PDF files – 5 ways to prepare them for the web.

When PDF files are well prepared for the web they will effectively support your business.

Using PDF files on your website is an excellent way of promoting your business. Ensure you are making the best use of the tool. Stop being lazy and dumping your print formatted or poorly considered PDF content into your website. Take a moment to experience what some one finding your PDF content will see by looking at it yourself. Is it helpful, easy to use and impactful? If not, why not? Ensure that you can effectively prepare PDF files for the web by understanding the following 5 simple factors.

Portable Document Format (PDF) is an open standard for document exchange. Created by Adobe Systems in 1993, it has become a popular format for representing documents in a manner independent of application softwarehardware, and operating systems.

PDF files serve a number of purposes including delivery of high quality files for commercial print. PDF files are also a common method of attaching content to web pages. This has in the past been most common when documents designed for print also need transferring to the web. The PDF file format has developed in recent times to include multimedia, video, sound and 3D, in addition to text, full-colour graphics and photos. This means that the modern use of a PDF to deliver content to the web is evolving. Modern PDF files are capable of being much more than a simple artificial photocopiers for attaching existing content to your website. However it is important to prepare PDF files for the web.

For most business users the PDF format is simply an output process that delivers the final document via a print dialogue or a drop down menu. Most do not realise that not all PDF files are equal. High quality print PDF files differ in structure and capacity to that of optimised PDF files for delivery via the web. Loading poor quality PDF files to your website will act as a lead weight to your site. This will effect both Search Engine Optimisation and user experience. Follow this simple 5-point plan to ensure your PDF files are effective in the online environment.

1. Design

In most cases simply transferring a print based design to the web will leave your user frustrated. Even if you have addressed the issues that follow, leaving a viewer to consume content designed for delivery as a printed item on-screen can be ineffective. Design and communication messages that worked in the original document can fall flat and act as a barrier to proper engagement.

This does not mean that documents created for print cannot also be effective online. Effective solutions are possible even if your capacity and or budget to improve your PDF files is limited. Make use of some simple features such as bookmarks, hyperlinks and cross references to really assist the delivery of content in an online PDF.

Where possible consider good design practice for on-screen content delivery. An appropriate layout, use of high contrast colours for text, minimum text sizes and a logical on-screen read order are all important.

If you have a brochure type design ensure that the PDF presents the pages appropriately. For example pages might be shown as spreads instead of single pages to help the presentation of the information. Also ensure that the document is easy to print out. The print options in Adobe Acrobat Reader are simple to use but why not help your user by providing instructions. This should ensure it is output as you would prefer.

If you want to prepare PDF files for the web to the highest standard then you should explore tagging and structuring of content. I would recommend you seek professional assistance to do this to understand the full requirements and benefits. Properly tagged and structured PDF files provide the most flexible and accessible content delivery.

2. Size

Optmising your PDF files for online delivery is a simple and effective way to ensure that they do not weigh down your website with bloated files. It will also ensure that the experience of those who download them is not one of frustration. But we have high-speed broadband I hear you cry! True improved broadband does mean that downloading file sizes is not such an issue as in the past, except for two things:

  • not everyone gets that 20mb premium bandwidth; and
  • mobile viewing is increasingly becoming the preferred method of viewing content.

The objective of your messaging is to reach as may people as possible and ensure they can access the information simply. The size of your PDF can be optimised with no visible loss of quality making it a more effective tool.

Achieving this need not be a major task. It is true that getting a professional to consider this and creating an authoring file with this in mind will deliver the best results. However the editing version of Adobe Acrobat (latest edition Acrobat X) provides a number of simple scripts for tackling this process automatically. Take a small amount of time to review the software you use to create your PDF files. You will find that these provide output settings specific for the different types of file you may wish to create. Microsoft Word and Adobe InDesign offer a number of options for outputting PDF files within the print dialogue. If you already have a PDF it is possible to optimise this using Acrobat Pro to improve the format of the document.

It may seem trivial but the ranking of web content is becoming ever more advanced. Search engines such as Google are increasingly reviewing all aspects of your websites content. Bloated file sizes shows lazy file creation and the logical progression of thought is that this will be reflected in the content. It is easily avoided and shows that you are taking your web content seriously.

