Aquatic environments harbour large and diverse microbial populations that ensure their functioning and sustainability. In the current context of global change, characterizing microbial diversity has become crucial, and new tools have been developed to overcome the methodological challenges posed by working with microbes in nature. The advent of Sanger sequencing and now next-generation sequencing technologies has enabled the resolution of microbial communities to an unprecedented degree of precision. However, to correctly interpret microbial diversity and its patterns this revolution must also consider conceptual and methodological matters. This review presents advances, gaps and caveats of these recent approaches when considering microorganisms in aquatic ecosystems. We also discuss potentials and limitations of the available methodologies, from water sampling to sequence analysis, and suggest alternative ways to incorporate results in a conceptual and methodological framework. Together, these methods will allow us to gain an unprecedented understanding of microbial diversity in aquatic ecosystems.