Metadata is one of the most misunderstood aspects of content management and website design. Editors and writers tend to look at it as a technical issue. Technical people look for a software solution.

In fact, both are wrong. Metadata is a fundamental skill that Web writers and editors must acquire.

Metadata is the who, what, where, when and how of your content. It is that 30-second elevator description.

Metadata may include: heading/title, summary/description, author name, date of publication, geographic classification, subject classification, keywords.

Metadata gives your content context. Content that does not have effective metadata is not web content. It is sloppy, next-to-useless print content that has been unprofessionally published on the Web.

If you don't have time to publish professional metadata for your content, you shouldn't be allowed to publish anything on a website.

Many writers and editors are technophobes. The story goes that Woody Allen invites a friend around for dinner every time his typewriter ribbon needs replacing. I know many highly intelligent writers who go blank and freeze up whenever faced with any sort of technical problem.

Writers have a real love-hate relationship with computers; they love them when they work, they hate them when they don't.

When writers and editors hear the word "metadata," they run for cover. Metadata sounds really technical. It definitely sounds like it belongs in the bag of tricks with servers and dynamic HTML.

Every time I use the word "metadata," I see the eyes of writers and editors glaze over. Wake up! This is meant for you. Don't nod off! This is really important stuff.

Metadata may well be the difference between web content that succeeds or fails. You quite simply cannot call yourself a Web writer unless you can write quality metadata. Anyway, much of what is called metadata you do already (headings, summaries, etc.). You just don't call it metadata.

Metadata is what scan readers want. Within a matter of seconds, people scan a page to see if it's right for them.

Scan readers love metadata. It quickly gives them context for the page they are on. It helps them make the decision whether to read on or hit the Back button. If you don't have good metadata, lots more people will be hitting the Back button.

Whenever I hear technical people talk about a software solution to metadata, I want to scream. (Well, maybe not scream, but I do get annoyed.)

Technical people can be absolutely brilliant when it comes to technical things. But like writers not having a clue about computers, techies very often don't have a clue about content. The problem is that many techies think they understand content. That's when it gets dangerous.

Some techies look at content and see a big pile of words. The objective is to put metadata on this pile of words as quickly and cheaply as possible using clever software.

If you want a quality result, this is definitely not how to do it. If you want a cheap and nasty result that is often worse-than-useless, sure, take this approach.

The word processor is a useful tool. But I know of few writers who would trust a word processor to check spelling and grammar. Good writers take responsibility for their spelling and grammar. Good web writers take responsibility for their metadata.

So where do you start?

Creating great metadata for your content begins with understanding who your reader is.

What is the metadata they look for when they read a page of your content? What are the type of words they use when they search for your content? When scanning your classification, what are the "trigger words" that will make them want to go deeper into your website?

Your classification (taxonomy) metadata is the foundation of your website. Classification is to strategy as poetry is to prose: it is the ultimate distillation of what you do. Within seconds, people will scan your classification and get an impression of who you are and what you do. (The classification is generally found in the left column of a website.)

Classification design can be a complicated process but here are some high-level issues to keep in mind:

  1. Avoid classification design that reflects your organizational structure and thinking, particularly for the public website. The classification terms that your customer is expecting to see may be very different from the terms the organization is used to.
  2. Design for a three level deep classification, and a maximum of a five level. After three levels, people tend to get a bit confused. Remember also, someone has to contribute content to this classification. It takes a lot of training and expertise to classify well to a five-level classification.
  3. Have no more than 15 classifications at any one level. Too much choice confuses, so aim for 10 or less at any one level, and try not to go over 15.
  4. Ask of each classification the following questions: Is it clear? It there a shorter word to use? Is there a simpler word to use? Is it necessary?
  5. Avoid duplication at all costs. Don't split hairs with classifications. Make sure that each classification is clearly unique.

When dealing with a particular type of content--such as events, general articles, etc.--a unique set of metadata will need to be developed. Here are some things to keep mind:

  1. Always remember that you are developing metadata to help people quickly find and understand a piece of content.
  2. Gather what is essential, but only what is necessary: The more metadata you require of a piece of content, the longer it will take someone to enter it. That adds cost. Those entering the metadata begin to take shortcuts. That's not good news.

The single most important piece of metadata you will write for a page is its title. Title metadata is responsible for describing exactly what is on the page. It is crucial, particularly from a search perspective.

When writing title metadata, keep the following in mind:

  1. Make sure you have unique title metadata for every single page on your website.
  2. Aim for about 10-15 words.
  3. Always start with the specific and move to the general. Start with exactly what the page is about. Place section and general website information at the end. (Correct "Product XY Support: Product M Group:"; Wrong " Product M Group:Product XY Support").
  4. Include appropriate keywords.
  5. Exclude common words such as: the, and, of, is.

Remember, people scan read on the Web. Their eyes dart quickly across a page. Metadata is the hook that catches their attention. Metadata quickly tells them what they need to know.

In effect: Metadata is like good poetry; it distills meaning into the smallest possible number of words.

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image of Gerry McGovern
Gerry McGovern ( is a content management consultant and author. His latest book is The Stranger's Long Neck: How to Deliver What Your Customers Really Want Online, which teaches unique techniques for identifying and measuring the performance of customers' top tasks.