Put Editors in Charge of Metadata

Apparently I’m not the only one who sees a leading role for writers and editors in the next editorial frontier of structured content.

Check out this recent article from content management guru Gerry McGovern: Quality Metadata Makes for Successful Web Content (published in CMSwire).

Here’s a cool excerpt…

McGovern writes: “Metadata is a Web writing skill… About a month ago I heard an executive from a large content management company give a speech. He talked about how people hated creating metadata, and that his company had a wonderful solution to automate its production. This would save people time, he told the audience. The software would be able to generate automatic headings and summaries by analyzing a piece of content for important keywords.

“Such an approach may save people time who create the content. It will, however, be a major waste of time for those who want to find, read and act on that content.

It troubles me to think that this sort of advice is being given. Writing metadata is indeed difficult. It is not exciting. It is not fun. It is, however, an essential task. Quality metadata significantly increases the findability of your content. It also significantly increases its readability.”

And: “Choosing the right metadata requires a deep understanding of your reader. It requires experience, skill and effort… I shudder to think what sort of sloppy heading and summary metadata software would write.”

I’m with you there, Gerry… I agree that most people hate creating metadata and doing the “tagging” work associated with it. However, not long ago I was having lunch with the chief editor of a major trade publishing organization. She told me that her editors consider metadata tagging one of their most important, if undervalued, tasks.

“My editors know how to choose metadata terms that will be appropriate and intuitive,” she told me. “They’re absolutely consistent about it. They check in with each other on key choices of terminology. Ultimately, that makes the job of customizing or repurposing our content much easier. In terms of total editorial workload, it’s at least a wash – and probably a time-saver. But God help us if our researchers, writers, or marketing people got their hands on our metadata! It would be chaos!”

Another much earlier article, Structured Content: What’s in it for Writers? by Mark Baker (Nov. 17, 2002, CMSwatch) hit the nail on the head.

Baker wrote: “I’m a writer. I’ve written for newspapers and magazines. I’ve written brochures, white papers, and technical manuals. I’ve written a book on programming in OmniMark and contributed a section on XML to a book on HTML. I have also managed teams of technical writers working on a number of different projects. I got interested in SGML/XML and CMS not because they promised solutions in the web site management or corporate knowledge management fields, but because they promised solutions to some important productivity problems for writers.

…”If a writer sees that by providing a piece of information in a highly structured and controlled format they can avoid having to search for that information across a whole set of documents whenever the information changes, then they have the motivation, feedback, and context to produce accurate highly structured information. Writers who discover this do not mind using forms-based interfaces or even typing SGML or XML tags into a text box, if that’s what it takes. (After all, typing tags isn’t hard. We all picked up HTML quickly enough, before the WYSIWYG HTML editors came out.)

“What makes the task palatable is seeing the benefit to themselves, getting the feedback on success or failure, and understanding the context of the work.”

Absolutely. And this is why I think editors should not fear the technology and tools of creating structured content. Yes, there is a learning curve. Yes, the basic concepts may be new and unfamiliar. But also, learning to create structured content can offer significant benefits to writers, editors, and other members of the content team. Not to mention brand-new (and potentially lucrative) work opportunities.

So don’t leave metadata creation up to the machines. Learn how to do it, and make the most of it in every way possible.

Automated metadata creation may be a fine idea for geographic data that machines use, but for content that humans are actually supposed to find and read? Yeah, shudder… That’s a dystopia we content pros can help prevent.