Why I Care About Metadata

By Elizabeth McCraw

As a web designer and as a cataloger, I am passionate about metadata. I realize this might sound odd. Right now, some of you are saying, "who cares about metadata?" Most of the rest of you are saying, "metadata? What’s that?" But I'm also guessing that there are one or two of you who are nodding in agreement.

First, let's define metadata. The most common definition is "data about data." This isn't bad, but it's not enormously helpful, either. In the context of a website, think of metadata as the parts of the code that don't display on the page. There's tons of it. For example, if you were to right-click on this page and click "view page source" or the equivalent, you'll see all sorts of mark-up you probably didn't know was there. In the first three lines of text, I've stated that I'm writing the page in XHTML and RDFa, that the page is in English, and I'm using UTF-8 encoding. Unless you know HTML, this probably means a lot more to a computer than it does to you, but it's all important for getting the page to you. Looking further down, you see the page title, information about the creator and the date the page was created, and a few keywords I've assigned. All of this code, and we haven't gotten to the actual content yet!

So, why do I spend so much time creating metadata that most of you will never see? Well, simply put, it's not for you; it's for computers. The metadata in a website accomplishes two very important functions. First, it tells your browser how to display the page. Second, it tells search engines what exactly is on the page. To quote, "On-page markup enables search engines to understand the information on web pages and provide richer search results in order to make it easier for users to find relevant information on the web." As a human, you can understand things that I need to spell out to a computer. For example, it was probably clear to you from the outset that "Elizabeth McCraw" was the author of this article. Google, on the other hand, might notice that the text string "Elizabeth McCraw" occurred on this page, but it wouldn't immediately know that I am the writer. However, I can tell Google this directly. Looking back at the page source, this information is in the seventh line of code. While it may look like gobble-de-gook to most people, a search engine takes this information, in conjunction with additional metadata in the first three lines of code, to learn that "Elizabeth McCraw" is the creator of this page.

As the world becomes increasingly digital, metadata will continue to grow in importance. With HTML5 and microdata, it will be easier for site designers to communicate with search engines. In turn, this will bring more relevant and richer search results to end-users. Even if you don't find metadata as fascinating as I do, good metadata will make your online life better. I could go into more detail, but since Tachyon Punch isn't the place for a treatise on metadata, I'll leave it here for now, but stay tuned for exciting things to come!