Metadata is information assigned to a particular piece of data, enabling organizations to describe, categorize and understand the origins of their data. In short, metadata can be considered “data about data”, containing information such as what the data is, who created it and when it was created.

Organizations can improve information management in the workplace by applying metadata to their documents to ensure information accuracy, simplify document search and retrieval, and automate business processes using an enterprise content management system.

Let’s take a deeper dive into what metadata is and the best practices for putting it to work in your organization.

What is Metadata Used For?

Metadata provides context and organization to the files and folders within a digital repository by storing any information you want to have connected to an entry. It aids in search and retrieval of documents by providing search tools with additional queries to quickly locate the document or folder needed.

Types of Metadata

Metadata can include any of the following:

  • Fields and templates
  • Tags
  • Links or document relationship information
  • Version information
  • Digital signatures

Fields and Templates

Fields store information about a document or folder. It can be either general text, a list, a number, a date and time or a piece of data to use with integrations. Multi-value fields can be assigned multiple values at once. For example, system administrators may configure an “Author” field to allow for multiple author name entries in a document. Multi-value field groups enable administrators to group together multiple pieces of data that always go together, such as “Date of birth” and “Country of birth” fields.

What is Metadata? Administrators can set document metadata requirements for users to follow to ensure information consistency.


Each field type follows the constraints of its intended use, however, most content management systems should allow support the customized the display of certain fields for an improved user experience. Organizations can also set fields as “required” so that users must enter a value into that field before being able to save the document.

A template is a group of fields that can be easily applied to documents as a collection. When creating a metadata template, content management systems allow you to choose which fields to include and the order they will be displayed in. Dynamic fields are an ordered set of fields that look like list fields, but where the option chosen in one dynamic field controls the options available in the next dynamic field.

What is Metadata? Templates allow repetitively used metadata fields to be applied to documents of a similar type more quickly.

Templates allow repetitively used metadata fields to be applied to documents of a similar type more quickly.


A tag is a marker that can be used to categorize documents and specify how they should be handled.

There are two types of tags: informational tags, which are used to provide additional data about the entry they are applied to, and security tags, which restrict access to the entry. If a document has been assigned a security tag, users will only be able to see the document in the repository if they have also been assigned that tag.


Flexible, reliable content management systems support document links – a type of metadata that allows organizations to recognize what documents are associated with one another. Two important document link types are:

  • Document relationships, which connect two documents
  • Link groups, which connect larger groups of documents

Document relationships are useful whenever you want to be able to keep two documents associated with each other—especially if they are stored in different parts of your digital repository. For example, you might file email messages in a “Communications” folder by date or sender, but put the email attachments in other folders depending on their content. If you connected emails with their attachments using a document relationship, you could quickly find the report that goes with a particular email message no matter where in the repository the two documents are stored.

A link group is a collection of related documents, each with their own metadata, location, and other information. You can create a link group from any document, add or remove documents in the group, import documents into that group, or comment on documents in the group. Similar to document relationships, you can quickly access any of the documents in the group from any other document in the group.


Versions are useful for “safely” making changes to documents. If you scan or save a document as a new version, the old version of the document remains intact in its version history, eliminating the risk of accidentally losing information by overwriting. In addition, a document’s version history allows you to see and compare the changes made in previous versions and to revert to a previous version, if necessary.

Digital Signatures

A digital signature is a way of indicating that a document is authentic, that it has been signed by a particular person, and that it has not been modified since the signature was applied. For example, a manager can use a digital signature to indicate that he or she has approved a document. Later, a user can validate the digital signature to verify that the manager signed the document and that the document has not been modified since the signature was applied.

Metadata Best Practices

Metadata is typically accessed by two parties in an organization: administrators, and users. Administrators have control over modifying types of metadata, permissions and rules (for example, making certain fields “required” when a user edits a document). Users may access metadata to update a search for and modify a document, or to organize a portion of the digital repository. When establishing a system of metadata use within an organization, the administrator should set the following best practices, top ensure the metadata is beneficial to the organization as a whole.

Design a Metadata Plan

As an administrator, it is a good idea to plan out the use of metadata as early as possible. Deliberately designing your metadata allows for a more structured, streamlined and intuitive system than adding metadata elements at will, which can result in duplicate fields and a cluttered environment.

For example, if you plan your fields ahead, you can create a single “Customer” field that can be used for all templates, which reduces the total number of fields a user must contend with and simplifies search and retrieval. In contrast, if users create fields as they go, one user might create an “Invoice Customer” field and another user might create a “Customer Report” field, where both fields would contain customer names.

Streamline Metadata

As a standard, you should use as few metadata types as you can while still storing all the information you need. The more metadata elements you have in your repository, the more performance (i.e. speed of search) will be affected.

In many cases, a single metadata element can serve more than one purpose. For example, it’s not necessary to have five different “Customer” fields just because you have five different templates. If all of those fields will contain a customer name, you should create a single “Customer” field and use it in all of the templates.

Use the Right Metadata Types

Certain kinds of information can be stored in more than one way, by more than one metadata type. Occasionally, several metadata types will be equally suited to a task; however, in most cases, one type will be most appropriate. Consider how the information will be set and used, and choose the type most suited to the task.

Want to learn more about how digital document management can simplify business operations? Download the Document Management Software Buyer’s Guide.


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