It's time to get serious about metadata.

When it comes to the Web, there is nothing more misunderstood than metadata. Technical people search vainly for a way to automate its creation. Many editors and writers want nothing to do with it.

And yet, without quality metadata a Web site cannot properly achieve its objectives. It's time to get serious about metadata.

The Web is an ever-growing mass of content. If you have quality metadata, your search engine works much better. People are able to find your content much faster. If you have quality metadata, your content is much better classified, allowing people to find what they need much faster.

We all look for metadata when we arrive at a Web page. There are certain questions we ask instinctively: What is this about? Who wrote it?

Let's say you go looking for a government form. When you get to the form, what is the first question you're going to ask? You'll want to know whether the form is up-to-date, won't you?

Let's say you're in charge of a Web site that has 50 forms on it. Let's say that every Monday morning you have someone on your staff quickly scan those forms to see that they are all still up-to-date. Assuming that they are, this person would then write something like this at the top of the form:

This form is up-to-date as of July 13, 2004.

Do you think that would be a useful service? Certainly, whenever I ask audiences if having a date as the top of the form would be useful, there is general agreement that it is.

This is the function of metadata: to let people know, as quickly as possible, that they are at the right content.

Metadata is an awful lot more than HTML meta tags. Metadata is the heading, summary, date, author. It can appear on the Web page itself, as much as in the HTML.

Classification is a form of metadata. Metadata gives your content context. It puts it in its rightful place.

Go to and search for a book. On the page where the book information is displayed, you will also find a section entitled “Better Together.” It offers you a discount if, along with the book you were searching for, you buy another book. This other book belongs to the same classification as the book you were searching for. It makes sense to sell them together. This feature is only possible because of quality metadata design.

Ryanair is a hugely successful budget airline. The title meta tag on the Ryanair homepage is this:

Ryanair.Com—The Low Fares Airline—50% cheaper than easyJet

This is typical aggressive marketing by Ryanair, targeting its main competitor, easyJet. But the title meta tag could be improved. According to Overture, 5,695 people searched for “low fare” in May. However, 3,199,895 people searched for “cheap flight.”

Some people think that the only reason to write metadata is for the search engines. This is so wrong. In the first place, you don't write metadata for search engines. You write it for people who use search engines.

That is a subtle but critical distinction. In a busy world of impatient readers who scan, quality metadata is the hook that catches attention. It quickly gets the right person to the right content.

From to Google, that's what great Web sites are about.

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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.