Metadata Definition and Examples

Metadata is critically important for website and database management

Metadata is data about data. A simple example of metadata for a document might collect information that includes the author, file size, and the date created. Metadata represents behind-the-scenes information that is used everywhere, by every industry, in multiple ways. It is ubiquitous in information systems, social media, websites, software, music services and online retailing.

Metadata and Website Searches

The metadata embedded in websites is critically important to the success of the site.

It includes a description of the site, keywords, and metatags—all of which play a role in search results—and other information as well. Metadata is added manually by website owners and generated automatically by visitors to the sites.

Metadata and 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 any other data they are legally allowed to gather. Armed with this information, they create a picture of your daily routine and interactions, your preferences, your associations, and your habits, and they use that picture to market their products to you.

Metadata and Social Media

Every time you friend someone or Facebook, listen to music Spotify recommends for you, post a status or share someone's tweet, metadata is at work in the background.

Pinterest users can create boards of related articles because of metadata stored with those articles. 

Metadata and Database Management

Metadata in the world of database management may address the size and formatting or other characteristics of a data item. It is essential to interpreting the contents of database data.

The eXtensible Markup Language (XML) is one markup language that defines data objects using a metadata format.

What Metadata Isn't

Metadata is data about data, but it is not the data itself. Usually, metadata can safely be made public because it doesn't give anyone data. Think of metadata as a card file in your childhood library that contains information about a book; metadata isn't the book itself. You can learn a lot about a book by examining its card file, but you have to open the book to read it. 

Types of Metadata

Metadata comes in several types and is used for a variety of broad purposes that can be roughly categorized as business, technical or operational.

  • Descriptive metadata properties include title, subject, genre, author and creation date, for example.
  • Rights metadata might include copyright status, rights holder or license terms.
  • Technical metadata properties include file types, size, creation date and time, and type of compression. Technical metadata is often used for digital object management and interoperability.
  • Preservation metadata is used in navigation. Example preservation metadata properties include an item's place in a hierarchy or sequence.
  • Markup Languages include metadata used for navigation and interoperability. Properties might include heading, name, date, list and paragraph.