We all know good metadata is important on the web but the definition of metadata is confusing and off putting; it’s basically data about data or put simply more information about existing information.

I've been thinking about metadata and its critical importance to publishers a lot recently, as Ingenta will be talking about Metadata Futures at the Tools of Change Conference in Frankfurt on 9th October. Metadata may sound like a word that only techies would use but actually it’s something that all publishers use now on the web. Published books are full of metadata or descriptors like title, author, pages count, copyright information, publication date, identification codes e.g. ISBN. The BISG details what is metadata for publishers in Metadata Best Practices guide.

Metadata sounds like a word that only techies would use but actually it’s something that all publishers use now on the web.

Information publishers organize their metadata in taxonomies. Taxonomies have their roots in biological sciences but any information can be arranged in taxonomies for example objects, places, people, concepts, events, locations, buildings and businesses etc. Taxonomies are basically a hierarchy of information or metadata.

When it comes to publishers and the web we all know having good metadata is vital to discovery on the web. The web is basically a document retrieval system, i.e. we search for something and the web sends us something we searched for it’s the good metadata that allows the search engine to find the information.

Information publishers have the privilege of being well suited to the web by having metadata as part of their DNA but until recently we haven’t acknowledged the power of taxonomy in published content for the web.

A recent purchase of a publisher by Google has highlighted the commercial value of published taxonomies.  Frommer's has spent years assembling taxonomies about locations for example from a travel guide:

Italy »Tuscany»Florence»Lungarno Archibusieri»Trattoria Ponte Vecchio»contact details » reviews

[pullquote]What Google is doing is taking a publisher with good metadata and taxonomies to make enhanced search results that are really useful to the end user and that generate cash for Google.[/pullquote]

This has made it an ideal purchase for Google, which is looking to enhance its search results in order to sell more advertising. Google will offer the content for free in order to contextualize various products such as Google Maps, Google Local Search and its social network Google+, all in the hope of  making them more useful for the user. What Google is doing is taking a publisher with good metadata and taxonomies to deliver enhanced search results which are useful to the user on the basis that they're local, relevant and trustworthy. The more frequently users return to these search results, the more money Google makes from selling advertising around them.

The worrying thing for the publisher is that this is publishing but not as we know it. It’s giving what was previously thought of as the valuable data for free in order to sell clicks. This new business model is bound to make the publishing community nervous as it take the financial value out of the data and the consumer will get used to having this content for free which is always a worry. The news industry is still frantically trying to survive taking their content online and giving it away for free by hoisting up belated paywalls.

The good news is that meta data and taxonomies when it comes to information publishers are only useful if they are up to date and in a commercial world things change constantly hence Google has bought Frommer's as a working publisher, the metadata and taxonomies will need to be constantly published to keep the clicks and ad links revenue coming for Google. In order to keep the good metadata coming Google will need to run Frommer's as a publishing business.

With this in mind Google and Zagat will be the first of many information publishers bought and run by Google.