The limits of my language means the limits of my world.

-Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosopher


Purdue University recently published a report from Donald T. Hawkins. Indexing and Indices: An Essential Component of Information Discovery addressed the effect of linguistics, vocabulary, and search engines on the ever-changing way searches are conducted. Basically, there is a reality that vocabulary ranges from source to source. There is likely a difference between the words you use to index information on your website or in your database and the words people use when they access your site. There is also a range of words that will describe information available today and terms that might come about as discoveries and new information is mined.

For example, if you deal in the health industry, you might log certain illnesses that share symptoms, but over time there may be new strains of a virus or bacteria that come about. The categorization of the illness may change as well. People may refer to it with a new common name. Then you have users search your database using the new terms and what happens is a large amount of older information isn’t accessed. Your database doesn’t put the words in the search together with the words used to describe the same subject ten years ago as the same things. The solution: invest in building metadata systems that grow in their coordination of synonyms over time. That’s right. You will need to view your metadata as its own separate content and develop a strategy to keep up with the times and trends of the future.


Its pretty much general knowledge today that content is king in SEO. Metadata has its role in any SEO strategy. The question is not whether your SEO strategy is using content. You obviously have some sort of content. It’s also not a question whether that content is further being indexed with the right metadata. Odds are that you have someone coding the metadata and optimizing your sites with trends and search engine algorithms in mind. The new question is whether or not you are building a databank of changing terms, synonyms, that link the various ways people describe and search for the content you have already created? Let’s say it a bit simpler. How are you working to make sure your content is still relevant in 20 years?


Companies that present information in multiple languages are already looking at this problem. Take our previous example about health. Obviously the word for influenza will not be spelled the same in English,Arabic, and Mandarin Chinese. So how do companies make sure that data is available to audiences in different languages? The American Theological Library Association (ATLA) has that very chore. Their Religion Database has to index materials in over 100 languages. They face several challenges: new content types like blogs, new areas of research, as well as increasing amounts of journals and content from traditional sources. How do they do it? Indexers work to supplement computer-aided indexing. They also have colleagues check their work. But is that the best, most efficient way to protect your data from being lost in the abyss as language and semantic ranges change?

Donald Hawkins offers some great thoughts of his own. “Acquiring metadata gives publishers a strategic advantage—metadata is content!” His question. “How can we affordably create and deliver primary content to multiple channels while also developing new channels?” Acquire or create metadata repositories that sit separately from your content management systems. But is anyone buying this argument? Well, actually…yes. Oxford University Press,, and Meredith (the publisher of Better Homes & Gardens) have all been investing one sort of metadata acquisition or another.

What’s the Plan?

Hawkins has the following to say about remaining relevant and protecting your content: “Publishers are advised to push discoverability into their operations, build costs into standard operational budgets, invest in internal expertise, plan for ongoing evolution, and accept failures as learning experiences. Development timelines are long, so they must start now or risk losing their business.” The takeaway is that content is crucial and if you are specializing in it, you need to have a plan for protecting your content from being excluded in the future. You want people to find it and you have to help them. Failing to do so not only hurts your company’s ability to remain competitive, but the world could actually lose access to important information that only you have. Protect your content. Invest in metadata as a form of your ongoing content strategy.




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