Blog Post

Structure vs Metadata

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

It’s my impression – from various reading around the internets – that of the many new features that came with Tiger, Spotlight hasn’t lived up to the hype it initially generated.

While my filing habits have slipped slightly, I still don’t use Spotlight as much as I expected I would almost a year later. Spotlight utilizes both full text search and metadata indexing. While full text search is great for the common user, the real power comes in the metadata.

The beauty of metadata is its flexibility and dynamic nature. Spotlight Comments offer users the ability to append the standard metadata set (date, file size, file type, etc, etc, etc) with their own keywords/tags/what-have-you. This is accessed from the Get Info pane of each file. (Though I prefer the quicker access provided by Quicksilver…)

Professionally, I’ve been using metadata on an enterprise level for about 6 years. So I’m not a stranger to the power it represents. But I’m an old dog, and a fairly structured old dog at that. I don’t know if I can surrender my personal computer to use this new trick… But I’m going to try. Here’s what I’m planning:

  1. Adhere to a strict tagging practice with all new files using Spotlight Comments & Labels
  2. Put all new files in a flat directory
  3. Setup Smart Folders for most regularly used files (a quick Spotlight search/Quicksilver should find the stragglers)
  4. Stick to this system for no less than a month

Ultimately it boils down to which system is more useful in the real world – structured directories, or metadata. I wonder if a properly executed metadata scheme can yield better results than the decades old folder/directory structure. Has anyone else taken to a similar ‘filing’ scheme? The old (structure) is in my veins as much as right-clicking still is. Yet I’ve seen enough of the new (metadata) to shy from writing it off without a fight.

Which do you think will win out in a home computing environment? If you’ve already run a similar experiment, please share your insights!

18 Responses to “Structure vs Metadata”

  1. Have you guys downloaded, and played with xattr at all?

    It looks as though apple is planning some kind of silver lined future, as they have worked extended attributes into the OS. The implementation is at the BSD level tho, and there’s no Coacoa API, yet… Which means that you cant put xattrs on a file, and index them with Spotlight.

    I bet 10.5 will implement this.

  2. Really….many thanks, I’ve been aimlessly looking for advice in these kind of topic for many months and finally I’ve found it here…

    About the iTunes obsession, yes…it can be very stressing indeed not to have everything neat….like Nick said, “I want my computer to do everything for me”, so it’s worth the effort

  3. “glad you’ve found ‘the mother ship”

    :D thanks, my sanity was being questioned with my friends who were starting to think I’d end up naked in some bacteria-free room washing my hands every 5 minutes (mmmmmmm that I do)

    Looking forward to your post…I’ll make use of it also for iTunes (another obsession)

  4. I’m still impressed to find guys obsessed with this kind of stuff like myself….I’m listengn guys, your idea of a metatag experiment was something I thought was a fact that I was going insane but I’ve found a place to discuss these kind of topics.

    I will attempt a similar experiment on my new iMac (it gives me a fresh and easier start than my old powerbook), the only questions for me always has been:

    How do you choose how many tags you will handle ??
    How do you keep the tag number under control?
    As an organization freak I always tend to lose perception and eventually end up a mess

    Thanks guys

  5. Sid Barcelona

    Apple has done a great job over the years to evolve its computer hardware. Unfortunately the Mac GUI has not evolved at the same rate. We are still living in a world of windows/folders/icons and I think we all have been experiencing the limitations of this method in organizing the amount of information we are managing on a daily basis. Metadata could be a way to go, but we need a new OS/GUI that incorporates this method from its core and not as an add on to the existing MacOS. If this were the case, application developers could take advantage of this method and we could really take things to a new level. I long for a new ‘insanely great’ user experience that moves beyond ‘cutesy’ icons and a hierarchical file structure. I wish that Apple would stop giving us ‘widgets’ which are the software equivalent of ‘sound bite’ information and focus on real user experience issues. In the future we are guaranteed that we will have to deal with even more data, so we need new methods/systems that will enable us to easily create/organize/access information more efficiently. I hope that we can encourage Apple to evolve its OS and create the next generation user experience.

