What is Metadata and How Does it Work?

May 12, 2023 - (Free)

What is Metadata

Metadata, also known as data that describes other data, is structured reference data that aids in the sorting and identification of attributes of the material it describes.

Meta is a prefix that, in most information technology contexts, denotes “an underlying definition or description.” Metadata describes basic information about data, making it easier to identify, utilize, and reuse specific instances of data.

Author, date produced, date edited, and file size are all instances of basic document file metadata. The ability to search for a single element (or elements) of the information greatly simplifies the process of locating a certain document.

Metadata is utilized for a variety of purposes beyond from document files.

  • Computer Files
  • Images
  • Relational Databases
  • Spreadsheets
  • Videos
  • Audio Files
  • Web Pages

Metadata on web pages can be extremely useful. The metadata includes content descriptions as well as keywords related to the material. Because search engines frequently display this metadata in search results, its correctness and details may impact whether or not a user decides to visit a site. Meta tags are commonly used to express this information.

Meta tags are used by search engines to determine the relevance of a web page. Until the late 1990s, meta tags were the most important aspect in deciding search position. With the rise of search engine optimization (SEO) towards the end of the 1990s, many websites began keyword stuffing their metadata in order to fool search engines and appear more relevant than others.

Since then, search engines have reduced their reliance on meta tags, however they are still used when indexing pages. Many search engines also try to resist web pages’ capacity to trick their system by frequently changing their ranking criteria, with Google being renowned for frequently changing its ranking algorithms.

Metadata can be generated manually or automatically through information processing. Manual creation is more accurate since it allows the user to provide any information they believe is relevant or will assist characterize the file. Automated metadata creation can be significantly simpler, typically revealing only file size, file extension, when the file was generated, and who created the file.

Metadata Use Cases

When a document, file, or other information asset is updated, including deletion, metadata is created. Accurate metadata can help extend the life of current data by assisting users in finding new applications for it.

Metadata organizes a data object by employing phrases that are associated with that thing. It also allows dissimilar things to be detected and linked with comparable objects to assist optimize the usage of data assets. Search engines and browsers, as previously stated, determine which web content to display by understanding the metadata tags associated with an HTML document.

Metadata is written in a language that is intelligible by both computer systems and humans, resulting in improved interoperability and integration between various applications and information systems.

Metadata is used by companies in digital publishing, engineering, financial services, healthcare, and manufacturing to obtain insights on how to improve goods or modernize processes. Streaming content providers, for example, automate the management of intellectual property metadata so that it can be stored across a variety of apps, protecting copyright holders while also making music and videos available to authenticated consumers.

The maturation of AI technology is relieving the conventional load of metadata management by automating formerly laborious operations to organize and tag information assets.

History and Origins of Metadata

Metadata has been used since the early days of computing, when computer systems were initially designed to store and handle digital data. Metadata is data that contains information about other data, such as the title, author, date, and format of a digital file.

Philip Bagley, a computer scientist, created the term “metadata” in the 1960s to describe data that defined other data in a computing setting. However, the usage of metadata may be traced back to far older eras, such as the use of cataloging systems to describe books and manuscripts in libraries and archives.

With the emergence of electronic data interchange and database systems in the 1970s and 1980s, the usage of metadata became more common. The World Wide Web evolved as a key platform for sharing and accessing digital information in the 1990s, resulting in the creation of metadata standards such as Dublin Core for defining digital resources.

Metadata is now vital in the administration and organization of digital data, providing critical information for searching, accessing, and conserving digital resources. With the rise of big data and the Internet of Things, enterprises are increasingly relying on metadata to manage and make sense of massive amounts of digital data.

Types of Metadata and Examples

Metadata is classified according to the purpose it performs in information management.

  • Administrative Metadata: Administrators can set rules and constraints for data access and user rights. It also provides information on data resource upkeep and administration. Administrative metadata, which is frequently employed in the context of continuing research, comprises information such as the date generated, file size and type, and archiving needs.
  • Descriptive Metadata: detects specific data features such as bibliographic data, keywords, song titles, volume numbers, and so on.
  • Legal Metadata: gives information on creative licensing topics such as copyright, licensing, and royalties.
  • Preservation Metadata: determines where a data item should be placed in a hierarchical framework or sequence.
  • Process Metadata: Outlines the techniques for collecting and processing statistical data. Process metadata is also known as statistical metadata.
  • Provenance Metadata: Tracks the history of a piece of data as it passes through an organization, also known as data lineage. Original documents are coupled with metadata to assure data validity or to remediate data quality problems. In data governance, it is common practice to check the provenance of data.
  • Reference Metadata: refers to data that describes the statistical content’s quality.
  • Statistical Metadata: Data that helps users to properly comprehend and use statistics included in reports, surveys, and compendiums is referred to as descriptive data.
  • Structural Metadata: explains how distinct pieces of a composite data object are built. Structural metadata is frequently used in digital media content, for example, to describe how pages in an audiobook should be organized to create a chapter, and how chapters should be organized to form volumes, and so on. The term “Technical Metadata” is a synonym for objects found in digital libraries.
  • Use Metadata: When a user accesses data, it is sorted and analyzed. Businesses can identify trends in client behavior and more easily change their products and services to match their demands by analyzing use information.

