High diversity in natural communities is indicated by both traditional, cultivation-based methods and molecular techniques, but the latter have significantly increased richness estimates. The increased ease and reduced cost associated with molecular analysis of microbial communities have fuelled interest in the links between richness, community composition and ecosystem function, and raise questions about our ability to understand mechanisms controlling interactions in highly complex communities. High-throughput sequencing is increasing the depth of sequencing but the relevance of such studies to important ecological questions is often unclear. This article discusses, and challenges, some of the often implicit assumptions made in community studies. It suggests greater focus on ecological questions, more critical analysis of accepted concepts and consideration of the fundamental mechanisms controlling microbial processes and interactions in situ. These considerations indicate that many questions do not require deeper sequence analysis and increased phylogenetic resolution but, rather, require analysis at smaller spatial scale, determination of phenotypic diversity and temporal, rather than snapshot, studies. Increasing realisation of the high richness of microbial communities, and potentially high physiological diversity, also require new conceptual approaches.