A guide to using PDF documents on business websites (Part 1)

This week I’m going to be discussing something which is almost certainly of interest to every online marketing manager, and that’s the question of how to best handle PDF files. These are a hugely underexploited resource on most business websites, and I’ll be discussing how to find out what you’ve got, if they’re formatted to best effect, why you need to look at them in isolation, and if they can be made into an asset in Google.

Ten or fifteen years ago, when websites were of somewhat more quaint design than they are today, linking to a PDF document could take visitors into a whole new world. Back then, they were separate files which had to be read in a separate, proprietary application (Adobe Acrobat Reader) that you just had to hope the visitor had on their PC. Visitors might have had their PCs set up to automatically open the PDF file in Acrobat Reader, or they might have needed to “download” the file and then open it.

Nowadays most visitors just click on a “PDF” and it opens in the browser or in an application of their choice without any thinking on their part. PDF became an open standard in 2008, and many applications now read the files. Oddly, however, many websites still talk about “PDF downloads” in a manner which makes it look like the website was written in 2004. Maybe it was.

Most marketing managers claim to like PDF brochures on their site because they can be sure every visitor can see an identical, more visually impressive presentation. But we all know that few PDF documents read well on screen, as they’re usually formatted for A4 and require all sorts of zooming and scrolling. Sadly, the real reason for using them on business websites is more often that it enables the marketing manager to just upload a print brochure and not bother to make up a proper web page giving the information in a more screen-friendly way.

“Ah, but they’re designed to be printed out”, claim some people. But few visitors want to do that with PDF brochures because so many are just the mass-produced printed publications, with huge blocks of colour. How often do you print out PDF brochures, with the cost of printer ink being more than the cost of champagne?

It doesn’t work on screen; and nobody wants to print it out. All things considered therefore, perhaps the PDF brochure is an anachronism which needs to die out. However, the idea remains a good one, as long as it’s not just an excuse for laziness. Over the next few days, I hope to help you improve the quality of all the PDF documents on your website.

Next: Part 2

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