  6. Well following the fantastic comments to add a tagging field to the save dialogs, I shot off an email.

    Default Folder X does a lot to enhance the save dialogs in OS X. So I sent of an email with your ideas to the developer. He responded that it’s already on his list of enhancements for a future release.

    So if we don’t hear about it as a part of Leopard today, we can at least look toward Default Folder X to fit the bill!

  7. Scott Fannen

    For Spotlight to be really useable you definitely need to make it easier to put metadata in – and not into some grand “desktop database thing” but into the files themselves.

    The suggestion of making it possible in the Save dialog is great but also to do it through Spotlight itself (other than just a boring Get Info style comment). Spotlight reads things like IPTC (Photoshop style comments) but neither Spotlight or iPhoto lets you put then back into the images – you have a wonderfully keyworded library that falls flat as soon as you send it to someone.

    …and that nothing beats proper filing. Just look at Google. Great in the total absence of a organised filing method but looking for things like George Bush will hardly give you what you want!

    A nice start though and Quicksilver is definitely the “bees knees”!

  8. The idea to add the metadata info in the Save dialog is awesome. Even if Apple doesn’t rig this up, there’s gotta be an enterprising programmer out there who could make a few extra bucks by putting together a share/donateware app that does this.

  9. Interesting that Microsoft is implementing a section to add tags, ratings etc in every single save dialogue in Office. I like how they are implementing metadata into Vista. I would be astounded if Apple doesnt make it just as easy in Leopard. The current Spotlight comments field simply takes too long.

  10. Rik – that’s the best idea IMO. Add a metadata/comments/tagging input for all save dialogs. I sure hope to hear something along those lines from Steve tomorrow.
    In the meantime, try using Quicksilver for tagging. once you’re comfortable, it’s super fast and fairly painless.

    Colin – Awesome. That’s what I was waiting to hear. Hopefully I can turn the corner and find the same amount of utility as you have.

  11. I implemented that exact system for the previous semester of classes–Spotlight comments for the name of the class with smart folders for each class, and all the documents got dropped into the Documents folder. It was a lot easier once I created an “untagged documents” smart folder. This folder holds all the untagged documents made within the last two days (I do most of my work in Word, so I simplified it down to all Word documents made in the last two days without Spotlight comments). Since that folder had a prominent place on my desktop, it was a helpful reminder to actually go and tag the files.

  12. Metadata is a great to locate things, especially if you use a lot of relevant keywords to describe something. BUT… if you´re new to this and have tons of files without keywords – like pictures – then start to cry and get lots of patience to fill every single file you use with comments.

    I´ve been there before when i was introduced to iTunes. Man, it was painful. No, not painful, but PAINFUL. It was almost impossible to find anything because i never used the ID3 tags. However, after a lot of work, I can´t live with it anymore: now i can find any music with a few keystrokes.

    My two cents: it would be great to have an “iTunes interface” to the whole system, because it would force me to use the tags, like iTunes did to me. Of course it will scare a lot of users at the beggining, but after that it will be a bliss.

  13. Rik Eberhardt

    I’ve tried this (although not to this extreme extent) and couldn’t follow through. There is no easy way to tag my files within the apps I’m using. True, Word has the properties section where I can add author, description, and the like, but this isn’t a part of the basic file dialog box. If Apple were to add a second input line, below the file name, where I could list my tags ( style) that would be great. But as this does not exist, I would have to find the file, right-click, Get Info, and enter the tags – 3 steps I’d rather not take.

  14. I will be interested to follow this. I’m a big fan of utilising features, or at least trying them out. I would ideally like to set up my Mac so that it stores things in the right place for me, without me having to go through and arrange it all. I may try something like this with just my photos.