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How to get PDFs for SEO optimized (7 steps)

PDFs are great for compatibility and consistency. They work on almost any device and always have the same visual appearance. However, if you're creating new content for the web, you should consider putting web pages over PDFs.

We'll look at it below:

How Google treats PDFs

PDFs are displayed with a PDF tag in Google search results.

PDFs are converted to HTML and indexed. For PDFs that contain text images, Google uses OCR (Optical Character Recognition) technology to convert the image of the text into text. Images in PDFs are also indexed in image search results.

Google places web pages over PDFs if they are duplicates. When you have pages and PDFs with the same content, Google tends to prefer the page version of the content as the lead version of the duplicate cluster. This means that the signals will be consolidated in the page version and that this will be the version that will appear in the search results.

Why PDFs are not good for SEO

Even though Google indexes PDFs and occasionally ranks, the format has some disadvantages compared to websites:

  1. Not mobile friendly. PDFs are created in such a way that they have a uniform appearance across all devices. That means there is no such thing as a mobile-friendly PDF.
  2. No navigation. Most PDFs do not contain navigation elements, which makes it more difficult for users to explore other content.
  3. Some SEO attributes are missing. PDF files contain equivalent versions of many SEO elements, but are also missing many elements such as individual link attributes such as nofollow, UGC and sponsored.
  4. Not likely to be crawled often. Because PDFs rarely change, they are crawled less often than pages that are updated more frequently.
  5. Tracking is more difficult. Most popular trackers run JavaScript on a web page and will not work in PDF files.

However, I am well aware that there are some situations in which there is no getting around using a PDF file for your content. If that's the case for you, read on to learn how to optimize your PDFs for search.

Most of the on-page SEO elements that you are used to seeing in HTML have an equivalent version in PDFs and are used in the same way that you are used to. Many are also available for reasons of accessibility. So let's discuss some ways to optimize PDFs for SEO:

  1. Write good content
  2. Add an optimized title
  3. Add a streamlined description
  4. Use a relevant filename
  5. Add image alt attributes
  6. Use headings
  7. Add links

1. Write good content

Google's corporate mission is to organize the world's information. Even if it's not a web page, good content is good content. I've seen a lot of great content in PDF like technical documentation, white papers, etc. Some of the best information on the web is buried in PDFs.

2. Add an optimized title

Just as web pages have title tags, PDFs have titles. Note that many search engines use the title to describe the document in their search results. If a PDF file does not have a title, the file name will appear in the SERP instead.

Here's how to edit the title of a PDF document in Adobe Acrobat Pro:

  1. Click on File> Properties
  2. Edit thatTitle field

3. Add an optimized description

As with the meta descriptions for websites, this is not a ranking factor, but rather gives you the ability to control the text that appears in the search results.

  1. Click File> Properties
  2. ClickAdditional metadata
  3. Edit description

4. Use a relevant filename

The file name of the PDF file will be part of the URL. This has an impact on the URL displayed in the search results and is a small ranking factor.

  1. Click File> Save As
  2. Edit the filename

5. Add image alt attributes

To help search engines understand the content of your images, you can add alt text to the images in your PDF file.

  1. Click the tags icon in the left sidebar
  2. Find the images that you want to add ALT text to in the document hierarchy
  3. Right click on the picture
  4. Click on properties
  5. Add relevant alternative text to the box

6. Use headings

As with your heading tags (H1-H6) in websites, you can specify that certain texts in PDFs are headings.

  1. Click on the tags icon in the left sidebar
  2. Find the text that you want to edit in the document hierarchy
  3. Right click on the tag
  4. Click properties
  5. Select the relevant heading level from the dropdown

7. Add links

Like every page, internal and external links also have an impact on rankings. Links pass PageRank and their anchor text adds context. By including links to your PDF file and links from your PDF file to other pages, you are helping PageRank flow through your website rather than creating a dead end. Some PDFs get a lot of links. Larry Page once said, "It turns out that people who have won the Nobel Prize are quoted from 10,000 different papers".

Check out this GDPR document. It contains 77K links from 823 referring domains, but it contains no links at all. This is a missed opportunity and adding some internal links from this PDF to other pages on the site could help those pages rank better.

This example from Google is better. The SEO Starter Guide PDF contains 3.37K links from 754 referring domains, and they do a good job of propagating that value to other sites by linking from within the PDF.

To add links in a PDF:

  1. Click the Edit PDF Button on the right sidebar
  2. Click on that link Dropdown in the Edit menu
  3. Click Add / edit link for web or document
  4. Draw a rectangle around the text you want to link
  5. Put the Link type on Invisible rectangle
  6. Set the Link action on Open a website
  7. Add a url

How to track displayed PDFs

As we mentioned earlier, PDFs are more difficult to track. For this reason, many marketing teams tend to gate PDFs or make them available only after a user has filled out a form. In this way, they shift the focus from performance tracking to lead generation. However, there are a few options for tracking PDFs:

Event tracking

You can track clicks on PDF links and send them to your analytics system. This way you can see the number of times people clicked the PDF files to download or open them. You can find out how to set this up here.

Embeddings

If you embed the PDF file in a page with JavaScript or an iframe, you can only use the analysis data for the page itself.

Intermediate tracking script

This is a complex solution, but it is possible to send PDF clicks through an intermediary tracking script that sends the data to your analytics system before sending the people to your PDF. You can find an example here.

Server logs

Since PDF files are stored on a server, all requests to access the files are recorded in your log files.

Third party data

Since PDFs are rarely tracked in analytics systems, sometimes the best data you have comes from another source like Google Search Console or Ahrefs. Ahrefs can also provide you with data on which PDFs from your competitors are receiving the most organic traffic. Just add their domains in Site Explorer, then go to the report Top Pages and search urls with

Final thoughts

Hopefully I've convinced you that in most cases you should be creating new content in web pages rather than PDFs, but what about old PDFs, should you optimize the PDFs or convert them to pages? In typical SEO fashion, I would say, “It depends”. I really don't think there is a right or wrong way to do this. Do what is easier for you. Either way should have a positive effect, but depending on the effort and resources, the answer could be to optimize PDFs, convert PDFs to pages, or do something else instead.

Do you have any questions? Let me know on Twitter.

Translated by: Sebastian Simon. Sebastian Simon has been involved in SEO since 2009, currently at seven-bytes.de and heine.de.