The Great PDF Debate

August 30, 2012 Josh Amer

Love them or hate them, PDFs are a part of life for content managers at law firms. A recent post in which I outlined some considerations for creating PDFs has stirred up some healthy debate on the topic. With that in mind, here are a few more things to consider:

First, let’s be clear about where the problem with PDFs really lies. The type of PDFs that we’d like to see firms use less of are those that could easily be created as web pages, without sacrificing any value that might be added by PDF. This is particularly true where firms might want to create all of their newsletters or press releases as PDFs rather than simply creating the same content through their content management system. Furthering the issue is that many of these firms link directly to the PDF from a listing page rather than creating a landing page for the PDF. This creates the type of scenario I described in which the visitor has no real navigation option other than the back button.

We want firms to think about the way that visitors will engage with their content. Less and less that means printing out a well formatted document. Instead, it increasingly means reading content on a tablet or mobile phone and having the option to instantly share content with your networks. Where appropriate, we strive to create engaging user experiences that are device agnostic. PDFs aren’t always aligned with this strategy.

What we want, and what everyone should want, is a well thought strategy that focuses on the user. At times, PDFs are out of synch with that goal.

There’s far more that can be done with the web than can be done with a PDF. This is increasingly true with the advent of HTML5 and improvements in web browsers. Take, for example, Google’s evolution of the web or The Founders Fund’s manifesto. In the past these may have been done as PDFs; however, today we have the ability to take this information and turn it into a much more engaging experience (as shown in the Founders Fund example, it’s okay to have it both ways).

Obviously that takes time and investment and is perhaps better suited for longer form, more in-depth content. For shorter, more timely content, it’s even easier to argue that PDFs should not be used, if for no other reason than the ease of content management. An easy way to create timely content is part of why we have content management systems in the first place, right?

From an SEO standpoint, it’s true that you can do things to optimize your PDFs, but when someone finds your PDF in a search, they are left stranded without any navigation options other than the back button - and in this case, that back button goes back to Google or Bing, not your site. And let’s not forget that SEO is a moving target. What you can do to optimize PDFs today may hurt you tomorrow. Do you really want to go back and update all of your PDFs because of a change in algorithm?

PDFs have some issues that you should consider before deciding that you will use them as a primary source of your content. I’ve outlined some of these issues and provided some tips to help if you do choose to use PDFs. That’s not to say I think they are great, even if you do follow these recommendations. Whether or not you elect to use them is ultimately up to you and what works for your strategy.

We’d love to hear more on the topic. Let us know where you fall on the great PDF debate.

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Josh Amer Strategist

At the time of publishing, Josh was a Strategist at One North.

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