With all of the recent references in the press to big data, metadata and NSA (National Security Agency), many small business owners are wondering how they may be affected, and, if this is the next big thing, where the opportunities to cash in exist.
Secondary information within or about a dataset, often termed metadata, can be mined and exploited in myriad ways. Simply put, it’s data about data that enriches information by making it searchable and manageable. Sometimes metadata is embedded on purpose with the intent of helping computers perform data analysis (think SEO for websites). Often, however, metadata is an unintended consequence that clever minds find ways to make use of.
Typically metadata becomes more useful when examined in large sets that make trends and patterns more readily detectable. A classic example of this was Google’s analysis a few years back of searches on “flu” that bested CDC’s official influenza transmission modeling. When Google employees noticed that searches for “flu” were trending geographically, they hypothesized that people sick with flu were behind many of those searches. A careful review later revealed that Google’s heat map was a nearly perfect match for geographic data amassed by healthcare providers.
Often, simple tools and a curious eye can bring undesirable and even confidential information to light. NSA saw the potential to identify terrorists and other adversaries by examining telephone metadata. It sought and obtained from a secret federal court permission to analyze millions of Americans’ phone calls. The program did not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s conversations or identify subscribers beyond what was kept in normal phone company records. As it turned out, the content of conversations and subscribers’ identities were not required to deduce nefarious plots.
Implications for small business
Even the least sophisticated of small businesses have datasets. These may include the mailing addresses of customers, an average sales price, and the percentage of customers who buy goods or services more than once. Many small businesses have additional information that they may not be aware of and therefore fail to benefit from, such as the IP addresses of website visitors who subscribe to their email lists.
In spite of the data available to them, many entrepreneurs manage their businesses by the seat of their pants. Some become more sagacious with time and experience; some don’t. Typically the degree to which business managers embrace evidence-based decision-making correlates to the extent of their success. The point is metadata represents an opportunity for urbane management of businesses, large and small. The potential power of metadata mining was recently illustrated at the MIT Media Lab.
As web developers, we frequently see missed opportunities on two fronts related to metadata. First, many site owners fail to create metadata within their CMSs (content management system). Simply put, entering tags, categories, descriptions and titles pays big dividends in terms of time spent. It’s amazing how many people – including, unfortunately, some of our clients – will spend significant time composing great content and then drop the ball when it comes to optimizing it to garner a larger readership and generate income.
The second frequently missed opportunity relates to web analytics. Google and other entities provide free, easy-to-interpret information about where visitors come from, what terms they search on, what they do while on a website and what page(s) they tend to depart from. This information can shed light on a site’s deficiencies and help businesses fine-tune architecture and content to improve results. Without analytics, it’s a bit like learning to throw a ball in a dark room. Without feedback, the thrower has no means by which to improve performance.