Working with Managed Metadata and Choice Columns


It’s a problem we commonly face: How do you decide which is best – a choice column or a managed metadata column in SharePoint 2010? In this post I look at what needs to be considered when making that decision.

Let’s look at the problem in more detail first.
For effective management of documents and list items in SharePoint, additional columns (also referred to as fields or metadata) are required in order to classify (or describe) each document or list item. So for example a list of cars might have columns for model, colour, and year of manufacture. The type of information stored in a column is dependent upon the data type of that column. So when you create column in a library or list you are presented with the following options:
This post concentrates on choice and managed metadata columns, as deciding which to use can be problematic. Choice columns are available in all versions of SharePoint, and managed metadata columns are available in SharePoint Server 2010 and SharePoint Online. I often see choice columns being used where managed metadata would have been more appropriate. Typically this is because users were unaware of managed metadata columns.

A choice column simply contains list of values that users can choose one or more values from. It improves the standardisation of recording item attributes by allowing users to pick values from a predefined list. The values are specified within the column definition. For example if classifying cars in a list, a choice column for colour could be used, with the values “Red”, “Green”, “Blue” etc.


Managed metadata, on the other hand, is a collection of centrally managed terms (words or phrases) organised in a hierarchical format. Managed metadata is exposed through a service application in SharePoint. This means that it can be shared across multiple site collections, web applications or even SharePoint farms. Business users may be given control to define terms. Although managed metadata can be hierarchical (for example, region, country, city) it can still be used for list type metadata, such as our list of colours.
When setting a managed metadata value, users can pick terms from the hierarchy, or they can start typing and see suggestions below the textbox:



The following table outlines the key differences between the two column types:

Managed Metadata
Choice column
Hierarchical sets of terms
Centrally defined and published
Presentation as dropdown control, radio buttons or checkboxes
Editable in datasheet view
Terms can be maintained by users independently of their permissions on sites and lists
Matching terms displayed as you type
So how to choose between the two? When either is acceptable, I tend to favour managed metadata as it is more powerful and flexible. However you may want to use a choice field when:
  • You only have a smallish (say less than 100) items to choose from and they are not arranged hierarchically
  • You do not want to use the filtered views of libraries that are available with managed metadata
  • You want to create a "one off" column for a particular library, and have no requirement now or in the future to share that classification across other libraries
  • You want users to have a dropdown rather than the picker in the UI
  • You want to be able to set values in the datasheet view (you can’t do this with managed metadata)
There is more information provided by the following links:
Managed Metadata Overview (SharePoint Server 2010) describing the core concepts and the way it is used with examples:
Great resource for Managed Metadata and Taxonomy including how to plan, configuration and administration: