What is metadata and why do you need to know?

May 8th, 2014

In the first of our “What is?” series, freelance writer Adam Howes outlines what metadata is, what it is used for, and why it’s important now more than ever before

Metadata is nothing new. It has been used in locations as modest and anodyne as libraries for years, allowing users to easily navigate physical spaces and find and manage the data they need quickly and effectively.

Essentially, metadata is data that describes other data, the prefix ‘meta’ being defined as an underlying description of something. From the size and contents of an item to its origin and style, the underlying definitions provided by metadata allow individuals to more easily retrieve, organise or utilise any given information.

Today, with an almost infinite amount of information being instantly accessible online, the use of metadata is more important than ever as its use on websites ensures that pages can be located, navigated and managed as effectively as possible.

Metadata and your business

Metadata can be hugely important for both external and internal processes. For those managing data repositories, such information will make it far easier for resources to be sourced and tracked, whilst making it possible to bring related sources together efficiently. It offers consistency to the way in which data is used and managed, and allows multiple users to collaborate more effectually, whilst offering clear information about the origin and history of the data in question.

Metadata can also provide a simple digital trail for businesses to use and follow, allowing them to make sure that integral procedures are followed correctly, protecting the business and making it possible for proof to be presented should the legitimacy or accuracy of operations be called into question.

When it comes to external processes, metadata will be vital in ensuring that your web pages can be located in the first place and that, when they are, each page or section is as appealing as possible to the end user. Not only might these tags affect search engine rankings, but the metadata descriptions displayed in search results may also have a major impact on whether or not individuals choose to click on the links leading to your site in the first place.

Metadata is vital in ensuring that your web pages can be located and have a major impact on whether or not individuals choose to click on the links leading to your site

Essentially, the use of metadata hasn’t changed since the days when individuals would write on the back of photographs, declaring the date, location and the names of those in the picture, then place those photographs into specific albums to make them easier to find. The only differences are the scale on which such data is being used, the amount of metadata being stored and the number of issues that would arise should files, web pages and other such information not be effectively defined and categorised.

Ineffectual labelling of data could mean that it simply disappears, lost forever in the digital ether. For any company that wishes to be found (and chosen) online by potential clients and ensure that their internal processes keep them as productive as possible (whilst focusing on satisfying legislative requirements and remaining as competent at managing their important data as can be), understanding how to use metadata in the correct way will be crucial, no matter what industry they are in or what size their business happens to be.

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