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File Naming Tips

Dec 14

Written by:
12/14/2010 11:15 AM  RssIcon

Okay, I have to admit, this may not be the most exciting topic we’ve ever written about.  It’s not like you stay up at night thinking about what you’re going to name the electronic files that you use on your website.  In fact, you probably don’t give it any thought at all until you run into a problem trying to upload or find any given file.  Just so you’ll never have a file fiasco, here are a few “best practice” tips to help.

Think of the File Manager on your website as a big filing cabinet with drawers and folders within each drawer to house each individual file.  Just like paper files, electronic files need to be well-organized and labeled correctly so that they are identifiable and accessible on the web.  An electronic record is machine-readable, which means it requires hardware and software to be accessed and read. Electronic records include documents, spreadsheets, databases, images, video and audio.

If you don’t name a file, your computer will assign a unique name for it when you save it, as well as stuffing it in an often hard-to-find folder.  However, this name often does not provide a strong, logical context for what the file represents.  For example, the default file name for a Microsoft Word document consists of the first few words written on the first page. Images are frequently labeled with sequential numbers.

So to prevent yourself from spending hours sorting through scads of files to find what you’re looking for, you’ll need to name them yourself.  Here are some naming tips to help you.

Tip #1:
Avoid using special characters in a file name. \ / : * ? “ < > | [ ] & $ , .

The characters listed above are frequently used for specific tasks on the web, but should not be—and often not even allowed--in your file name. For example, a forward slash is used to identify folder levels in Microsoft products, while Mac operating systems use the colon. Periods are used in front of file-name extensions to denote file formats such as .jpg and .doc; using them in a file name could result in lost files or errors.

Tip #2:

Use underscores instead of periods or spaces

As mentioned above, periods already have a specific function in a file name, which is to tell the computer program where the file-name extension begins. Spaces are frequently translated in a web environment to be read as “%20”. For example, a file named:

todays blog.doc

would appear in your browser as:


This can cause confusion in identifying the actual file name and really perplex your site visitors when they are trying to figure out exactly which file they are viewing. Spaces in file names can also cause broken links, because word processing tools like Microsoft Word, and e-mail clients like Microsoft Outlook, recognize spaces as an opportunity to move to another line.

Another difference that is found among operating systems and software is the acceptable length of file names. Some systems allow up to 256 characters, while others allow far fewer.

Tip #3:
Keep it short

Generally, about 25 characters is a sufficient length to capture enough descriptive information for naming a file. Usually files will not “rest” in their original folder locations.  They are frequently copied to other folders, downloaded, and emailed. It is important to ensure that the file name, independent of the folder where the original file lives, gives you an adequate description of what the file actually is.

Tip #4:
Keep dates consistent

If organizing files by date or versions, you might prefer to have the date at the start of the file name or at the end of it. Either way, it is a useful sorting tool when the files are organized.  Just be sure to keep it consistent.

The best way to list the date is based on an international standard ISO 8601.
ISO 8601 international standard date notation is:


YYYY is the year, MM is the month of the year between 01 (January) and 12 (December), and DD is the day of the month between 01 and 31.

For example, December 14, 2010 is written as 2010_12_14
or 20101214.

This format allows ease of sorting and comparing files by date and prevents confusion with other date formats (especially in other formats that use just two digits for the year).

Tip #5:
To more easily manage drafts and revisions, include a version number on the documents

The easiest way to do this is to use the letter “v” to represent “version number.” Then, “v01, v02, v03” can be added, as needed, to a file and the main file name can stay the same.

This is much more effective than other common additions like “update,” “new,” “old,” etc. An exception to this rule is using “FINAL” to indicate the final version of the document, although most documents are seldom “FINAL”—there will always be another revision. This can be helpful to quickly identify the most accurate version of the document. When using “FINAL”, be sure to use it instead of the version number, rather than in addition to it.

Rule #6:
Be consistent

The most important rule of file-naming is to be consistent. This is especially important when more than one person is working on a website or project.  Regardless of what the group decides, it is only effective if everyone follows the rules consistently.

In conclusion, the old adage to “do it right from the beginning” applies to working with the files for your website.  Keeping the above tips in mind as you set up your site will prevent a lot of headaches down the road!  Happy filing!

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