I was recently asked about the use of PDFs on a client’s website. The business, which provides bottles for the beer, wine and beverage industry, would like to start posting a monthly newsletter to the website as a PDF. My background is in web content and search engine optimization, so I was asked whether it is better to use regular HTML than a downloadable PDF.
I was excited to hear that this business is interested in building out their content. Adding good information to your website that is relevant and interesting to your target audience is the very best way to win at search engine optimization.
Google confirmed a while back that it can index PDF content and follow the links within it. It can even pull PDFs into the Featured Snippet area if relevant enough to a searcher’s question.
First, answer the bigger question: How do PDFs tie into what this business wants to accomplish with its content strategy?
In the book “They Ask, You Answer,” Marcus Sheridan talks about making a plan for what each piece of information on a website should be able to do for the reader. By writing a blog article on his website on each question he has ever heard from a customer, Sheridan was able to save his swimming pool business and make the website the largest-trafficked swimming pool website in the world. It’s my favorite content story. It’s also my favorite SEO story.
Jon Clark, writing for SearchEngineJournal.com in a September article, wrote that PDFs are useful for key objectives like gathering leads. For example, a business can create a technical manual, ebook, or other guide with information valuable to its readers and offer it in exchange for an email signup. Clark’s article has specifics for setting up the file so that it is as usable as possible.
The most important thing is not to create any obstacle to the reader quickly being able to find some good information you are sharing. The best information is that which can be easily accessed by all types of readers using all types of devices. Here’s why:
- How long do you think visitors will be willing to wait to download and then open a PDF with the content? Recent studies have shown that people have pretty short attention spans.
- What’s the plan to ensure those on smaller screens can access and see that information? For example, I can download PDFs on my Android phone, but finding the downloaded file and reading its contents is an exercise in frustration.
- What’s the plan to ensure those with impaired vision can still easily find the content using a screen reader?
The Nielsen Norman Group, a company specializing in user experience on websites, released a report in June urging businesses not to rely on PDF format for on-screen reading. They are optimized to be printed and contain only limited navigation, forcing the reader to read it like a book, which is not how people like to use the Internet these days.
From a practical standpoint, managing PDFs can be cumbersome. For example, when a new version of the product catalog is uploaded, someone has to remember to remove the old one. Otherwise, there will be duplicate content in search engine indexes, and the business risks having the new catalog fail to show in search results because Google think’s it is a copy.
It you’re skeptical, try a little test to prove the concept. To see how Google indexes a PDF already on your website, select a short sentence on page 2 or 3 of your PDF and copy it. Open a new Google search tab and paste that sentence with quote marks around it into the search field, then hit Enter. If your PDF fails to show up, something is wrong with the way the file was set up, because it’s not getting indexed.
So the long answer is yes – PDFs can be used in your content plan on a website. But they should be set up correctly and used with a strategic purpose, understanding the preferences of your audience while doing so.