Optimizing PDFs for Search Engines

PDF (Portable Document Format) files are a great way to give your users a “take-away” from your site, but it’ll only work if you know the following tips.

Way too many PDFs in the search results are just blank documents with nothing other than their contents.  If a user stumbles across your PDF in the search engines, they should at least have a good idea where the content came from so they can visit your site.  You should always make a PDF a stand-alone document with your company’s name and contact information.  This will help users find your actual site if all they found was your PDF.  Branding the PDF is also very important for users that might print out your PDF for later reference.  If your PDF doesn’t have your contact info, they’ll never remember where they got it.  Think of it as if you have of a product that can be found in a brick and mortar store – you’ve got the same (or better product) with a better price than the box store because of your lower overhead.  Let’s say your product is a faucet.  Your potential customer may print out a product data sheet and hand it to their contractor saying that they want that product at that price.  If the box store can’t match or beat the price, the contractor will have to go search for the product again.  If you had branded your PDF, they would go right to your site to find it.

Proper Title
PDFs are often created using the PDF distiller to print a document from Word.  When you do this, the PDF is titled something like “Microsoft Word-documentname.pdf.”  That’s a terrible name, especially if you save your Word documents by product number.    The title in a PDF can control the blue link in the search engines for your PDF and if the title is “Microsoft Word-DM3429-r-1342.pdf” that’s what is going to show up.  That’s never going to attract a user.  You should save your PDF with a good descriptive filename of the product and also change the meta title to reflect that name.  (More on that in the next section)

Meta Data
Each PDF has meta data associated with it, just like an HTML webpage.  This data can help control what is displayed in the search engines for the document.  In Adobe Acrobat you can access this information from “File -> Properties.”  There are four important elements; Title, Author, Subject, and Keywords.

  • Title: The title will often control what is displayed as the blue link in the search engines for the PDF.  Try to keep your character count, including spaces, to around 50 characters.  Title the document with a good description of the product and your company name if it fits.
  • Author: The author is taken straight from the program you used to produce the PDF.  If you used Word, it will pull your first and last name.  If someone else produced the file for you, it will contain their name.  You should change this field to your company’s name.
  • Subject: This data is pretty much the same as the description meta tag in HTML.  This field should be a nice description of the content of the document and be topically relevant.  You should try to keep this one to 150 characters or less, including spaces.  Google may still pull text from within the document to display as your description, but this gives you a better chance of controlling the info.
  • Keywords: Fill in the keywords with words and phrases related to the content of the document.  Start with a quote, and put a quote at the very end after the last keyword.  Separate each keyword or phrase with a comma.

Create a Text Based PDF
You must create a text based PDF.  If you create a PDF using photoshop, you will get one large image file.  Search engines cannot read text in images therefore your document will never rank.

Save One Version Older
Save your document as one version older than the current version of whatever PDF editor you are using.  Search engines and users are both slow to upgrade to support newer versions of things, so it’s best to use the last version of Acrobat.

Initial View
A PDF’s initial view should be specified by you so the user gets the first page, every time.  If not, it is possible that they could enter mid-document.  The Initial View settings are controlled under “File -> Properties” on the “Initial View” tab.  You should change the Page Layout to “Single View.”  Another option within this window is “Show:” that lets you select what title is displayed at the top of the page.  You should change this setting to “Document Title”

Fast Web View
Fast web view is a great option that allows the PDF to be loaded one page at a time instead of all at once when viewed on the web.  This will get the content to the user faster.  For documents larger than two pages, you should be sure this option is enabled by checking it in the preferences found here: “Edit -> Preferences” and on the “Documents” setting.

“Right-Size” Your PDF
Often when PDFs are created they are saved with the most detail possible which is great for future editing, but can cause serious bloat for the web.  Thankfully Acrobat comes with a feature to optimize the file size for the web.  I use it with every client PDF and have seen some go from 8MB to 700KB.  It’s a pretty amazing difference that makes the file load much faster.  This will make sure the search engines will index the files because if they are too big, the robots will just give up.  This option is available from “Document -> Reduce File Size”

Certify Your PDF
If your budget allows, you should get a certificate to certify the documents.  These certificates are available from the major security companies and Acrobat offers the option from the “Sign” button.  There is an option for “Getting Started With Digital Signatures” from the drop-down menu.  Certs are kind of expensive at around $400 per year, but it’s a nice thing for your users to see.  A digital signature will report to the user that changes have been made to the document in case the document gets scrapped and re-listed on another website and tell them the original owner.

Link to Your PDF
The only way a search engine is going to find your PDF to list is if you have links to it.  You should link from prominent pages on your site that are indexed regularly.  You can also build links to your document from other websites to help increase it’s popularity and get better positioning in the search engines.

Even if you don’t run your SEO campaign or create your PDFS, at least now you know what your employees should be doing.