As every content strategist knows, content needs management. Most often, content is managed by an IT system referred to — unsurprisingly — as a Content Management System, or CMS. Many content strategists also know that another technical tool helps to manage access to the content as well, something called metadata. But what metadata is, and does, it often not clear. I want to address three common misconceptions about metadata for web content.
To understand how metadata is misunderstood, we first need to understand the purpose of metadata. Metadata exists so that computers can understand what the content is about, which allows these computers to deliver the appropriate content to audiences.
Audiences are the ultimate beneficiaries of metadata, but they aren’t the immediate users of the metadata — computers are. When viewing content, audiences see text on the screen that looks like metadata, such as a label identifying a menu item or a descriptive field on a webpage. But what they are seeing may not actually be what computers are using to decide which content to deliver to the viewer. Some of the organisational elements that audiences encounter when viewing content are just styling as far as computers are concerned. What humans see and understand, and what computers see and understand, can be very different. Even if the content looks highly organised, that doesn’t mean that computers will understand that organisation.
I want to qualify my prior statement about the purpose of metadata, to make it even more explicit. Metadata exists so that any computer can understand what the content is about. This is an important distinction. You may have a neat file structure in your CMS that helps you manage your content. But that doesn’t mean that other computers will understand what the content about. What makes sense to your CMS may be gibberish to other IT systems.
The most familiar example of how various computers use metadata to understand an item of content arises when we search for content online. Google and other search engines look for metadata embedded in the content to identify what the content is about. Google may even lift some of the information out of the content and display in a card or snippet. Google can do this because the content was described with metadata that any computer can interpret. It’s not just Google who use metadata. All kinds of IT systems rely on metadata to decide what content to select and deliver to audiences. For content to be widely utilised and successful, any IT system should be able to identify metadata about it. Accessing this metadata allows different IT systems to use the content in a multitude of ways.
Now that we know how important it is for any computer to understand the meaning of the content, let’s look at three common misconceptions about metadata.
Many content creators are familiar with tagging content. Tags identify what content is about, so tags sound like they are the same as metadata. But tags are most often created by people to use for their own purposes, or for the use of people who share a similar perspective. These tags make sense to people who understand the significance of the tag label, but they don’t mean much to computers. For example, you may have vacation photos tagged as “Rome”, but IT systems don’t know if you went on vacation in Italy or New York state. On the other hand, if the photos have metadata indicating the geographic coordinates of the photo, any computer can understand what the photo relates to. Many websites use tags indicating the topics of articles. But other IT systems have no understanding about what those tags mean.
Information architecture is concerned with how content is organised. That sounds a lot like metadata. There is a key difference, however: information architecture organises content for audiences to access and view. And generally, that organisation is provided by, and depends on, custom computer code within a CMS. As long as people are on your website, and can view the labels you’ve created, the information architecture will make sense to audiences. But if people want to view your content on another platform, they will need to rely metadata. Other platforms such as Facebook look for metadata that indicates basic features of the content, such as what title to display or thumbnail image to use. These platforms can’t access any special computer code that your CMS uses to organise the content when it is presented on your website.
Content strategists increasingly talk about structuring, modelling or chunking content. Maybe you’ve been working on breaking your content into different pieces that can be combined in different ways. Congratulations! This is important work. But even if you break your content into different pieces, that doesn’t mean any computer can understand what all those pieces mean. Chances are, only you CMS understands what all those pieces are about. Every other IT system has no idea what your finely diced content means — unless you’ve used metadata indicating that meaning that any IT system can understand.
You may notice a common theme in these misconceptions. Web teams assume that because the CMS manages their content, their CMS is taking care of their metadata needs as well. Unfortunately, many Content Management Systems rely on custom code, and provide only lacklustre metadata capabilities. Web teams spend a lot of effort trying to get their CMS to manage their content so it works well on their website, but often find that the content can’t be used outside of their website very flexibly.
The key question to ask is: Can other platforms and publishers remix your content easily? Can they choose what they want or need, and combine the content the way they need it? Can audiences use the apps and services they like and spend time using, and access the content they want the way want it? Or are you assuming people need to come to your website, and access the content using your user interface?
The answer is to use open metadata standards. The good news is that open standards are free to use. There’s nothing you have to buy (though it does require some work). Because standards are free and open, CMS vendors tend emphasise selling features made from customised code. Web teams get preoccupied, crafting their content to work with their CMS features to deliver the what they hope is the perfect website, instead of focusing how other platforms, apps, and services can use their information.
Many standards exist, and the field is evolving quickly. There are metadata coding standards such as JSON-LD and microdata, metadata schemas that describe things within the content such as schema.org and Open Graph, and many specialised standards to describe specific details such dates or photographs. The topic of metadata for web content is too detailed to discuss in depth in an article like this one. But I’ve just published a book on the topic, Metadata Basics for Web Content, that discusses all these standards in detail.
Metadata makes content useful. The purpose of content is to solve people’s problems, not to live on a website. Metadata enables content to get in front of the audiences who need to see it, when they need to see it, wherever they are. I hope you will become interested in what metadata can do for your content.
Michael Andrews is a content strategist currently based in Hyderabad, India. His new book, Metadata Basics for Web Content: the Unification of Structured Data and Content, is available from Amazon.
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