Three Reasons, Other Than SEO, You Shouldn’t Use PDFs

August 13, 2012 Josh Amer

If you ask an SEO purist, they will likely tell you that none of the content on your website should be displayed in the form of a PDF. Having worked closely with many law firms, we understand that it is not always possible to avoid PDFs entirely. However, where possible, we generally recommend that PDFs be avoided for displaying content such as publications or events and instead be used to present supporting material. Setting the SEO debate aside, here are a few additional reasons why PDFs should not be a primary source of content on your website:

Socialization
As the web becomes more social, sharing tools have become commonplace on web pages. PDFs, however, cannot include sharing tools. Although it’s true that some browsers include sharing options and visitors can copy and paste a link to a PDF, there’s no easier way to share than by simply clicking a share button on a web page. And there’s no easier way to extend the reach of your content than by making it easily shareable.

Exploration
Within a typical web page, a visitor can see different ways to navigate to other site sections, easily perform a search through all site content, and more often than not, easily click to gain access to related information. When you land on a PDF, however, you get none of that. PDFs make exploring related content or other site sections much more difficult. This is especially true for a visitor that reaches the PDF from a search on Google or Bing. When they get to one of your PDFs, they just see the PDF. There is not an easy way to get to your website from the PDF and often the only option from there is to click the back button and search for something else.

Observation
PDFs also produce gaps in analytics. If you are attempting to monitor the ways in which someone is using your site, and most firms are, you’ll certainly face some difficulty when it comes to tracking how PDFs are being used, or not being used. Without some substantial trickery, you won’t be able to track the typical metrics that you can with a page, such as where a visitor went after viewing the PDF or how long they viewed it. Instead, you will most likely be able to see one thing – how many times a PDF has been downloaded. Though that’s a good start, it’s a small portion of what’s possible from a web analytics standpoint.

If you must use a PDF, be sure to follow these recommendations for optimizing PDFs. It’s also a good idea to consider services like Scribd (a YouTube for your documents), that allow you to embed PDFs into a page. This helps to avoid interruptions in user experience. PDFs may be unavoidable, but a bad user experience can always be avoided.

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Josh Amer Strategist

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

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