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December 3, 2007

Optimize PDF Assets for SEO & Search Success

In less than one minute, most of us can think of at least eight to ten content assets our company keeps hidden away in files, drawers, and other places where we know they won’t be seen by customers. But in an online atmosphere that demands fresh, quality content to achieve high search engine positioning, why not let the search engines (and hopefully users) see what you’ve kept tucked away?

I just took the last minute to brainstorm what kind of content asset a typical company leaves off their website. How about your best PowerPoint, brochures, white papers, case studies, template proposals, technical briefs, service descriptions and offerings, sell sheets, or process manuals?

All of these assets are great places to leverage existing content for search engine optimization (SEO) purposes, and what’s more, they’re all easily converted into PDF form.

Still, many within the search sphere have questioned the practicality and utility of using PDF content on websites for SEO. Why not convert them to HTML? In the past, this would have been the only way to make them visible to search engines. But now, all the major search engines have evolved to the point where their spiders have the ability to crawl and index and PDF content, thus making PDFs a valuable content platform from an SEO standpoint.

As I mentioned earlier, many in the industry would have demanded this PDF content in HTML form. But, of course not many of them have the time, desire, budget, or skill to perform such conversions. Others would claim their marketing materials are visually based or inherently tied to other brand elements, like print advertising.

So how do you decide if posting PDF content on your website is a good idea for you? It all depends on the type of PDF content you’re holding onto, and whether it is has the potential to be effectively optimized for the right reasons. But how do you optimize a PDF?

  1. Ensure that your PDFs are text based. If they aren’t text, the search engines won’t be able index much of anything from them, and chances are they won’t have much of an effect on your search engine ranking.
  2. Optimize your copy. The words in a PDF are no different than other web content, so this is your proverbial “bread and butter” as far as SEO is concerned. Make sure the text is keyword focused and relevant.
  3. Like any other web page, you’ll want your PDFs to contain links. Along these same lines, it is critical that the anchor text within these links be optimized like it would a link on any other web page. Search engines are aware of these links, and they are also another great way to define navigation pathways that connect readers to other content you’re offering. From a business perspective, PDFs are often sent via email, and links inside the PDF itself can direct these interested readers back to your website, where they’ll more than likely browse for related materials.
  4. Remember to position your PDFs where they’ll be found by search engines if you want them to find and index this content. This means placing links to your PDFs in the upper echelons of your site’s architecture, not burying them on pages no one ever looks at.
  5. Optimize the size of PDF file itself for search. If the file size is too large, readers will be sitting there while it downloads at a turtle’s pace. Moreover, search engines may not even bother to index the content if its unaccesible. Spare visitors and search engines alike the hassle of downloads and respect their time by using the full version of Acrobat to correctly size the file. You can do this by selecting “Advanced” under “Document Properties,” then go to “PDF Optimizer” and select “right-size” to format the document in a search engine friendly manner. Also, in the interests of your users, you’ll want to enable the “Optimize for Fast Web View” option in the Preferences>General Settings panel. This will allow the PDF to load one page at a time rather than all at once, which cuts download time.
  6. Be aware of what version of Acrobat you’re using, as search engines have been known to lag behind Adobe’s newer versions of Acrobat. While the major search engines all spider and index PDF content, it is safer to use Acrobat 7.0 or lower to be sure that the search engines don’t pass over your PDF content because they can’t read it. Some of your users may not have the newest versions of Acrobat either, so it’s safer to save them in a format you know will be accessible to search engines and users alike.
  7. Don’t forget to complete the document properties! Many times when we’re creating PDFs, we forget this critical step. In fact, most of the PDFs out there don’t have the document properties optimized or specified. The most important aspect of the document, like SEO on any other webpage, is the Title. In addition to being the text that’s presented as a search result, the PDF’s title is identical to an HTML tag. Simply go to “File” and then “Document Properties” to access the title properties, and from there you can also add other document properties related to meta data, including Subject, Keywords, Author, etc. What’s more, if you neglect to complete the title property, search engines grab a title from your PDF’s content, which may not necessarily be the best description of your document or the title you want. So always fill in the document properties in order to optimize your PDF like you would any other webpage. Start your PDF with a few targeted sentences describing the content and it’s more than likely that searches for the keywords you’ve chosen will include your PDF as a result.
  8. Specify the reading order of your document, as search engines search the text of your PDF and then select a blurb to display as the description of your document. If your reading order isn’t specified, it’s possible that the search engines could select something pretty random. So don’t give them that chance. If you do, users probably won’t click on your PDF anyway. A good rule of thumb to remember is the same as traditional SEO: Search engines will index and subsequently associate the first thing they see with the content of your document. So how does one go about outlining the reading order? Using the full version of Acrobat, you’ll have to start at “Advanced,” move to “Accessibility” and then “Add Tags to Document.” From there go to “Touch Up Reading Order” and you’ll see the path a search engine would follow through your document. In addition, within the “Add Tags to Document” section, you’ll have the chance to tag images, headings, etc.

In conclusion, it’s clear that many companies have a wealth of content assets that they can easily convert to PDF format. Still, if these PDFs aren’t optimized, they won’t be nearly as effective in creating additional online visibility and boosting search engine ranking, which is one of the main reasons you’d do this in the first place. So remember, SEO applies to PDFs too, not just webpage’s, and moreover, as search engines continue their evolution and grow ever more sophisticated (click here to see how), PDFs are becoming even more valuable due to their ability to act as a virtual gold mine for content. When all is said and done, posting optimized PDFs lets your content work harder for you by boosting organic search engine rank and increasing your company’s online visibility and opportunities for interaction. Connect through content.

Author:  Nick Yorchak is an SEO expert and Search Engine Marketing Specialist at Fusionbox, a full-service Denver Internet marketing, web design, and web development company. He can be reached at his Fusionbox email or at (303)952-7490