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What is Metadata and how is it used? [Infographic]

Author's avatar By Robert Allen 07 Dec, 2015
Essential Essential topic

Digital marketers need to know the basics of metadata

Big Data created by interactions and transactions that the customers make online has been at the forefront of technology discussions over the last few years due to the huge increase in the amount of people online, from 15.7% (2005) to 45% (2015) as a percentage of the world’s population. But all that data is worthless if a business can’t manage it, and this is where Meta Data comes in. It is a concept important to the analysis of the large amounts of data, produced by the general public.

The documents leaked NSA analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013, confirm that governments are actively seeking our metadata and because of outdated legal interpretation, Meta data is considered less sensitive than information even though it can be used to profile your whole life (and future).

We as a society are communicating via technology more and more. However, the content of our communications isn’t the only thing we send. Data about the communication allows it to reach its intended recipient. This is metadata.

The type of data that is recorded when accessing content or sending a message via email or a social media status update is as follows:

  • The type of device it was sent from, e.g. a computer, a telephone, a mobile
  • The location of the sender e.g. home address of the phone used, subscription information or the closest cell tower to the senders phone.
  • The time of day the message was sent
  • All the same information from the above three points would be recorded for the recipient of the message.
  • Other information about the communicators that doesn’t necessarily link to the communication e.g. their email address, address book entry information, email providers, IP address.
  • Also the length of the interaction or size of message e.g. Length of phone call or text message.

But that’s not all. When we use the internet, everything we do, what we type into Google, our search history, how long we spend online and the files we download are all recorded. Even when our phone is turned on, but not being used, it transmits its location which is then recorded.

What is metadata?

Literally, meta data can be defined as 'data describing other data'. It is a summary of the attributes or chacteristics of a type of data. In the example above it is data about an online interaction such as social media update or email message. Another non-transactionable example is the well known meta data about a web page such as its title and description which is read by search crawlers as a summary of what the page is like and presented in Google's results pages.

Metadata paints a picture about an individual’s daily routine, interactions, points of view and associations, and the reason it is so useful is that it doesn’t lie. The fact that such information is collected by internet companies shows how valuable it can be. Applying this capability across a population, it is possible to compile a very detailed, even invasive, picture population including their behaviours and interactions in which governments and companies can act upon.


Thanks to Take1 for publishing this infographic which prompted us to cover this definition of Meta data.

Auhtor's avatar

By Robert Allen

I was the Editor of Smart Insights between 2015-2017. I managed the blog and you will find blog articles on a range of subjects- Marketing Technology trends and latest tech developments are a regular focus, as well as exploring key marketing concepts. You can get in touch with me on Twitter and connect with me on LinkedIn. The new Editor is Carolanne Mangles.

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