Why PDFs Are Detrimental to UX and SEO

Kat Shereko, Content Team Lead

It’s true; PDFs can be crawled, indexed, and even ranked by search engines. However, most PDFs lack crucial information (more on this later) that helps search engines understand what the document is about–and this negatively impacts your position in search results. Additionally, PDFs aren’t as easily accessible, as they don’t always allow the user to scan, scroll, or navigate the content with ease.

In this article, we’ll cover common pitfalls of PDF usage and help you decide if your PDF content should be converted to a stand-alone landing page instead. And if you must use a PDF, we’ll cover some best practices to keep in mind.

PDFs and Use Cases

The PDF, which stands for a “Portable Document Format,” was first developed by Adobe in 1992. Since then, PDFs grew in popularity because they allowed people to share links, buttons, form fields, audio, video, etc., regardless of the operating system on which they were viewed. In other words, PDF files were (and still are) universally accessible on Windows and Mac.

Today, PDFs are still alive and well. In most cases, PDFs are used because of the false assumption that they’re faster and easier to create than a webpage. And while it may be easier to upload the final version of a PDF file, it still takes time to plan, design, and develop its content.

Perhaps the place where websites get into the most trouble with PDFs is the file’s ongoing maintenance. This is especially true if you’re expecting your customers to interact with the PDF content frequently (think restaurant menus or gym class schedules). Keeping track of PDF versions is a huge pain!

If someone downloads a static PDF, there’s no guarantee they’ll come back to your site to get the new version. Not to mention the time-intensive labor of redirecting any links pointing to the version that is no longer up to date.

And if you’re still not convinced of the headache, read on to learn when your PDF usage should be kept to a minimum.

Reasons to Minimize PDF Usage on Your Website

PDFs negatively impact user experience and SEO. Here’s how:

Lack of Navigation

PDFs were designed as stand-alone pages, which means that when a user navigates to a PDF, they typically lose access to the main navigation. And if they decide that the PDF they ended up at wasn’t what they were looking for, they must use the back button or go back to the website’s homepage to continue their research.

In short, PDFs make it challenging for the user to explore the content beyond the PDF file, causing frustration and ultimate abandonment of the website.

Not Mobile-Friendly

PDFs look consistent across all devices, favoring the layout that fits a desktop screen. While this may be ideal for printing, on mobile, the text is typically too small.

For mobile users, PDF files can be rather taxing, mainly because they require users to pinch to zoom before seeing the content. This is especially important to consider for users with limited fine motor skills who cannot complete the pinch-zoom action altogether.

Lack of Meta Data

While it’s possible to add or edit the metadata of a PDF document, most PDFs get published without it. If a PDF is published without optimized metadata, search engines will defer to the document title as the appropriate title tag and will likely decide on their own meta description. Although this could work in some cases–your metadata is just the right length, includes target keywords, and is written to attract clicks–in most cases, document metadata isn’t written with SEO in mind.

Sure, meta descriptions don’t always make it to the SERP results; what really matters here are your title tags. Title tags are an important ranking factor. If it’s too long, search engines will likely truncate it. And if it doesn’t clearly represent what the document is about, the user could get thrown off and not view you as a reliable source.

Information Overload

PDFs are generally text heavy–which can easily overwhelm a user looking for quick takeaways. They are typically made up of countless pages and are tricky to scan and digest.

Before adding yet another PDF document to a website, think about the user’s search intent. How much time do you anticipate the user will want to spend with your content? If it’s very visual and made to be viewed as a magazine or a brochure, a PDF format may very well be okay here. But if you’re hoping to answer frequently asked questions or product details, perhaps it makes more sense to add that information directly on the product or service page.

You never know, that hidden info could very well be what’s stopping them from purchasing from your brand!

Makes Tracking Challenging

While it’s possible to track PDF downloads in Google Analytics, our ability to understand PDF engagement beyond that is limited. Did the user read all of the 10, 20, or 40 pages of content? What elements did they engage with the most? Was it worth all of the 100+ hours you’ve spent writing, designing, and planning this piece of content? If you want answers to any of these questions, PDFs are not the route to take.

To put it simply, if it’s user engagement you’re after, stay clear of PDF files.

Internal Links Lose Value

Internal links establish the hierarchy of a website. They also help distribute page authority while allowing users to navigate the website more seamlessly from page to page. However, because PDF files are built as stand-alone pages, the path users take to get from a PDF to a webpage (and vice versa) feels disjointed. Even if internal linking best practices are followed, the flow is broken, and the value is diminished.

How to Format PDFs for Search

We get it, PDF documents are still relevant. PDFs may be hard to avoid, especially if you don’t get as much say about what gets published on a website–many websites must list large quantities of PDF files, just so they don’t get sued.

If you know that users absolutely love downloading your PDFs, it’s okay to offer them as a download–just make sure the key takeaways are also listed on the live website!

And if adding that extra info isn’t in the cards, follow these rules from Ahrefs to keep your PDFs web-optimized:

  • Write good content
  • Add an optimized title
  • Add an optimized description
  • Use a relevant filename
  • Include image alt attributes
  • Use headings

Above all else, remember to always think about the user! As long as the style in which you share your information meets their demand, you’re doing your part.

Kat Shereko, Content Team Lead

Kat Shereko

Director of Organic Strategy
Director of Organic Strategy

Kat is the director of organic strategy at Portent, overseeing all content and SEO efforts for the agency. With a background in psychology research and a wide range of digital marketing expertise, she is passionate about pushing the boundaries of traditional content and SEO to create a singular focus on driving organic growth. When she’s not analyzing user search intent, Kat is avidly planning her next escape abroad or spending time in the mountains.

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