I was thinking about metadata this morning, as I often do. (I will leave it to the reader to decide how that reflects upon my psyche.) More to the point, I was trying to think of positive experiences with metadata. As a consumer of digital content, I haven’t had many of those lately.
At its core, metadata has one job to do: help people (or computers) find something based upon a specific need or desire. Nothing more. Nothing less. It could be online. It could be in an asset management system. The function is still the same. When metadata fails, the entire engagement with the user fails.
A pervasive misunderstanding of metadata is revealed in a casual YouTube search… an innocent DVR query… a browse through an app store… really (without exaggeration) at every interaction with digital content of any kind.
Three decades deep into the Internet era, this should not be the case. After all, metadata is nothing new.
As a kid growing up in between the corduroy ridges of 1970’s suburbia, my Sunday morning ritual was to disembowel the newspaper before the adults got to it. I’d gut out the comics, entertainment section and TV guide – read them quickly and then carefully repack the carcass to look as if no human hand had defiled it. My grandfather, who paid for our subscription to the local newspaper, was not a fan of reading a “used” Sunday paper.
My first priority was the weekly TV booklet. Each week that flimsy rag sat in a place of honor on the small table next to my grandfather’s reclining “TV” chair. Its Sunday morning crispness and telltale smell of fresh ink would fade during the week until it lay abused with stains from the bottom of coffee mugs… pages dog eared and torn… titles smudged by greasy hands.
On Sunday mornings I would sneak away with my quarry and read the last four pages: an orderly listing of movies to be aired in the coming week. A positive return for Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid or the under-appreciated Charles Bronson classic From Noon Till Three would influence my plans; a weekday running of Yellow Submarine warranted a “cough-cough” sick day from school. Remember, in those pre-DVR days, it was the viewer that time-shifted.
Little did I know then, but those simple movie listings (just title, description, lead actors and ratings by stars) were one of my earliest experiences with metadata… metadata that worked.
Of course, in print it doesn’t really matter if the band in Yellow Submarine is spelled “Beatles” or “Beetles.” The human mind adjusts for such careless errors and the TV guide suffered no ill from it. On a digital device, however, the difference between the two is truly a matter of pass or fail. If your blog post is about “The Beetles” there is little chance a fan of “The Beatles” will ever find it.
If success was just a matter of spell checking then the solution to bad metadata would be at our fingertips, alas it is only the beginning. To write effective metadata you must not only understand the content but the user and the device they are on. How do they search? What are the key phrases – the vernacular – used by your audience? What does a given device or website offer in terms of interface? Metadata that works well online may fail in a legacy interface such as the typical cable set top box or the even more awkward “web on TV” devices. You may find that a piece of content requires two or three sets of metadata to serve internal needs, user needs and device-specific needs. It sounds like a lot of work, but if content is worth making then it is worth being found.
The innocent metadata days of the old newspaper TV booklet are gone forever. And if your content is not represented properly, then it might as well be gone forever, too.
Now how do I find Yellow Submarine on demand…
Rob Davis is the Director of Advanced Video Practice at Ogilvy in New York.
Follow him on Twitter: @robertjohndavis