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What is metadata?

Metadata, a term which you must have heard or read somewhere over the internet, where it was being emphasized as something insightful and important. Leading you to think “What is metadata?” or “Why is it even as important as data itself?”. In this article I will try to answer most of such questions.

Metadata can be explained in a few ways:

  1. It provides information about other data.
  2. It summarizes information about data, making it easier to find and work with different instances of data easier.
  3. It can be created both manually and automatically to contain more basic information.

So, the answer to the question “What is metadata?” will be: it is the information used to describe the data contained in something like a webpage, a file, a database or a document. In the most basic words metadata is a short explanation or a summary of what all the data is about. Well, I think it is time that we bring our newly learnt definition of metadata to test, think of the last time you searched something on YouTube, that search must have begun with something in your mind, we will call it metadata, because that piece of data you had in your mind defined what you were going to search for, it might have been a phrase, a slang, some lyrics or in-fact anything in your mind. The possibilities for describing things is seemingly infinite. A simple example of metadata for an album might include the artist’s name, the albums name, the year it was released in and the song titles.

Types of Metadata

To have a better understanding of metadata we must know what types of metadata is out there. Metadata is of several types and can be roughly categorized as structural, descriptive and administrative. Let’s dive a bit deep in each of them.

1. Structural Metadata

To have a better understanding of metadata we must know what types of metadata is out there. Metadata is of several types and can be roughly categorized as structural, descriptive and administrative. Let’s dive a bit deep in each of them.

  1. Page numbers
  2. Sections
  3. Chapters
  4. Indexes
  5. Table of contents
2. Descriptive Metadata

Descriptive metadata is essential for discovering and identifying assets. It is important because it got the information that describes the assets, such as the assets title, author, and relevant keywords helping to identify and describe the asset. It is descriptive metadata which allows you to locate a book in a particular genre published after 2018, as the book’s metadata will have the information about both the genre and the publication date. As a matter of fact ISBN system is a good example of using metadata to centralize the information hence making it easier to locate the resources. Basically, descriptive metadata includes any information describing the asset that can be used to identify and discover the asset at a later point in time.

According to the University of Cornell, this includes the following:

  1. Unique identifiers (such as ISBN numbers)
  2. Physical attributes (such as file dimensions or Pantone colors)
  3. Bibliographic attributes (such as the author or creator, title , and keywords)
Descriptive meta is the most powerful of all the types of metadata, simply because there are many ways to describe an asset.
3. Administrative Metadata

Administrative metadata relates to the technical source of digital asset. It includes data such as the file type, as well as when and how the asset was created. This metadata also relates to usage rights and intellectual property, providing information like who is the owner of an asset, where and how it can be used, and the duration a digital asset can be used for those allowable purposes under the current license.

The administrative data is broken down into three subtypes by the National information Standards Organization (NISO), which are as following:

  1. Technical Metadata
  2. The necessary information for decoding and rendering files.

  3. Preservation Metadata
  4. Information necessary for the long-term management and archiving of digital assets.

  5. Rights Metadata
  6. Information pertaining to intellectual property and usage rights.

A Creative Commons license is an example of administrative metadata, however other examples may include the camera model used to take a picture, the light source along with the resolution. In addition to all this, administrative metadata is also used to indicate who can access a digital asset.
Where is Metadata stored?

Metadata can be stored in a variety of places. The places where the metadata relates to databases, it is often stored in tables and fields within the database. However sometimes the metadata is also stored in a specialist document or database designed to store such data, it is called a data dictionary or metadata repository. There are some types of specialist data files that include both the raw data and the metadata (e.g., the SPSS .sav data file, .mdd data file, Triple S .sss). More generally, metadata can be stored anywhere (e.g., in emails, questionnaires, data collection instructions, or spreadsheets)


Why is Metadata Important?

Now that we have a basic understanding of what metadata is, what are its types and where it is stored. I believe it is the perfect time to get to know “Why is it all this important?”. To grasp this concept better we will look into it with different perspectives.

1. Metadata and Website Searches

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

Some common metadata terms used when building a web page include meta title and meta description. Here the meta title briefly explain the topic of the page to help readers understand what they will get from the page they are trying to open, and will it be worth it. While the meta description is a brief information about the contents of the page. These both meta data pieces are displayed on search engines for readers to get a quick glimpse of what the page is about. These metadata pieces help the search engines to group together similar items so that when you search for a specific keyword or a group of keywords, you always get the relevant information.

2. 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 all the data they are legally allowed to gather.

Equipped with all this information about you they have a clear picture of your routine, interactions, your preferences, your associations, and your habits, and can use that picture to market their products to you.

Governments and the Internet service providers, or infact anyone with access to large collections of metadata information could potentially use the metadata from the webpages, emails and other places where there are users online to monitor web activity.

Since metadata is a short representation of the larger data, this information could be searched through and filtered to find information about millions of users at once and help to track things like hate speech, threats, and a lot more. Some governments around the globe have been known to collect this data, including not only web traffic but also phone calls, location and a lot more.

3. Metadata in Computer Files

Every file you save on your computer have some information about the file attached to it, helping the operating system to understand how to deal with it, and also so you can quickly gather from the metadata what the file is about. Like just for example, in Windows when you view the properties of a file you see what the file’s name is , what is its file type, where it is stored, when it was created and when was it last modified, how much space is it occupying on the system, who owns the file and lot more.

All this information can be used by the operating system as well as all other programs. Just for example you might use any search utility to perform a quick search to find all the files on your computer which are less than 4MB.

4. Metadata in Social Media

Metadata is all around every social media platform you ever use, for instance every time you follow someone on twitter, someone adds you as a friend on Facebook, you listen to some music on YouTube recommended to you, metadata is at work in the background of all of these tasks

Metadata is very useful in more specific situations on social media too, like when you are looking for someone on Facebook. You can see a profile image and a short description of that specific user to learn just the basics about them before deciding to add them as a friend on your Facebook or before sending them a message on messenger.

5. Metadata and Database Management

When we talk about metadata related to database management, we are talking about metadata addressing the size, formatting and other characteristics of a data item. It is an essential component to interpret the contents of the database data. The extensible Markup Language(XML) is one of the markup language that define data objects using metadata format. Like just for an example, if you have a set of data with dates and names spread all around, you cannot know what all the data is representing or what the columns and rows are describing. However, with the use of just the basic metadata like column names, you can quickly look at the database and understand what the dataset is describing.

Final Words

If we sum up all what we know about metadata, we can put it up like this; Metadata is like that small coloured bookmark which you place on a book to make sure that you get all the required information it by just skimming over the whole aisle of them. Just by looking at the color you know a lot about the book, although you might not have even opened the book.

If you have any query related to SEO and how to use the metadata properly in your organization, feel free to contact us AikSol.