Optimising PDFs for search is one of the most overlooked SEO opportunities available today.

The good news is that it's easy to optimise a pdf and, as well as helping your website gain traffic, it also improves usability.

As an SEO consultant I see companies in highly competitive markets implementing content marketing and link building strategies to improve their search rankings to increase visibility and sales. 

To improve search engine visibility (and avoid Google penalties) they target links from trusted, powerful websites that are in similar or complementary fields to their own. These links are valuable but sometimes hard to obtain – many websites have a policy of not linking to external websites, or implementing nofollow links, even when they mention an organisation.

This is where optimising your PDFs for search becomes important. While many organisations have policies to not link externally, some of them are happy to upload relevant external PDFs to their websites.

Because Google treats PDFs very much like a webpage (ever noticed PDFs in search results?), optimising your PDFs for search gives you an excellent opportunity to gain both exposure and link authority from external sites that upload your content. 

Optimising a PDF for search is very much the same as optimising a webpage. Your first priority should be usability. Google has been designed to work like a person when it crawls and ranks webpages – content and links are crucial.

Note: You can complete most of these actions in the base document you are creating your PDF from. Sometimes the names of the different sections referred to change but it should be quite straight forward.

So how do you optimise a PDF?

There are a number of things that you can do to ensure that you are giving your business the best opportunity to benefit. These include: 

  • Link back to your website from logos and copy.
  • Use a descriptive file name.
  • Use keywords in headings.
  • Complete title and meta data in document properties.
  • Use text (not graphics) for your copy.
  • Use alt text for images.

Link back to your website from logos and copy

Links from PDFs hosted on other people's sites count as an external link to your website and help you website rank for key phrases.

Link back to the website homepage via your logo, and any other relevant pages where appropriate - i.e. if the pdf promotes an event, include a link to the event landing page or the booking form etc. 

Set up email address so users can open a pre-populated blank email when the email link is clicked. Great for maximising conversions!

Use a descriptive file name

Your file name (just like your main heading and properties title) should fully describe the content of the PDF – someone with no idea of the contents should be able to look at the title and know exactly what the content is about. 

If this page for a PDF for instance I could call it:

  • Optimising PDFs for SEO.pdf; or,
  • Optimising-PDFs-for-SEO.pdf

Using hyphens between words is great for pdfs that are going to be uploaded as it reduces the chance of getting “%20” between the words when users download them. Avoid “&” and other special characters in your file name also.

Note: Your file name should be similar to your title and main heading.

Use keywords in headings

Just like a web page, headings that contain relevant keywords are seen as more important and help you rank for those words. 

Note: Your main heading should be similar to your file name and title.

Complete title and meta data in document properties

For the title put the most important keywords at the beginning keep it under 70 characters total - anything more will be cut off by Google in the search results.

Make sure you fill in the document properties as far as possible - complete the author and subject and check additional metadata for relevant items to fill in.

Note: Your title should be similar to your file name and main heading.

Use text (not graphics) for your copy

Search engines can't read images, so make sure the words in your PDF are basic copy-and-paste able text, not pictures of words. Where you have words in an image use alt text to tell Google what the image says.

Include a table of contents where appropriate and make sure the headings that will appear in that table of contents include the most important keywords for the document.

Use alt text for images

For all images use alternative text (alt text) to describe your images to the search engines, just like you should on a webpage:

  • Make your alt text and image title slightly different
  • Use SEO keywords that describe the image in the alt text
  • Keep alt text relevant to the image it’s describing
  • Create different alt text for each important image
  • Use keywords in your image file name

TIP: If you are using a base template, add links to the logos and URLs in the template so every time you use the template for a new document you already have a head start. This will not only save you time, it will improve consistency across your documents.

More information

Creating Accessible PDF Documents with InDesign

https://www.adobe.com/content/dam/Adobe/en/products/indesign/pdfs/indesign-cs55-accessibility-whitepaper.pdf 

Summary

As you can see, optimising PDFs for search is pretty much common sense, but it’s surprising how many I came across that only have basic optimisation.

By incorporating these steps into all your PDF documents you can ensure you take full advantage when your document is uploaded by another website.

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Published 29 April, 2015 by Damon Rutherford

Damon Rutherford is a freelance SEO Consultant at Digitator and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

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Comments (4)

Josh Salvage

Josh Salvage, SEO Analyst at Jellyfish

Applying a rel="canonical" tag on your PDF (which points to the main URL that hosts it) via HTTP Headers would be my top recommendation.

Great tips nonetheless!

over 2 years ago

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David Lenehan, Managing Director at Northern Industrial

Should the content not be on the website rather than a pdf? If it is important to the user then it shouldn't be on a pdf

over 2 years ago

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Andras Regula, Digital Acquisition and marketing lead at Citibank

Well it depends on company. If you have lots of products with different terms and conditions, application forms, etc you have to use pdf so it is necessary to make them proper for seo as well.

over 2 years ago

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Damon Rutherford, Freelance SEO Consultant at Digitator

@Josh - Good point re. rel="canonical", if you are hosting the PDF on your own website, especially if it duplicates a webpage. This isn't my strong point, but my understanding is that rel="canonical" has to be implemented on the website itself, not on the PDF, so this wouldn't work if the PDF was uploaded to someone elses website. Correct me if I'm wrong!

@David - You are correct - generally speaking your main content should be on the website. As Andras says there are also lots of reasons to put together use PDFs as well though. A few others I can think of include annual reports, whitepapers, event brochures, pricing lists, magazine articles, and anything else that might need printing out, such as instructions.

Thanks for your comments!

over 2 years ago

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