Metadata refers to data about data, which essentially encapsulates the different properties, history, origin, versions, and other information about a data asset in highly structured fields – used primarily for tracking, classification, and analysis.

What is Metadata?

Data can be a double-edged sword. While the increase in the availability of data makes it possible to make more effective business decisions, wading through a data lake is a huge pain point for technologists and analysts alike. This is where metadata can be a lifesaver.

Metadata is simply data about data. It is information that helps find, organize, maintain, and compare data.

It helps address basic questions about the data such as what, when, why, who, where, which, and how. By answering these questions, it helps better characterize the data. For example, a document or spreadsheet may have attributes such as author, date created, date modified, and language that functions as its metadata.

In most real-life applications, a user hardly accesses the metadata. During a web search, for example, search algorithms use metadata to show relevant results to the user. Additionally, when managing big data for data compliance purposes, data platforms use metadata to categorize for organization and governance.

metadata

How does it help?

Metadata underlies every digital object and is critical to the way they are managed, organized, and used.

When created and handled properly, it serves the clarity and consistency of information. It facilitates the discovery of relevant information and the search and retrieval of resources. Tagged with metadata, any digital object can be automatically associated with other relevant elements and thus easy to organize and discover. This helps users make connections they would not have made otherwise.

With metadata you can:

  • Search resources by all kinds of criteria;
  • Identify various resources;
  • Collect resources by topic;
  • Trace resources.

Why is Metadata important?

Regardless of what file format you’re using, and whether you created the file, got it from a friend, or downloaded it, metadata plays a role in your everyday digital life. And while the information metadata contains may be brief and mostly insignificant on its own, it can be manipulated and patched together to breach your privacy and security.

If the metadata of one or more of your files were ever exposed, it doesn’t reveal the contents of the file. Instead, it answers foundational questions such as:

  • Who does this file belong to?
  • What type of information does it contain?
  • Where was it created and saved?
  • When was it created and was it edited by the current owner?

Types of Metadata

It comes in many shapes and flavors, carrying additional information about where a resource was produced, by whom, when was the last time it was accessed, what is it about, and many more details around it.

Similar to the library cards, describing a book, metadata describes objects and adds more granularity to the way they are represented. Three main types of metadata exist: descriptive, structural, and administrative.

  • Descriptive – add information about who created a resource,  and most importantly – what the resource is about, and what it includes. This is best applied using semantic annotation.
  • Structural – includes additional data about the way data elements are organized – their relationships and the structure they exist in.
  • Administrative provides information about the origin of resources, their type, and access rights.

metadata

How it is used

Metadata is used in ways that affect all aspects of life, particularly online.

  • When you do a Google search, the top results are no accident. From a website’s keywords to the naming of its .jpg files, these results are packed with metadata that helps solidify their pertinence to your online inquiry and determine how high up on the results page they appear.
  • If you’ve ever been unexpectedly emailed by an online retailer, that may have been based on use (also known as tracking) metadata. For instance, if you’ve taken a prolonged break from buying cosmetics, a company’s use of metadata might trigger an email that seeks to reboot your beauty product addiction.
  • Speaking of metadata that tracks you, have you ever noticed that ads for the online retailers you’ve visited in the past seem to follow you everywhere? It’s not in your head but is another instance of metadata in action.
  • A time when you might add your metadata is if you’re a DJ who wants to see additional data attributes within your digital music library, like beats per minute or the key a song is in.
  • You can use descriptive metadata to keep tabs on your computer or phone storage by sorting and trimming the largest files from a device.

Conclusion

Metadata is data that describes, structures, and administers different forms of content. On the web, it can influence how a search engine ranks a white paper and the way the information is displayed. This is why it’s important to create compelling titles and description tags and to include compelling images. On other platforms, such as content management systems, digital asset management systems, and customer relationship management systems, metadata provides different ways that information and images can be searched, organized, and displayed.