File-Naming Conventions and Protocols

File-Naming Conventions and Protocols

TIME IS WASTED when work teams or third parties struggle to retrieve or update a company’s shared digital assets. Organizations can do themselves a real favor by instituting a convention (or standard) for naming their various documents and files. Below are four file-naming principles that should spare your company some file locating, sharing, or downloading grief.

As Larisa Thomason, senior Web analyst for NetMechanic, explains in her blogpost, “What’s In a (File) Name,” file names “have important ramifications for operating system compatibility, usability, and website promotion.” To get ahead of any potential ramifications, establish a set of file-naming rules. Ask your employees to do change their behavior in order to help maintain your file-naming conventions within any shared directory, internal network, or cloud-based server.

#1 — Be More Sensitive.

Out of the box, Linux/Unix servers are case-sensitive in the reading of files, and Windows servers are not.

As such, a Linux/Unix server could be hosting two different documents (“LowerCase.doc” and “lowercase.doc,” for example), and the Windows machine wouldn’t differentiate between them.

To readily move and share documents among various servers and networks, make it simple: only use lowercase when naming files.

If you’re concerned about the readability of file names using jumbled-together words (iamahardtoreadfilename.doc), then use hyphens between words (i-am-a-less-hard-to-read-filename.doc) to improve legibility.

NOTE: The underscore character (_) is a popular one to use between words or character groups in a file name. It can get lost, however, when the underscore_is_hyperlinked. Stick to hyphens between words to avoid any reader confusion.

#2 — Show Less Character.

Though Windows machines will serve up files that incorporate a period (.) within the body of a filename, the company recommends on its Developer Network page, “Naming Files, Paths, and Namespaces,” that periods be used only “to separate the base file name from the extension in the name of a directory or file” (.doc or .pdf, for example).

There are also a number of characters that are reserved for other functions in an operating system. To keep it simple, just use letters, numbers, and hyphens (-). You can’t go wrong with those.

#3 — Don’t Space Out.

Whitespace characters in coding and filename scenarios can sometimes cause problems. So, why use them?

As explained in Jeff Atwood’s thorough (though snarky) developer blog,, spaces are “remarkably inconvenient in computer resource locators.”

In his blogpost, “Of Spaces, Underscores, and Dashes,” Atwood writes “It behooves us to use something other than a space in file and folder names.”

Atwood explains that while he historically used the underscore to fill whitespace in filenames, he has come to realize the hyphen is a better choice. “That’s what Google expects,” he says. “The underscore is traditionally considered a word character by the \w regex operator,” meaning that the Google will combine the word characters before an after the underscore, which could negatively affect SEO.

Long story short? Just don’t use spaces or underscores; use hyphens.

#4 — Be More Predictable.

Whether conducted a search through an operating system, internal network, website, or search engine, a basic operational element should be the keyword.

In his blog, Dr. Bunsen, data scientist Seth Brown explains that there are three main tools for managing (and locating) files: file names, directories, and metadata.

Since extensive file folder structures can be inconvenient, and since image metadata is rarely known or set by the user or searcher, it is the file’s name that is its quickest and most widely used asset in location.  In his blogpost, “Naming & Searching Files, Part 1,” Brown writes, “There are a lot of times when a certain file type can not be indexed or the file contains no text — like a picture. For these reasons, file naming is very important.”

Though file structure and metadata are useful and important tools, keywords are important. Brown points out, “A main benefit of the keyword approach is … this system creates a powerful relational database were files are linked to related files through the use of common keywords. This system is analogous to the Internet or a SQL database where data is linked to each other to create a data-rich network of interconnections.”

When naming a file, you may also want to think about versioning or date of publication, depending on your business needs. Start with the year and month if you regularly create documents (“1401-,” for example, if it’s January 2014).

Whatever your convention, use keywords or character strings that are useful in search scenarios. When naming a file, always imagine someone else in your organizing needing to be able to find it via text search.


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