging avoids the necessity of creating and maintaining complex folder structures to accommodate large and varied sets of documents. It also avoids the need for arbitrary organizational decisions that force a document into a specific folder. As a result, documents can be more accurately described and more efficiently located.

Consider a simple example. You download a sales document concerning contact management systems. Do you file the document under the vendor, contact management, marketing, or a systems folder? Or do you create four copies of the file and put one copy in each folder? With tagging, you attach four keywords (vendor name, contact management, marketing, and systems) to the document thereby allowing users to search and locate the document using any one of those keywords.

Many document management products (e.g., Microsoft SharePoint) are moving away from hierarchical organizational structures. In fact, many system developers now consider folders antiquated given the flexible, powerful, and efficient alternative of tagging. It is important, therefore, to give serious consideration to document tagging in your organizational system.


About ijames1
BCIT Student

One Response to Folders versus Tagging. Which Document Organization is Best?

  1. Véronique says:

    I like tagging, but I find that it’s best if I work from a controlled list. Otherwise, it’s not really an alternate to folders. It’s non-organization. But with a controlled list, things are still ordered — indeed, multiply ordered.

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