These are good times for metadata. In fact, these are great times.

Tagging along (no pun intended) with the barrage of “big data” forecasts by analysts for the last year comes the added bonus of “metadata” to buttress and support the voluminous amounts of data flowing through and clogging the techno pipes of the modern enterprise. And beyond the popular writings in technological forums and online magazines, metadata was also recently cited as one of key tenets of information discovery leading to the charges in the General Petraeus Affair.

Surely, metadata’s time has come.

More than a buzzword, metadata has almost become a norm or de rigeur for project managers, business analysts and engineers struggling to define that “big data” in their Content Management Systems (CMS), Digital Asset Management (DAM) or other digital object repository.

In its simplest form, DAM is the operational and technological management of digital assets in an organized way so that they may be retrieved for use and reuse. Major functions of a DAM are ingestion, storage, cataloging, searching, retrieving and distribution of digital assets.

Users want to be able to find, capture and reuse rich media assets in different contexts and for different purposes than originally intended. Making metadata work in DAM means investing in the construction of a metadata model, a container of descriptive elements about the assets, that enables the users to search for and retrieve the assets needed for their work. Metadata must not be managed in isolation; it is a collaborative effort between many within the organization.

So what exactly is Metadata? Quite simply, it is data about data. It refers to the descriptive elements that define and describe an asset. The National Information Standards Organization breaks metadata down into three main categories:

  • Descriptive metadata describes a resource for purposes such as discovery and identification (i.e., information you would use in a search). It can include elements such as title, abstract, author, and keywords.
  • Structural metadata indicates how compound objects are put together, for example, how pages are ordered to form chapters (e.g., file format, file dimension, file length, etc.). These are the technical “bits and bobs” that are automatically captured upon ingestion.
  • Administrative metadata provides information that helps manage an asset, such as when and how it was created, and who can access it. There are several subsets of administrative data, the most common being rights management metadata (which deals with intellectual property rights) and preservation metadata (which contains information needed to archive and preserve a resource).


There are many real and tangible benefits of metadata that can be immediately recognized and recovered by the business enterprise. In terms of Search & Retrieval, more than 40 percent of time is wasted searching for existing assets and recreating them when they are not able to be found. It may well be very expensive -- in lost productivity, frustration and fees paid to outside resources.

Good metadata may make machines smart; it is a method and opportunity to automate many of the processes and workflows in your business. Employing methods of content identification via XML or other content re-use and management application, allows for workflow automation or even automated distribution of digital assets otherwise dormant.

Finally, there is the real benefit of Digital Rights Management (DRM) with fields for “Rights Tracking,” “Licensing,” “Release Forms,” managed with effective enforcement and compliance. More effective rights enforcement results in less loss of revenue due to piracy.

Finally, consistency is important when applying metadata. Consider the following tags:

  • President Barack Obama
  • Barack Obama
  • President Obama
  • Obama

Each tag could point to a different topic. Yet, fundamentally, it’s the same principal element of the subject of “President Barack Obama” that is relevant. Control, and stronger yet, authority, is needed to describe your assets. You need to know what it is you are describing and how it may best be described. 

A “Controlled Vocabulary” for your drop-downs and pick lists, the use of “preferred terms” and the use of synonyms are all good ways in which to take control and provide authority and consistency to your assets.

Building a Metadata Strategy: Key Issues

Now that a base level understanding of metadata has been established, the direction is now turned to strategy. The three key questions you need to answer are:

  1. What problems do you need to solve?
  2. Who is going to use the metadata, and for what?
  3. What kinds of metadata are important for those purposes?

You need to sell the vision of what the company will gain by having good metadata in your CMS or DAM system. Metadata powers efficiency within the system as it allows administrators control and end-users the ability to find what is needed on a moment’s notice.

Furthermore, every metadata field costs money and time to implement and adjust to. There is no benefit unless the tagged content cuts costs or improves revenues; you need to demonstrate bottom-line and top-line benefits -- focus on the productivity gains. To start, I recommend the following action be made:

  1. Build the Right Team
  2. Make the Business Case
  3. Gather the Requirements
  4. Determine your Metadata Specifications
  5. Understand and Document your Workflow
  6. Apply a vigorous regimen of Q/A & Testing

It’s not hype, and it’s not hyperbole. Metadata lays the groundwork and sets the path for all future content strategy whether it is in a CMS a DAM or other digital object repository. It’s all about findability and discovery; by controlling a sound structure to metadata management, it is possible to identify duplicates and maximize the reuse of content.

Governance and Change

It is estimated that every year, 800 neologisms (new words and phrases) are added to the English language. Nothing is written in stone; language is evolving.

The best way to plan for future change is to apply an effective layer of metadata governance for your DAM system. There is more to maintaining the metadata than just maintaining the taxonomy and metadata specifications. Vocabularies must change over time to stay relevant and processes must be created to manage this change. This goes for new terminology being added to assets as well as synonyms and/or slang terms and more.

Finally, some practical metadata rules for your CMS or DAM include:

  1. “Content is no longer king. The user is.” If you have great content and no one can find it, the value of the content is diminished.
  2. Understand how your users/customers want to interact with information before designing your metadata and the user interface.
  3. Develop an incremental, extensible process that identifies and enables users, and engages stakeholders with feedback loops, user testing and evaluations. Remember that metadata is a “snapshot in time.”
  4. Accept that it won’t be perfect the first time.
  5. Implement good governance policies.

Whatever you do, ask yourself, “What smart things do I need metadata for to provide greater control and access to my assets?” The key is good metadata. And once you have that, then those are good times, indeed.

Editor's Note: Interested in reading more of John's thoughts on all things DAM? Try The Road to Digital Asset Management