What Is Metadata?

Metadata is data about data. In other words, it is information that is used to describe the data that is contained in something like a web page, document, or file. Another way to think of metadata is as a short explanation or summary of what the data is.

  • A simple example of metadata for a document might include a collection of information like the author, file size, document creation date, and keywords to describe the document.
  • Metadata for a music file might include the artist’s name, the album, and the release year.

Metadata is universal in information systems, social media, websites, software, music services, and online retailing. We can create metadata manually. It can also be generated automatically based on the data.

Types of Metadata

Metadata comes in several types and is used for a variety of broad purposes that can be roughly categorized as business, technical, or operational.

  • Descriptive metadata properties include title, subject, genre, author, and creation date, for example.
  • Rights metadata might include copyright status, rights holder, or license terms.
  • Technical metadata properties include file types, size, creation date and time, and type of compression. Technical metadata is often used for digital object management.
  • Preservation metadata is used in navigation. Example preservation metadata properties include an item’s place in a hierarchy or sequence.

Metadata and Website Searches

The metadata embedded in websites is critically important to the success of the site. It includes a description of the website, keywords, metatags, and more — all of which play a role in search results.

Some common metadata terms used when building a web page include meta title and meta description. The meta title briefly explains the topic of the page to help readers understand what they’ll get from the page should they open it. The meta description is further information, though brief, about the contents of the page.

Both of these metadata pieces are displayed on search engines for readers to get a quick glimpse of what the page is about. The search engine uses this information to group together similar items so that when you search for a specific keyword or group of keywords, the results are relevant to your search.

Metadata for Tracking

Retailers and online shopping sites use metadata to track consumers’ habits and movements. Digital marketers follow your every click and purchase, storing information about you such as the type of device you use, your location, the time of day, and any other data they are legally allowed to gather.

Armed with this information, they create a picture of your daily routine and interactions, your preferences, your associations, and your habits, and can use that picture to market their products to you.

Internet service providers, governments, and anyone else with access to large collections of metadata information could potentially use the metadata from web pages, emails, and other places there are users online, to monitor web activity.

Metadata in Computer Files

Every file you save on your computer includes some basic information about the file so that the operating system understands how to deal with it, and so that you or someone else can quickly gather from the metadata what the file is.

For example, in Windows, when you view the properties of a file, you can clearly see the file’s name, the file type, where it is stored, when it was created and last modified, how much space it is taking up on the hard drive, who owns the file, and more.

Metadata in Social Media

Every time you friend someone on Facebook, listen to music recommended for you, post a status or share someone’s tweet, metadata is at work in the background. Metadata is useful in very specific social media situations such as when you are looking for someone on Facebook. You can see a profile image and a short description of the Facebook user to learn just the basics about them before deciding to friend them or send them a message

Metadata and Database Management

Metadata in the world of database management might address the size and formatting or other characteristics of a data item.  For example, if you have a set of data with dates and names spread all about, you cannot know what the data is representing or what the columns and rows are describing. With basic metadata like column names, you can quickly glance at the database and understand what a particular set of data is describing.

What Metadata is not..

Metadata is data that describes data, but it is not the data itself. The author and creation date metadata stored in a Microsoft Word document, for example, is not the entirety of the document but instead just a few details about the file.

Think of metadata as a card file in your childhood library that contains information about a book; metadata is not the book itself. You can learn a lot about a book by examining its card file, but you have to open the book to read it.

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