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August 6, 2015

Making metadata in DITA work for you

Metadata is one of the most important factors in making the most of your DITA XML-based content environment. Whether you’re converting legacy content into DITA or creating new structured content, it’s important to know what metadata (or data about data) your files will keep track of and why. Coming up with a plan for using metadata can be tricky, so here are some tips to make the process easier.

Using metadata to track content

Metadata can be a powerful aid in organizing your content. It can help speed up your production workflow by allowing you to find all content by a certain author or all content that needs to be reviewed. It can help with distribution by filtering content according to intended audience or location. It can also make content searches easier for both internal and external users. Because metadata exists at both the topic level and the element level, it offers lots of flexibility in content filtering and search.

Before you begin converting or authoring content, think about what metadata you’ll need to track in your content and why. You may need to distinguish between different types of content (informational, instructional, legal), different audiences (internal, external), or different products. Depending on the type and volume of content you create, your metadata needs may be very specific and complex. Making a list of required metadata and how you plan to use it will make it easier to implement your new structured content workflow.

Standard metadata

Learn as much as you can about the DITA standard and what it offers when it comes to metadata. In DITA, you will have certain metadata attributes and elements available by default:

  • author
  • audience
  • product
  • and many others

To determine how well the DITA standard metadata supports your needs, compare it with your metadata requirements and see if you can find an existing attribute or element that matches each item on your list. You may have some requirements with close but not exact matches, or others that are too specific to your company for a match. In that case, you may want to consider metadata specialization.


Specializing metadata attributes and elements can help you organize and filter your content in ways that are tailored to your company’s unique needs. You may need to capture much more information about your product than the DITA standard metadata allows. You may also need to filter content in a hierarchical or multi-faceted way – for example, distributing content to certain locations, and within those locations, only to employees with certain job titles. DITA allows you to specialize metadata elements to include multiple values, which makes this kind of filtering possible.

Although specialization can be highly useful, it can also present challenges to implementation. If you do specialize, be sure to choose a content management system and other tools that can support your changes to the standard metadata attributes and elements. It’s always better to stick to the standard and only specialize if you absolutely must—that way, you’ll be able to choose from a wider selection of tools that will support your content.

Content management

A component content management system (or CCMS) can use metadata to enhance your content development workflow. A CCMS may be equipped to filter on metadata, which helps authors and reviewers find the content they need and tells the publication engines what output to produce. It may also connect with an authoring tool to populate certain metadata values automatically, such as author or status, when a content creator logs into the system.

When you evaluate CCMS options, you should not only ask whether each CCMS you’re considering supports your metadata needs, but also how it manages metadata. How does the CCMS use the metadata in your content to help with workflow? How flexible is the CCMS if you start with standard metadata now but need to specialize it later? What happens to metadata that is created and managed by the CMS if you ever need to move your content into a different system? Having a solid plan in place for metadata use before you choose a CCMS and other tools will help you ask the right questions and make the best decision.