“Metadata” refers to any information, or data, that in some way describes other data. As the word has become more widely used, it’s useful to review what metadata is, how it’s evolved over time, and how it can impact your business.
Metadata became important to the Internet early on, as it helped search engines “read” the web, the first step to helping people find what they’re looking for.
Early examples of meta included “meta tags” on websites, like the now unnecessary “keyword meta tag,” a list of words or phrases used to signal to search engines what the page is about. Another example is the more persistent “meta description” tag, which provides a brief summary of a page.
The Evolution of Metadata
As people continue to share more and more information online, and the systems and platforms that manage it broaden, the concept of metadata is expanding.
Web pages and blog posts still have their own classic metadata components, but social media posts, check-ins, Likes, and GPS coordinates all contain new types of metadata, and aggregate to form a more comprehensive view about a person or entity. So where metadata was once used to define a single webpage, it is now being collected and glommed together from around the web to define a person, place, or thing. Your personal or business brand are a reflection of all that aggregated information and cross-platform metadata.
Explicit vs. Implicit
Much of the metadata out there is given willingly, like when we share our location in a Facebook post, tag friends, allow web browsers to use our current location, or check-in to a restaurant. We do this to get something in return: convenience, enhanced connections with friends, a coupon, or to use a tool like maps.
There is also data that we don’t knowingly provide. Search engines and social networks are constantly capturing as much information about us and our activities as possible, regardless of whether that information is actually publicly shared. This information makes advertising better targeted, but it can also be used for criminal purposes; for example, to infiltrate a company’s server or rob a home when the owners are out of town.
Collecting Metadata Responsibly
You want to establish and maintain trust with customers, so anytime you ask for explicit metadata about them, it’s best to provide a very clear understanding of the value that they will receive from sharing it. Whether it’s an email address, name, or location, don’t expect people to surrender this information just because everyone else seems to be asking for it, or because it would make your life as a marketer easier. If you want someone’s birthday, create a campaign that gives them a coupon on their birthday. Or if you ask for a location, make sure they can sign up to learn about local events or receive a coupon at a local store in return.
Leveraging Metadata on Your Website
Search engines’ early emphasis on metadata like keyword meta tags led to people cramming in as many keywords as they could in an attempt to game the system. The loser was the user, as the quality of the page had little to do with it being found or not.
Although keywords and meta descriptions are still useful, search engines have evolved a great deal since the bad old days of meta keyword tags. Search engines now look closely at individual pages of a website, associated media components, social activity, and other signals around the web to create a larger picture of a site’s rank-worthiness for a given search.
In other words, leveraging metadata on your website isn’t about a single optimized page as much as the sum of all parts of a brand presence. This is true not only for your own website’s metadata management, but also in the way that you collect and analyze metadata about your customers. Keyword-stuffing metadata is out, big-picture metadata is in!