This is one of the 52 terms in The Language of Technical Communication published by XML Press in 2016 and the contributor for this term is Laura Creekmore.

What is it?

Attributes of content you can use to structure, semantically define, and target content.

Why is it important?

Metadata extends the capabilities of content, making it more powerful and effecting efficient operation in a data-driven world.

Why does a technical communicator need to know this?

Metadata can take many forms. In its simplest form, metadata describes attributes or constraints of a content field, providing additional information that tells software how to handle content. You can use metadata in conjunction with business rules to design and deploy your content more effectively.

For example, you can use metadata to represent how content relates to one or more subjects, and then use those relationships on a website to create links between topics and help content. The metadata helps you create links on the fly and in context, and it helps ensure that the links remain up to date when content changes.

Metadata describes content, but not how that content should be displayed. Imagine the confusion if your metadata included the option to tag a video as “featured.” What happens when you tag more than one video in that way? What happens if you forget which one you tagged before? It’s much better for your metadata to include dates, times, subjects, content types, and constraints, then you can build display and presentation rules that use that metadata to determine how, when, and under what conditions that content should be displayed.

A metadata standard like Dublin Core may simplify your work and make your content more extensible. However, many people create their own metadata, customized for internal use.

Metadata is sometimes revealed to users (in faceted search, for instance), but most often, it’s the behind-the-scenes workhorse that makes your life easier and gives systems context about your content to make it more powerful.