Jaco, King of Metadata

March 2017

Jaco Swart's career includes stints in electronic design, user experience design, and digital marketing. He likes to mine for data, concoct impromptu diagrams, and advocate for useful content. He is one of the presenters at Collaborate2017 where his topic is – Web metadata for technical communicators. He caught up with Jim Costello to discuss what this means and why we should care.

Metadata – what is it, and why does it matter?

Metadata is used to describe the content of online pages, images, videos, and documents. It is ubiquitous online, but because it is not obvious and sometimes not even visible, it is only web marketers and developers that tend to think about it. They worry about it and obsess about it, but it is often not on the radar of the people who generate content and have a feeling for what the audience will be looking for. On the one hand, metadata tends to be underutilised or not used at all. On the other, it offers an opportunity to add value to the page and should be part of the general content creation process.

So who reads metadata?

There are a couple of audiences for metadata. Search engines use metadata when they try to understand what a page is about. The secondary audience is real people, because when Google presents a page with search results, it will often use metadata in the short descriptions that follow the page title and address. This means you should be writing metadata for real people, as opposed to stuffing it full of keywords and search phrases.

A more recent use of metadata is on social media networks. If a person wants to share a web page with friends on Facebook or Twitter, for example, the network's software will pull a photograph, description, and heading from that page. You can use metadata to control the information that is shared, but if it is missing, the social media network may well use content that you did not really want it to – something that can be both amusing and frustrating.

Once you understand the importance of metadata and start diving deeper, all sorts of little tricks become apparent. They are useful tricks, because they improve the way a web page is presented to the reader – before the reader even sees the page.

So metadata is a higher level of content, that is conscious of the audience, and is true to what is on the webpage?

Exactly, and because you need to be succinct, achieving that high level can be quite difficult. The easy method is to use the first paragraph or sentence, which works – sort of – if the introduction is a summary, but not if it is a narrative. Besides, a first sentence often doesn’t make sense if you remove it from the context of its page.

Settling for easy is just not good enough in this case. Not for metadata. If you are aware of the purpose of the audience, and also the purpose of the web page itself, and if you understand how metadata is used, you can craft it to be highly effective.

All sorts of possibilities exist with metadata, and they can be good or bad.

Do you have a favourite metadata tool?

A neat technique that I adopted some time ago, is to use a standalone document for every web page that you create. I use a simple Word template that includes fields for the actual words and pictures that will be visible on the web page, and also the various metadata fields that are used by Google and social media networks. I like to embed help text in the template that briefly explains how each metadata field will be used, how long the text should be for each, and what the optimal image dimensions are.

What would the average content writer know about metadata?

I think if they are new to it, perhaps not much, and that is okay. It may even be a good thing. I always try to explain to people that although this is the information that Google use to understand the page, we should write it for real people because ultimately a real person will be reading it. If you are new to metadata, I think the rule of thumb is to close your eyes and consider: What sort of summary or description will the reader find useful?

It’s fine to have good usability on a website, and content that satisfies information requirements, but these don’t necessarily make the web page useful. It may be a beautiful piece of content, but if it doesn’t answer the user’s question, it is sadly irrelevant. In a certain way, writing metadata is a litmus test for your understanding of what the page is really about.

So while being aware of metadata adds a whole level of complication to content development, it also simplifies the user experience, and that has got to be a good thing.

In conclusion, metadata is nothing new. As my library sciences wife likes to point out, we have had abstracts for as long as articles have been published. Metadata can almost be thought of as a plain-language abstract, one that helps the reader to decide whether the page will answer their questions. In short: is this piece of information worth following up?

Writing metadata for real people is probably the hardest aspect of web content writing to get right, but it is also the most rewarding.