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How to understand taxonomy and metadata in digital asset management

Metadata and Taxonomy are two words that everyone in the Digital Asset Management industry use on a day-to-day basis. The problem is that most people outside of the industry don’t truly understand what these things are and why are they are important.

What is the difference between taxonomy and metadata?

The single easiest way of visualising these two topics is the cheesiest of icebreakers, the “Hello, my name is…” sticker.


In this example you’re communicating some information about yourself (an 'attribute'). The same principle applies for digital assets – for example, a simple 'attribute' could be the title of a photograph.

You may want to add more information to your 'Hello' sticker, such as a job title or where you live. These would be extra 'attributes'. By having multiple attributes you can quickly learn a lot of information about a specific file (or person!).

Metadata is the collective term for all of the information that you hold about an asset. A single attribute is a single piece of metadata. Most likely you will have a range of different pieces of information (each held in an attribute) which together collate to give rich metadata about the asset.


Simple metadata could be: sunset, nature, water, outdoors

Continuing with this metaphor, taxonomy is quite simply the different boxes that you’ve chosen to have on your sticker, such as name, job title, and location. In a Digital Asset Management system you are likely to have more than three as this will improve your ability to store information (metadata) about your assets.


Here's a quick video to recap on what we've covered above. It explains taxonomy and metadata in a little more detail and how they might be used:


Now that we’ve got the basics down, let’s take a look at an example of how this might be displayed within Digital Asset Management software.

Taxonomy in a Digital Asset Management system



The first thing you might notice is that two sections are labelled as Taxonomy. This is because the different Attributes within the system can be considered a taxonomy. Equally, the hierarchical design of the Keywords attribute is another applicable use of the word “taxonomy”. By having an agreed taxonomy of attributes you can determine what information you will store about each of your digital assets. Going a step further and having an agreed taxonomy of keywords (or “controlled vocabulary”) improves your ability to manage what information is associated with an asset as well as improving user experience (e.g. selecting from a drop-down list instead of having to manually type the keyword).

Now that we’ve covered the basic definitions relating to metadata and taxonomy, as well as looking at how they could be expressed within a DAM system, it’s important to understand why these details are so important. Metadata is used in two main areas within a DAM system: framing the catalogue of assets so that you can browse and navigate, as well as providing the detail that enables searching functionality to identify the correct results. Both of these capabilities are all about connecting your users with your digital collection so that they can find the appropriate files to use in a quick and easy manner.

Taxonomy: Asset cataloguing

Cataloguing your assets is the basic level of metadata that is essential to the success of a DAM implementation. By having an intuitive catalogue you users will be able to easily browse through the different areas of the system as you would a folder structure and find the files you are looking for. The taxonomy (often referred to as “folder structure” or similar) that you use to catalogue your files should be designed with your users in mind: what categories of file would they want to access on a regular basis? It is important to control the number of folders (or “categories”) so that it is quick and easy to find a file by following a logical structure. Often sub-folders are used to improve ease of use and give additional layers of granularity. Common ways of choosing your top-level category could be different product brands, countries, or filetypes. The best practice guidance is ensuring your taxonomy, especially at a high level, is both intuitive and useful to your users as well as having a logical flow so you can narrow your search easily.


Making sure your DAM system is simple and easy to use is essential

Often when companies start a new DAM initiative, one exercise that can be time-consuming is the data migration from an old to new system. It is very common that companies are reliant on outdated implementations or basic folder structures within a SharePoint system or a network drive. Using the existing folder structure for your DAM catalogue can be a useful way of maintaining the user experience. Often there are improvements that can be made when looking at a system retrospectively but it is not uncommon to use an existing layout as a starting point for your new folder taxonomy. A full DAM system will have more functionality to manage your digital assets compared to a SharePoint system or network drive, such as a higher level of granularity about user permissions for specific files or folders - often meaning you can remove duplicated files or folders during the data migration process.

After you have designed an effective way of cataloguing your digital assets it is important to consider the metadata taxonomy that you will use. This will determine what types of information you are storing about each of your assets as well as having a direct link to your ability to find files through search options.

Taxonomy: Searching

When you perform a basic search within most Digital Asset Management tools, the software will look for that search term in all different pieces of metadata associated with each asset. This means that your queries will often return too many search results to be particularly useful. By using multiple attributes as part of your taxonomy, it will allow users to perform more complex searches - for example, searching for “driving” as a Keyword rather than including other attributes such as “Description” where the word could’ve been used in a different context.


Data migration and poor metadata implementations can be a real headache...

The main challenge in setting up a taxonomy is the balance between making it easy to use (few fields to enter) vs the additional information you could store. Even the best system will struggle to receive good use within an organisation if it is too difficult for your users to perform basic tasks such as uploading a file. The principle that we generally use as a starting point is to consider your different user groups and try to anticipate how they will use the system: what will they be searching for, and what search terms would they use? Attributes such as “location” could be key to your business which would warrant storage as a separate attribute, whereas in other cases it may not be important and therefore including it in a more relaxed manner in a “description” attribute would be appropriate.

Metadata options

There are many ways of simplifying the data migration process when you are setting up a new Digital Asset Management system - and generally, these are related to importing metadata from various sources. Often files have embedded metadata such as the location or photographer, so automating the import process of these attributes can help you streamline your implementation process. Considering the existing information you have about your assets (whether in a different system or embedded within the file) can be a useful starting point for creating a new taxonomy.

Within Asset Bank there are a wide range of options for storing your metadata effectively, including a range of different attribute types and import mapping option to make your migration a quick and easy process. We also have a team of consultants with experience in helping clients develop or improve their taxonomy to maximise the return on investment from Digital Asset Management purchases.

Integrations and "making it work"

Once you’ve loaded your assets into a new system, it’s also worth considering how your users will access the assets and how you can optimise this process along with their day-to-day work. A good example of this is using integrations between your DAM system and other applications that your company uses. Asset Bank has integrations with Content Management Systems (CMS) such as Sitecore or Wordpress. There is also a custom CMS package and API that we can use to connect your repository with other applications you may use.


Integrating your Asset Bank with other applications can make your day-to-day life easier

One of the most simple but effective pieces of advice for ensuring that your users have a good experience with your DAM implementation is to be flexible. Accept that your implementation will constantly evolve to meet the needs of the business. The taxonomy that you design during implementation will change over the coming months and years in order to fit the way people work. Equally, the features and integrations that are required by your organisation will likely change and expand over time — so make sure any DAM provider you choose offers a full customer support service including consultancy offerings and not just technical support!

We can help you to store, manage and maximise your digital assets. Get in touch with one of our consultants for a chat, or browse our Help Centre for more articles and Asset Bank information.

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