PDFs are compact, portable documents and essential tools for business professionals and not only. They are preferred by students and other academics, and by all kinds of users searching for information that is easy to save for a later read and documentation.
Ernie Smith of Tedium reasons that PDF is a file format that will remain with us long after we are gone – a well-balanced argument based on proof and substantial research.
Essentially, PDFs are great for archiving information and for printing but may be not so great for online presentations if we are to consider Jakob Nielsen’s usability arguments in back in 2003. Although some of these are dated – like the idea that users hate PDFs – Nielsen still has a point when he talks about PDFs breaking the flow, jarring user experience, and software crashes issues. There’s also the issue of file size: while compacting PDFs is now an option, they remain too large to load instantly, causing potential problems for websites hosting them.
When to Use PDFs on a Website?
There are enough arguments to support the use of PDFs on websites, and here are the main ones you should consider:
- Since PDFs are visible in most browsers, it makes sense to use this format for content that is not suitable for web pages – for example, e-papers and lengthy texts, like e-books, research, online magazines, newspaper articles, media kits, and so on. Therefore, it makes sense to use PDFs on a website to deliver such content.
- Printables – unlike HTML pages, PDFs print correctly, so if you need to provide documents for printing, offering them in PDF format is a valid choice.
- PDFs make sense when you want to share secured documents with website subscribers. Since you can use both password-protect and encryption for PDF documents, you can control who reads it, who prints or copies it, who alters it, and so on.
- PDFs are great for legal online You can create flattened fillable PDF forms for legally-binding agreements with your website users.
Are PDFs SEO-friendly?
PDFs are not as SEO-friendly as HTML pages, but they can be optimized. They can be indexed and some rank well, depending on topic, authority, and authorship, among other factors. Google can crawl PDFs since 2001, and it currently shows them in SERPs with a clear tag.
Making PDFs SEO-friendly is not common practice, but it can help if you want them to rank well. Some of the basic set of rules that apply for search engine optimization, like competitor keyword analysis, optimizing images, compressing file size, and so on, can be implemented to optimize PDFs too. Here are some tips to make PDFs SEO-friendly:
- Optimize PDF file names. Just like you would optimize an image file name, name your PDF files for discoverability and readability. Use the best keywords and hyphens. For example, if I were to save this document as a PDF file for the web, I would name it SEO-Friendly-PDFs-Website.pdf or something similar, eliminating the stop words and focusing on competitive keywords.
- Optimize PDF titles. Consider the PDF title just as important as the H1 heading on your web pages and optimize it appropriately. You can set up the title in the document meta-data, and the search engines will use it the same way they use an HTML title tag.
- Optimize metadata. You can easily include metadata, like title, subject (description), author, company, category, keywords, and more when you create a PDF document. Adobe offers a very helpful page describing the process and its advantages.
- Optimize PDF images.
- Compress images: just like they affect the speed of a website, large images will affect the loading speed of your PDF files. You can use tools like PDFelement and JPEGmini to compress images for PDF documents intended for websites without losing quality. Image compression is not recommended for print.
- Use alt attributes for PDF images: you can use text alternatives to images with the Alt entry in PDF documents.
- Optimize text. As we have already established, most search engines can crawl and index PDF files – especially when they are published in plain text. Following the traditional SEO rules that apply to websites can help your PDFs rank better: short paragraphs separated by subheadings improve readability for the users too.
- Optimize links. You can include links in your PDF files, and search engines are able to follow them. You can add anchor texts to your links too.
- Optimize for mobile viewing. Consider aligning your text to the left for better readability on small screens.
- Optimize PDF navigation. Include a clickable table of contents in your PDF to help users navigate from chapter to chapter with ease.
- Compress PDF size. Large files tend to load slowly and frustrate users. Consider compressing PDFs for web viewing. Adobe offers this option when you save your files. You can also use tools like PDF Compressor, PDF2Go, SmallPDF, and others to achieve the goal.
PDFs as Marketing Tools
When used right, PDFs can be powerful marketing tools.
Use PDFs to collect subscribers for a newsletter or potential customer leads. Niche-relevant PDFs such as research, magazines, e-books, tutorials, case studies, and whitepapers can be used as lead magnets – downloadable incentives for users that help you gather contacts and email addresses.
Many users prefer to save web content as PDF instead of printing to save paper and ink, for a later read, or for archiving. Some websites prefer to include a widget to allow them such an action, in line with social sharing buttons, and “send as email” buttons. However, with browser add-ons that enable similar functions, the practice is not that common – but you may consider it to add a plus of usability to your website.
Are PDFs Mobile-friendly?
Not by default. Using plain text, aligning it to the left for better readability on mobile screens, compressing images, and other techniques can make PDFs mobile-friendly. However, they do not display in mobile browsers, requiring a separate app to show. Even with an app like Google PDF Viewer able to open PDFs, these documents will take a long time to display on the screen.
For now, PDFs are relatively obsolete for the mobile-first web and for mobile devices – only because it is not widely known that Adobe is already working to offer solutions that will decide the future of PDFs on mobile. But even the future is dependent on an app called Adobe Scan.
To have mobile-ready PDF files you will need to optimize them for mobile viewing, and Adobe already offers tools to compress file size, unembed unnecessary fonts, enable fast web view, downsample or compress images, remove useless elements like invalid bookmarks and invalid links, and much more. The “Optimizing Adobe PDF files for display on mobile devices” *.pdf whitepaper by Adobe offers concrete step-by-step guidelines on how to optimize PDFs for mobile devices.
- PDFs are more popular than we tend to believe, especially with governments and legal departments that use them to collect and archive confidential information.
- PDFs can be optimized for search engines and can rank well in the SERPs.
- PDFs can be used as marketing tools to deliver lengthy information, checklists, infographics, and so on and to generate leads.
- PDFs can be mobile-friendly, but you will need an app to view them.
- Because they are widely used by governments and archives, PDFs are unlikely to become obsolete soon.
Meta description: PDFs on your website make sense only when they add value to your marketing efforts. You can optimize them for SEO and even for mobile.
For social media: There are a few arguments supporting the need of PDFs for your website, but these documents can be unnecessary when you design your site for the mobile-first web unless you optimize them.