Understanding Metadata – And Why You Need More of It (Part 1)

October 19, 2016 by Pete Johnson, Director of Product Management

With the explosion of data in the world, and your company, finding and making sense of it is becoming increasingly harder. It is said that the average employee spends 400 hours per year just searching for documents. There are a variety of tools to help you manage and understand this data, but one key to unlocking that puzzle revolves around the quality and quantity of your metadata. Let’s look at what metadata is and why you need more of it in some detail.

Firstly, what is metadata? From a definition point of view, metadata is “data about other data”, i.e. it is data that helps describe other data. A simple example is your digital music library. You probably have hundreds or even thousands of digital music tracks on your phone or computer. As you go to try to find a song you want to listen to, if there was no metadata you would have to depend upon the file name. So Dave Grohl’s “With Arms Wide Open” might be “armswideopen.mp3”, but how would you differentiate that from the original Creed version of the same song? Or from a live version that was done on a later album? You would eventually have to encode the song name, band name, album name, etc. into the file name. Your file names would be too long to display, and you still wouldn’t know what year it was recorded.

Along comes metadata to save the day. Using metadata, you can name the file anything you want, and attach the band name, album, recording date, or anything else you want to the file. In our case above, we might have:

  •  File Name:  armswideopen.mp3
  •  Track Name:  With Arms Wide Open
  •  Band Name:  Creed
  •  Album:  Human Clay
  •  Recording date: April, 2000
  •  My Rating:  3 stars

So the track name, band name, album name, recording date, and personal rating are all the metadata that describes the file, which contains the actual music. Now, when searching for a song, I have a far wider set of data to search from than just the file name. Searching for “Creed” will find all the songs by that band, or maybe I want to search by album, genre, or year. Metadata enables all of this.

The process of attaching metadata to a digital item is also called “tagging”, since most systems of handling metadata refer to each piece as a tag. One of the more widely used languages to describe metadata is XML (eXtensible Markup Language), which is both human and machine readable, and allows a nearly infinite variety of data tags to be defined.

In Part 2 of this article, we will look at how metadata is (and is not) used in businesses today, and why it is important that it be utilized.