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.