How Do You Organize 178,132 Files?

Deliberately and methodically.

No, that’s not a punchline to a joke, though I did kind of set it up that way. That is quite necessarily our approach to handling the 178,132 files that we have in our shared folders (as of this writing).

Today we’re talking about file organization. If your company is like ours, you generate thousands–perhaps tens of thousands–of computer files each year. Be they client documents, proposals, reports, internal directives, TPS reports, what-have-you, this is a lot of digital paperwork that must be managed and kept straight if any amount of efficiency is to be had in the work environment.

I mentioned before that we use Dropbox to share our client documents. While Dropbox in itself isn’t important, it does give us the opportunity to have the exact same directory structure for all of our computers so any person working on one computer can seamlessly transition to another and know where things are immediately. So how do you do it?

Deep Directory Structure

The secret to good file organization for us is a deep directory structure. By this, I mean try to have a small number of files in any given directory. We shoot for keeping it at about one-screen’s worth of files / sub-directories before we try to find a new logical grouping and create another sub-directory. Sometimes, this is not possible. Our client list, for example, stretches many pages long and it doesn’t make sense to sub-group the clients–that’s more effort than the time savings it provides. For other things, however, it makes sense to group them. SEO reports don’t really need to be intermingling with onboarding documents or invoices…which don’t really need to be sitting next to blog post ideas.

Let’s walk through an example so you can see what I mean.

NOTE:  For confidentiality and security reasons, I cannot show you any of our live / in-production files or clients. I have re-created a series of directories that closely resembles our structure for this demonstration.

We store everything in a single Dropbox folder within the Documents folder on each computer. There are no files in the Dropbox folder, only sub-directories. You can see that we have a sub-directory for “Client Folders” and then, within that, we further separate clients by Prospective, Active, and Hibernating (past) clients. Also within our one Dropbox folder we have places for internal documents, training materials, marketing for our own company, and many other things.

One of the other sub-folders within our Dropbox is a “Users” folder (not shown in the image above). Within there, each employee has their own sub-directory in which to store anything they like. In mine, I store special client technical notes that are not part of their SEO efforts, premium (purchased) WordPress themes that I reuse, website backups, code snippits and online tools, and other bits of information that are valuable and useful to me but that do not pertain to one specific client or are not strictly part of the SEO process.

When you expand the “Active Clients” folder, you can see that each client has their own sub-directory, and within each client’s sub-directory, there are additional folders that further subdivide the client’s files. Many of these folders are standard among all clients–ADMIN and Monthly Reports, for example.  Some of these folders are client-specific such as Client 2’s “Social Media” folder.

After a certain point, folders and sub-folders don’t make sense anymore and you have to actually store some real files. So, on to…

File Naming

I have to be honest with you, file naming is where our system falls apart a little bit. The system is dependent upon everyone using the same naming scheme and everyone, being the humans that we are, all do things just a little differently. Regardless, here’s the way it should look for one client.

Take a look at the screenshot to the left.  You will notice that we are now inside of Client 2’s folder. The pertinent sub-directories are listed first and then the files. Since many things we do are date-dependent, our internal processes dictate that we start the filename with the date and then the description of the file contents. Additionally, on files that are not date-dependent, the date can be omitted.

Also, note that files can have a version number. This is typically done when more than one person needs a copy of the file for themselves and/or we choose to keep several copies for whatever editing or data-preservation needs we have at the time.

File Naming Pro Tip

If you want to get really fancy, you can name your files in this way for further categorization:

year-month-date category, name, version.extension

For example, if I were to contain the text from this blog post in a Word Document I could name that document:

2017-07-20 Blog Post, Organizing Files, v1.docx

In this way, even if you have many files in one directory and they are sorted alphabetically, the “category” designation would group all similar items such as blog posts or competitor site lists etc. Often, however, this is overkill as the files would be sorted by date first and then category.

Computer Search Functions

“Well, Jerod…with computer processor speeds being so fast and most filesystems being indexed by default, why would we want to go through this trouble? Why not just search for the file using the computer’s built-in file searching tool(s)?”

Ah! An observant reader. Thank you for bringing this up. Now sit your butt down while I spit some knowledge.

Two reasons…first, what if you don’t know the name of the file?  I’ve been caught many times when I created a file months or years ago, I thought I named it one thing, but it turns out it was named differently.  …or what happens if a coworker created a file and you have no idea of the name? Good directory structure can help you find the file even when it’s not named as you remember or how you would have thought.

Second, what if you have many files of the same name? Our client onboarding documents are basically a template that we send out to clients for basic information. They’re all named the same so a search won’t help with that. Same goes with many reports that we send–they originate from a template. Sure, the client name is changed on the inside of the document, but it’s not always updated on the file name.

Don’t you feel smarter?

How Can We Improve?

This system isn’t perfect.  It’s pretty good but we’re always looking for ways to improve. For example, this system tends to leave orphaned files in various places–files with outdated or not useful information. We also have a problem with the date scheme. If one of us uses a dot (.) versus a dash (-) versus a space ( ) between the year, month, and date, that throws off the sorting and it can get confusing. I’d love input for how you do your file organization. Let me hear it!

Jerod Karam

Jerod Karam is Vice President of Technical Operations at Netvantage SEO, an online marketing company specializing in SEO, PPC and social media. Jerod consults with internal teams and external clients on all manner of technical projects, manages the flow of information surrounding the company's online objectives, manages relationships with external partners and suppliers, and is a constant bother to everyone in terms of maintaining online security.

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