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Meta data: information about information

It’s always fascinating to watch the way a tool is used shaping its evolution. The perfect example of this is, of course, the internet. Such a vast and easy-to-navigate sea of information can spit out all kinds of answers for almost any question thrown at it.

Possibly the most significant development in the evolution of the internet is the rise of search. As overloaded as the internet is with information, none of it is of any use unless it can be found by the people looking for it. This is why Google, and its older peers Yahoo and Alta Vista before it has been so successful. The search companies aim to help people efficiently filter out the dross and find the information they really need.

Search is now the expected step in most online sessions. People expect their data to be accessible according to their interests. They also expect data to cover a number of sources, the way a search page does. This is what is known as meta-data: information about information, that allows people to find not just relevant information, but the best relevant information for them.

Yes, there’s big money in making search more powerful. Often, when someone is searching for something, they’re after a product or service. If they find exactly what they’re after (and it’s the right price) the likelihood of them buying it is extremely high.

This monetary association with the variety presented by meta-data has resulted in enormous popularity for retail search engines. It makes sense: you’re a consumer after the cheapest something. You want to find it quickly, so you head to something like Google Products, or Shopbot, or another retail search site. It finds the cheapest available product for you in no time at all. You buy it, and it turns up on your doorstep.

This makes the internet even more competitive. It pushes you to compete with other companies to present your content/product/service in front of your target audience.

While the most obvious way to address this is with SEO—search engine optimization/marketing, a process that tweaks the information on your page so it appears higher up the list in any given search—it makes sense to keep the idea of meta-data in the back of your head when you’re arranging the information on your site, or even when you’re concocting a business plan.

Using this idea of meta-data—the way it arranges information—is a useful thing to keep in mind when you’re thinking about your business.

Here are some examples of businesses that have incorporated the meta-data approach into their very reason for being, to considerable success:

  • TinEye.com. This is a reverse image search. If you’ve come across an image that looks as though it’s been digitally altered, this site will trace it back to its origin, and will show you how it’s been used by others right across the internet. A service as fascinating and useful as this can probably afford to exist solely from advertising revenue.
  • Multicolr Search. A collaborative initiative between Flickr and Creative Commons, this is an image search that allows you to specify not only what’s in the images you search for, but it also lets you specify the colours that you want the image to include. This, and all of the images are licenced according to the Creative Commons licencing system, which means that most of what you find is free to use.
  • Catch of the day has anticipated the consumer’s desire for retail meta-data, and taken it a step further. It features a single product per day, at a very low price. This negates the need for search, by applying the filter of ‘cheap, quality stuff’. While the product mightn’t be relevant to everyone, the idea of the site encourages people to monitor it daily: an enormous success for any online business.


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