How to Use Metadata Effectively

Effective metadata use can assist you in managing and organizing your digital assets, improving accessibility and usability, and ensuring long-term preservation and compliance with regulatory and legal obligations. Here are some pointers on how to make the most of metadata:

  • Keep Metadata Up-to-Date: It is critical to update the metadata on digital assets as they evolve and change over time. This can involve changing the creator’s name, date, and location, as well as adding new descriptive or administrative metadata.
  • Define Metadata Standards: Setting explicit metadata standards and guidelines for your business can aid in ensuring consistency and accuracy in the metadata you create. Defining metadata elements, naming conventions, and data entry requirements are examples of this.
  • Use Metadata to Manage Digital Assets: Metadata can be used to manage digital assets by containing information such as access restrictions, version history, and other administrative information. This can aid in the proper management and preservation of digital assets throughout time.
  • Use Descriptive Metadata: Adding descriptive information to digital assets, such as titles, authors, and keywords, can assist users in finding and retrieving digital materials based on their content. Use relevant and useful phrases that appropriately portray the asset’s content.
  • Use Metadata for Data Analysis: Metadata, which provides information about the source, format, and content of digital assets, can be utilized for data analysis. This can aid in the extraction of insights and patterns from massive databases of digital assets.
  • Add Metadata at the Time of Creation: Adding information during the creation process can assist guarantee that it is correct and complete. This includes information on the file type, resolution, and other technical properties, as well as the creator, date, and location.

Standardization of Metadata

  • Dublin Core: Dublin Core is a widely used descriptive metadata standard that includes a collection of 15 metadata elements that can be used to describe digital resources, such as title, creator, subject, description, publisher, and date.
  • MPEG-7: MPEG-7 is a multimedia content description standard that provides metadata components to describe audiovisual content such as shot kinds, camera movements, and audio aspects.
  • PREMIS: PREMIS is a preservation metadata standard that provides metadata elements such as file format, preservation actions, and preservation events for recording the history and preservation of digital resources.
  • METS: METS is a metadata encoding standard that provides a foundation for representing complex digital items such as books, journals, and collections.
  • MODS: MODS is a descriptive metadata standard that provides a versatile and extensible information schema that may be used to describe a wide range of digital resources such as books, photographs, and maps.

Metadata standardization contributes to the consistency and interoperability of metadata across different systems and organizations, making it easier to interchange and reuse metadata. This can help to improve digital resource management and accessibility, as well as assure long-term preservation and compliance with regulatory and legal requirements.

Industry-Specific Metadata Schema

Different businesses may have distinct metadata requirements that universal metadata standards such as Dublin Core or PREMIS do not sufficiently cover. As a result, industry-specific metadata schema have been created to address these specialized requirements. Here are a couple such examples:

  • MARC (Machine-Readable Cataloging) – MARC is a metadata schema developed by the Library of Congress that is widely used in libraries and information centers to describe books, journals, and other materials. It includes descriptive, administrative, and structural metadata elements, as well as a format for encoding and transmitting bibliographic records.
  • IPTC (International Press Telecommunications Council) – IPTC is a metadata system that is commonly used in the news industry to describe photos, videos, and other types of content. It includes descriptive, administrative, and technological metadata elements, as well as a standard for encoding and distributing news metadata.
  • EAD (Encoded Archival Description) – EAD is a metadata system that is commonly used to describe archived items in archives and special collections. It includes descriptive, administrative, and structural metadata elements, as well as a format for encoding and sharing archival finding aids.
  • ISO 19115 (International Organization for Standardization) – ISO 19115 is a metadata schema used to define geographic data and information in the geospatial business. It includes descriptive, administrative, and technical metadata pieces, as well as a standard for encoding and sharing geographic metadata.
  • CDISC (Clinical Data Interchange Standards Consortium) – CDISC is a metadata framework used to represent clinical data and research in the pharmaceutical and medical industries. It includes descriptive, administrative, and technical information elements, as well as a format for encoding and transmitting clinical data.

Industry-specific metadata schema can assist in tailoring metadata to the specific demands of an industry or domain, making it easier to maintain and share metadata within that domain. This can help to improve digital resource management and accessibility, as well as assure long-term preservation and compliance with regulatory and legal requirements.


Metadata is an essential component of digital resource management and organizing. It gives useful information about the content, structure, and context of digital data, assisting individuals in finding and comprehending the resources they require. varied forms of metadata serve varied goals and play an important part in numerous businesses and organizations, ranging from descriptive information to preservation metadata. We can recognize the value of metadata in the digital age and assure its successful usage in maintaining and conserving our digital collections by understanding what it is and how it functions.