Almost every content management (CM) book, presentation or other CM-related publication talks about metadata. So most CM people know what it is, what it's for and what it looks like.

But when it comes to insights about who manages the metadata, the available sources are quite limited and contradictory.

Metadata plays an important role in content management. In "Managing Enterprise Content," Ann Rockley makes clear metadata enables us to do effective retrieval (organic search, SEO, etc.), systematic reuse (personalization, faceted navigation, etc.), automatic routing (workflow), tracking of status and reporting. Anyone who wants to be successful in SEO, WEM, CxM, digital marketing, faceted navigation and any other new, hyped or not so new trend, finds metadata on the way.

Having so many goals, formats and standards doesn't make metadata easy to manage. Being quite holistic and working with content on a meta level makes it even harder for people to grasp the true value of metadata.

If you add the "technical" association most people have with metadata, especially if there's talk about namespaces and such, you might understand why managing metadata is a bit unpopular and thus neglected.

Who Manages Metadata?

Having metadata doesn't mean you're done. Not even when you provide the editors with a cheat sheet or any other instruction to add metadata while editing content. In his "Content Management Bible" Bob Boiko explains, “... in a sizable system with numerous contributors you can almost guarantee that you will find wide variation in the ways that people interpret and apply even the most precisely stated tagging rules.”

So you need someone with a.o. oversight of what other editors and content sources produce, what the content strategy is and what the effect of the metadata is.

So who should manage the metadata? Let's see what the CM literature has to say. Kristina Halvorson's famous book "Content Strategy" (2nd edition) spends some text on metadata. Surprisingly she mainly refers only to metadata in the context of finding content. In the People chapter there's no mentioning of a role for metadata management, other than the SEO specialist whose task it is to “identify appropriate keywords based on research and business goals.”

I think the following sentence in Kristina's book is exemplary about how many content people think about metadata management: “If you don't know where to find your metadata, your friendly IT colleague, web developer, or SEO consultant should be able to help.” In other words: metadata is a technical subject because it's in the CMS or at its best it belongs to the domain of SEO because that's all about tags, right?

Other literature is more helpful in this respect. In his "Content Management Bible," Bob Boiko talks
about the metator, i.e. the editor that manages the metadata. In the TIMAF Best Practice article "Streamlining Your Path to Metadata," Charlotte Robidoux and Stacey Swart refer to Bob's metator and suggest a content librarian as the ideal role to manage metadata.

This content librarian is “Responsible for the quality of modular content in the CMS as well as for flagging opportunities for reuse across the database.” According to Charlotte and Stacy the content librarian’s tasks include:

  • Assisting content developers when needed in understanding the metadata guidelines.
  • Maintaining the metadata guidelines document and the master list of values.
  • Reviewing and accepting or rejecting new metadata value requests.
  • Notifying Tool Developers when new metadata values need to be added to the tool set.
  • Auditing the quality of metadata the values that content developers apply before the content can be made available for reuse.
  • Overseeing content change proposals for reused modules and validating the requests for changes.
  • Facilitating the review process to ensure all Re-users participate by either accepting or rejecting their changes.
  • Implementing the final result by either overwriting the original “approved” content in the CMS,
    or by creating a variant of the original “approved” content.
  • Populating the CMS with common queries to assist content developers with locating content to be reused or leveraged.
  • Assisting content developers when more specific search criteria is needed for database queries to locate content to be reused or leveraged.

Quite a list, right? You could divide these tasks over several roles, as long as you don't skip any of them and expect everything will turn out just excellent.

There Could Already be a Metadata Specialist Amongst You

Charlotte and Stacey didn't choose the name “content librarian” by coincidence. Librarians and archivists for that matter, are academically trained in using metadata for retrieval and reuse. Though well equipped for the task, most librarians are quite invisible to the web team and on the verge of being fired due to budget cuts. These people can be very valuable for your web team, so keep these specialists on board whenever possible.

Everybody Manages Metadata

I think there should be an overseer for metadata, be it a metator, content librarian, content analyst, metadata specialist, meta champion or any other dedicated role. Metadata has too much impact on an organization's online success to be handed over to a group of editors and/or subject matter experts (SMEs) with no insight in each other's work.

However, the danger of handing over such an important aspect of content management to just one role is that editors and SMEs think too little or not at all about metadata. There's no way any metator can manage all the metadata for all content, channels and strategies. That would be a sure way to a "metadata burnout."

Instead I would suggest metadata to be a default subject in content meetings where editors, SMEs and the metator discuss each others efforts and new insights. The metator can explain the metadata set and the impact on the content distribution. The editors and SMEs can validate this impact and suggest new metadata elements. These and other discussions are valuable, I would even say priceless, for any organization that aims for online success.

Talking about all metadata for all content for all channels can be overwhelmingly though. Instead the discussion should concentrate on the most important content strategies. Once they are covered, you can move on to the next strategies. And so on and so forth.

When does Metadata Management Start?

In practice, many projects start thinking about metadata when they migrate the content. And that's way too late. In my opinion, metadata management starts quite at the beginning of a content management project, right after the definition of a content strategy where you translate the strategy into a content architecture. That's where you define (or modify) the metadata set, the taxonomy, your controlled vocabularies, your thesaurus and your content and page types.

Another start could be your content audit where the role and quality of metadata is investigated. Or even your process audit where you translate your process steps into metadata. It could be a metator, business analyst or content analyst who does this important job. As long as it's someone with an overview of all the content and content strategies and with a taste for elaborating content on a metalevel.

Your CMS is Only a Part of the Metadata Story

With the common misconception that metadata is "technical," the infrastructure for metadata is most of the times handed over to IT people who install and implement the CMS. Yes, as much metadata as possible is automatically generated. But there is still a lot of "user-driven metadata" that needs human interaction. Throwing all metadata issues on the IT staff to-do list leads to all kinds of "metadata misery" that is hard to repair.

This goes from incorrect or no namespaces, metadata fields that can only be entered after clicking 10 plus buttons and links, cryptic metadata fields, an 11-row drop down box for a 5,000 keywords thesaurus (being in an alphabetic order doesn't really help, does it?), to having no metadata at all because there was no time to implement the specific user interface needed and the Scrum master thought it wasn't relevant enough to put extra effort in.

A metator or metadata specialist should (literally!) sit next to the CMS programmer and explain (the importance of) metadata and the metadata set, namespaces and the usability of metadata entry for editors. Without this, the chance of having a proper metadata infrastructure is quite unlikely.

When Does Metadata Management End?

I'd say: never. In the Content Management Lifecycle the Evaluate phase evaluates the content quality, accessibility and value. Metadata plays an essential role for both auditing and reporting content in this phase. This is the phase where also the metadata infrastructure itself is evaluated and modified. In fact, metadata has an essential role in all phases of the content management lifecycle: from planning to developing, managing and distributing, to evaluation and preservation. Metadata management is not a project milestone, it's a way of doing online business.

The metator is the matador of online bull fighting. Any volunteers?

Editor's Note: Another article by Erik Hartman you might enjoy:

-- Information Management: How Mature How You?