There are now over 100000 protected areas worldwide, covering over 12% of the Earth's land surface. These areas represent one of the most significant human resource use allocations on the planet. The importance of protected areas is reflected in their widely accepted role as an indicator for global targets and environmental assessments. However, measuring the number and extent of protected areas only provides a unidimensional indicator of political commitment to biodiversity conservation. Data on the geographic location and spatial extent of protected areas will not provide information on a key determinant for meeting global biodiversity targets: 'effectiveness' in conserving biodiversity. Although tools are being devised to assess management effectiveness, there is no globally accepted metric. Nevertheless, the numerical, spatial and geographic attributes of protected areas can be further enhanced by investigation of the biodiversity coverage of these protected areas, using species, habitats or biogeographic classifications. This paper reviews the current global extent of protected areas in terms of geopolitical and habitat coverage, and considers their value as a global indicator of conservation action or response. The paper discusses the role of the World Database on Protected Areas and collection and quality control issues, and identifies areas for improvement, including how conservation effectiveness indicators may be included in the database to improve the value of protected areas data as an indicator for meeting global biodiversity targets.