What Is Metadata? A Simple Guide to What Everyone Should Know

by   |   April 10, 2017 5:30 am   |   2 Comments

Bernard Marr

Bernard Marr

If you Googled “metadata” and found this article, you used metadata. When you bought your mother a gift from Amazon, you used metadata. Did you just reconnect with a colleague via LinkedIn? Metadata was at work. Your afternoon Spotify fix? Yes, you guessed it; you used metadata.

But what is metadata?

Quite simply, metadata is data that describes other data. In information technology, the prefix meta means “an underlying definition or description.” So metadata describes whatever piece of data it’s connected to — whether that data is video, photography, web pages, content, or spreadsheets.

Since metadata summarizes basic information about data, such as type of asset, author, date created, usage, and file size, metadata is crucial to the efficiency of information systems to classify and categorize data. Metadata information helps IT systems uncover items for which users are searching.

It’s important to note that organizations are inundated with structured and unstructured data and that both these types of data need metadata. Structured data is easily organized and discovered through search engine algorithms (a strict database format), whereas unstructured data is the complete opposite. Email is an example of unstructured data. Most emails aren’t easily categorized because they rarely cover a single subject.

Most business interactions are in the format of unstructured data, making sorting and defining the data a time-consuming, expensive proposition, but metadata can help.

Why does metadata matter in a big data world?

Metadata is a game-changer in a big data world because it can give you a competitive advantage. Right now, chief information officers often take metadata for granted or do not prioritize it.

The better you harness the power of big data to drive business decisions, the more successful your organization will be. The more robust your metadata, the quicker your team will be able to extract actionable information and make quick business decisions. In addition to enabling better and quicker decision-making in organizations, metadata supports data consistency across an enterprise and enables associations between data sets for high-quality results.

Although metadata is one of the fastest-growing segments of enterprise data management according to a report published by IDC that John P. Stevens cites in his article titled “Why you need metadata for Big Data Success,” there’s a significant big data gap—metadata isn’t keeping up with the rapid rate of big data projects. Without metadata, companies are losing out on analyzing and interpreting big data and the subsequent insight it offers to propel their businesses.

As each new big data initiative is launched, it is essential to accompany it with a comprehensive metadata management strategy before it balloons out of control after start-up. Investing the time to ensure each digital asset follows a consistent methodology will yield dividends in efficiency and usability in the future.

Is metadata more important than big data?

Metadata is the fuel that drives digital asset management.

Metadata allows analysts to unlock meaning in big data. It ultimately increases the value of an organization’s data resources because it allows data to be identified, discovered, and associated across an enterprise. Without metadata, a lot of big data is unusable or unmanageable.

Metadata streamlines the collection, integration, and analysis of big data; manages the entire data lifecycle; and maintains an audit trail to meet regulatory requirements.

If your organization has a big data gap, tell us what steps you’re taking to prioritize metadata management in the Comment section below.


Bernard Marr is an internationally best-selling business author, keynote speaker and strategic advisor to companies and governments. He is one of the world’s most highly respected voices anywhere when it comes to data in business and has been recognized by LinkedIn as one of the world’s top 5 business influencers. In addition, he is a member of the Data Informed Board of AdvisersYou can join Bernard’s network simply by clicking here or follow him on Twitter @bernardmarr


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  1. Scott Wagers
    Posted April 18, 2017 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Nice article about a topic that is often perceived as mundane. Another great value of metadata is that it can be used to allow people to know what is in a dataset and whether it is potentially of value without actually sharing the data. This is highly relevant in medical research where data privacy is important. At least if the metadata is available and searchable other researchers can usually tell if a dataset will help them answer a question.

  2. Shakeela Naz
    Posted April 23, 2017 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    nice and simple for understanding.

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