Understanding Content Types in SharePoint 2013

Administering a SharePoint farm is about a lot more than just keeping the servers running and applying patches. Once the farm is operational, there is still a lot of work to do organizing and working with the data. One item that will often come up is the concept of Sharepoint content types. This article describes what content types are and why you’ll want to use them.

What Is a Content Type, Anyway?

Content types can have one of those frustratingly simple definitions: Well, it’s a type of content. But don’t worry. I’ll blast right through that. This article is also content, so maybe in our organization an “article” is a content type. Another example of a content type could be a product review, a giveaway, or a simple image.

The difference between those content type examples may seem abstract, because if you just had one type of content, say an article, you could use it for any of those other uses. So what makes a content type unique? It’s about how you organize your content.

Maybe around the house you have different content: a shopping list, a warranty card for your new kitchen gadget, and a child’s report card. It’s pretty easy to think of those three items as being different. They serve different functions. They are about different topics. They give different information.

Ah-ha! Now we’re getting somewhere.

Differences in Content Types

A shopping list contains one or more items, and each of those items has a place to buy them from and how many you need to buy. For instance, a warranty card includes information about the product, when it was purchased, and the date that the warranty runs out. A report card includes information about the student, the classes, and the outcomes of all those long nights studying. The differences in those content types are because of the data that goes into making them. And what makes them all good candidates to be a content type is that they all could have multiple, repeatable content that goes into them.

Even though the items and the stores would differ week to week, the shopping list is pretty uniform. And though you might have 10 different warranties for different items around your house, they each will tell you what you need to know about that warranty. And most obviously, we’re all familiar with report cards and the similarities between them.

SharePoint Content Types and Metadata

Not-so-simply put, metadata is the data that is attached to your data. It can be used to filter selections or refine search queries. Everything from “title” and “author,” which are typical of documents and often built in to many content types, to custom attributes that you can assign – such as “department,” “customer,” or “product” – are all metadata.

You wouldn’t normally think that managing report cards in a family would require something like creating a custom content type and entering the data into a content management system like SharePoint 2013. But if you think about it from the school’s perspective, it makes much more sense. A school wants to be able to quickly access the records based on lots of different factors, and all of those factors are applied through metadata columns for the report card content type.

And what makes a report card different than a warranty card? It’s the type of data that goes into making the content. But there’s one other thing that really separates content types from each other.

Content Types and Workflows

Some content types have really straightforward processes. The shopping list is printed, taken to the store or ordered online, and then items are marked as purchased and removed from the list. Other workflows that make up a content type can be more complicated, with multiple people providing input and approvals, with tasks and collaboration flying all over the place.

A good example of this (using the content types I’ve already described) would be an office supply purchase request versus a computer refresh purchase request. While the office supply request could contain items that are from a limited inventory but are automatically approved and applied to a specific accounting code, a computer refresh purchase request may have additional workflow items attached to it to make sure that the price was within a certain budget, that the accounting code goes to the right department, and that your supervisor approves the purchase.

Same columns, same kind of data, but the behaviors and workflow associated with the content type is different.

Another Great Thing About Custom Content Types in SharePoint

So by using content types we can organize the data into what types of data it really is, and assign behaviors and workflows to that data.

Super cool.

The last thing to know about the content types is that they are reusable. When you create a content type in a site collection, it’s is inherited by all of that sites subsites, so a content type that is widely used within an organization can be created at a high level of the site structure and all of the child sites can use it as well.

If you need to use the content type across multiple site collections, you can leverage the Managed Metadata Service Application to take advantage of a content type publishing hub, which can keep a content type and provide it to all sites that use that metadata service application. Note that while the content types themselves are published in this way, workflows are not held by the content type hub so they’ll have to be moved over to any other site collections using the published content type.

So now you’ve got a better understanding of what a content type is, and why you should be looking at using them as one of the tools to better organize and categorize your data. By taking advantage of the content type publishing hub and a combination of workflows and metadata columns, the content types in use by the users of your SharePoint 2013 farm will be really powerful and useful.

Be sure to come back for my article on creating custom content types in SharePoint 2013!