3. Security

I am continuely amazed at the lack of understanding shown by many businesses in regard to the protection of their intellectual property. Now let’s be clear, if you are creating content to share on the web and you are not concerned with what someone might do with that information, then this section won’t be of much interest. Equally if you do post content to your website and blog it is important to explain that you will still have some copyright protection (as long as it is your content of course). However, let’s be realistic the web is essentially a free source of information and content. If content is on a web page it can be extracted.

This probably seems obvious, but what many do not realise is that the same is true of an unsecure PDF file. PDF files are by default open. Meaning that content from an unsecure PDF is easily copied and pasted into a word processing application and reused for any purpose. However, a PDF can be secured either by applying a password or using a certificate depending on how advanced you want to be. Both methods are applied using the full editing version of Acrobat and there are third party options also available.

If you create PDF files you should consider how valuable the content is and whether restricting the ability of others to copy it is worthwhile. Often the content posted in a PDF is of high value to a business and so protecting it makes sense. None of this alters your rights as the author of the content. But would you leave you bike unlocked outside the news agents while you pop in to pick up the paper?

4. Colour

The issue of colour is two-fold. It is important to make sure that your PDF is impactful and easy to read. The design and layout are vital elements but colour will play an important role. Use high contrast colours and considers issues such as colour blindness and visual impairment. The RNIB estimates forms of visual impairment effect as many as 2% of the population. This rises significantly as people age. Consider your potential markets and ask yourself whether potentially excluding people is really a sensible approach. With a little planning your PDF can be accessible by all.

My second point is in relation to colour reproduction and consistent brand delivery. When viewed on-screen, colours are displayed using the RGB colour space and this can differ significantly from the printed representation of a colour. Printed colour uses CMYK or Pantone systems. If you have invested time and money in your brand and understand the importance of consistent and professional presentation. Then you will be hugely disappointed to see your online brochure looking very different on-screen, than on your desk. You might even be horrified to learn that when printed out from the website the reproduction will look different again. And not in a good way!

There is no simple solution to these issues. Colour is a particularly difficult area to manage. You will need to seek expert help and accept that there maybe a level of compromise required. Selecting brand colours carefully, adjusting colours for online delivery and ensuring that PDF files are created in the correct color space will help achieve effective outcomes.

If you simply continue to use your print formatted PDF files on your website you can’t complain about how they look.

5. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)

The first key requirement of any PDF that wants to be noticed by Search Engines is to ensure that it text-based. This simply means that it is generated from a text editing software application such as Microsoft Word or Adobe InDesign. Rather than from an image based program such as Adobe Photoshop.

Next consider key wording of the document just like a regular web page. Be careful about heavy-handed adjustments to the copy solely with this in mind. Better that you make sure the document content is valid and informative than simply stuff it full of key words. But a like tweaking might worthwhile. Follow the basic rules. Try and include keywords in the page title, headings and at least a couple of times in the first paragraph. Including it throughout the content is also a good idea. Make sure you also name the file using the primary keywords if possible. This will make sure it shows up in the URL just like a normal web page and act as a relevance flag to search engine spiders. Finally, if you are able, use image captions within the PDF file to describe image content. The odd keyword here wouldn’t go a miss here either.

You should also complete the document properties. This includes the title, author, subject, and keywords. This is done in either the text editing application or in the final PDF. The title is the most important, as it will supply the page title in search engine results. If you don’t create a title, the search engines will use a line from the page, which may not make a lot of sense to potential visitors. The other sections have less impact but it is good practice to add information where possible.

To have the most impact on your PDF files SEO you need to make use of Tags. Using a full editing version of Adobe Acrobat you can add tags to content that behave similarly to HTML tags in web pages. Content can be defined such as headlines, captions, body text and images. Images can also have alternative text descriptions applied to clearly define what is displayed. This ensures that Search Engines can quickly scan your PDF and understand the content. It will also make sure your content is more accessible by ensuring assistive technology such as screen readers can use the content.

Finally make sure your PDF is easy to see. Linking to a PDF from your home page or top navigation (main pages) will make sure it is close to your root directory. This will help search engines find it easily. Another tip is to link from the PDF back to pages on the web. This will make sure that search engines notice your content when scanning the web.

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