Are PDFs Bad for SEO?
Generally, yes. PDFs are not as ideal for SEO as regular web pages. There are a few reasons for this:
- Responsiveness: Because PDFs “print” a page with fixed formatting, PDFs are inherently not mobile responsive. They can’t reformat content based on the user’s screen size.
- File size: People usually export PDFs at 300dpi so that they look great in print. This resolution causes large file sizes for PDFs with photos.
- Formatting: PDFs lack header tags (H1, H2, H3, etc.). This makes it harder for Google to determine the PDF’s subject and contents.
Use Cases for PDFs
So, when should you use a PDF on your website?
PDF (Portable Document Format) documents are typical used for:
- Ebooks with specially formatted content. A PDF lets users download, print and read an ebook just like a book.
- Exclusive content that you intend to stay offline. You might save a blog post as a PDF if you want to make it exclusive to paid subscribers or a specific audience.
- Project specifications, proposals, or documents that demand precise formatting. You can use a PDF to ensure that everyone sees your content the exact same way.
- White papers or documents where you expect people will take notes. A PDF lets people download or print your document and then take notes on it.
How to Make PDFs Searchable on Google
Most web pages display in HTML, which has multiple advantages that we just discussed.
So, if you’re going to put a PDF on the Internet, what can you do to be competitive with HTML web pages?
Here are a few strategies.
Add a PDF download button to a blog post.
You can publish a HTML version of your PDF, link to the downloadable PDF on the same page, then deindex your PDF.
You’re essentially going to create a button on your web page that says “Download a PDF of This Resource Guide” or something along those lines.
This gives users the best of both worlds. Some users will enjoy reading the HTML web page. Others will prefer reading the PDF and maybe taking notes directly on the PDF.
If you go this route, make your PDF unindexable so that Google doesn’t penalize you for duplicate content.
Create a web page to promote your PDF.
You can publish a HTML web page to promote your PDF and even offer a sneak peak at parts of the PDF’s content. This is useful if you want to require people to share their email address before downloading your PDF.
The more useful information you include on the HTML web page, and the more online traffic you drive to the page, the more likely Google is to rank your promo page. This, in turn, will boost the number of people who see your PDF.
If you want to keep your PDF content exclusive so people can’t just find it on Google, make your PDF unindexable.
Optimize your PDF for SEO.
You can publish a PDF and optimize it for SEO. This option might work for you if you specifically prefer for people to read your content in PDF. For example, perhaps you designed a worksheet or workbook that you want people to print and write on.
Before choosing this approach, ask yourself why your readers will have a better experience reading your content as a PDF. Keep in mind that half of online content is consumed on mobile devices. Is your content going to look better on a user’s phone in PDF format than in standard HTML format?
If you’re not sure, try this: Publish a few pages of your PDF, open it on your phone, try reading a few paragraphs, and make sure you’re happy with how easy it is to read. (Is it really easy to read?)
If you go this route, check out the tips below to optimize your PDF for SEO so that people can find it on Google.
Speed Up Your PDF Load Time
Google favors pages that load in 2-3 seconds. In 2022, that means that your PDF should be no more than 2 or 3 megabytes of data.
Use a compression tool.
By far the biggest recommendation I have for you in this area is to use a PDF compression tool.
I recommend PDF Compressor, which currently will shrink a PDF for you in seconds without leaving a watermark.
I’ve seen this tool take a 6.6mb document down to 180kb without any meaningful loss in picture quality. That’s a 97% reduction! That means your file will load 30 times faster for users!!
In case you question the veracity of this mildly enthusiastic recommendation, I also tested:
- Smallpdf’s Compress PDF tool, which only cut the file size by 75% and required my email address to start a 7-day free trial. No, thanks. (Smallpdf, are you kidding?)
- Sejda’s Compress PDF tool, which cut the file size by 95%. Pretty awesome, but I can get the file to load almost twice as quickly with PDF Compressor.
So long as you don’t have a lot of full-page photos, you should be able to keep your PDF file size down to about 50kb per page using PDF Compressor. That means you can afford to make a 50-page PDF and still have the PDF load within the 2-3 seconds that users are typically willing to wait for a page to load.
In most cases, using PDF Compressor is all you need to do to bring your PDF down to a fast-loading file size. In case you’re dealing with a large PDF (3mb+, usually 50+ pages), you can try some of the other tips listed below to further reduce your file size.
Reduce your image resources.
If you have a large file size, the culprit is probably full-color photos. Here are a few workarounds.
- Try to limit your photos to 20% or less of the content space in your PDF.
- Download photos at medium size (about 1920×1280) and use these images in your PDF rather than full-resolution images.
- If you can, use vector based images rather than photos. Vector images are usually offered in the file types EPS, AI, or SVG.
- If black and white images work well for your brand, you can cut file size quite a bit by converting your images to black and white.
- If your design software offers PDF export options, choose a compression option like “Optimize for the Web” or “Save for Electronic Distribution”, or select a setting like “better” or “good” rather than “best” so long as this setting exports at 300 dpi. This will especially help if you used images that are higher resolution than necessary.
Stick to standard fonts.
PDF readers can read 14 standard fonts:
- Courier (Regular, Oblique, Bold, Bold Oblique)
- Helvetica (Regular, Oblique, Bold, Bold Oblique)
- Times (Roman, Italic, Bold, Bold Italic)
- ITC Zapf Dingbats
Other fonts need to be embedded in PDF, and that increases your file size.
If you really want to use a custom font, minimize the number of additional fonts and styles you use. Each font and style increases your file size.
Use Fast Web View.
Adobe lets you turn on a setting called Fast Web View that will force your PDF to download one page at a time. To enable this, open Adobe Acrobat, choose Edit > Preferences. On the left side under Categories, choose Documents. Under Save Settings, choose Save As and check “Fast Web View”.
Update your strategy.
If your PDF is a long document that is substantially larger than 3 megabytes (especially if it’s bigger than 6 megabytes), then I recommend you consider the option described above: “Create a web page to promote your PDF.”
A 6-megabyte PDF is very unlikely to rank on Page 1 of Google for any popular search terms. So, creating a page to promote a large PDF is your best option to help people discover your PDF through organic search.
Edit Your Metadata
Metadata is “hidden” information embedded in your document that computers use to understand the document’s content. Your PDF metadata includes your document title, author, keywords, and subject.
You can edit your document’s metadata in Adobe Acrobat or your editor of choice.
I think the easiest way toupdate the metadata in an existing document is to use Sejda’s free tool, Edit PDF Metadata. Simply click “Upload PDF files”, choose your file, then click “Change Metadata”.
Change PDF Metadata on Mac or Windows Computer (Free, No Software Needed)
Sejda’s tool will show you the metadata associated with your document and allow you to edit it as needed. You can save your document with the new metadata by pressing the Update PDF Metadata button and then clicking the Download button to save your updated document.
(You might have noticed the software WonderShare being promoted around the Internet. Unless you need any of the special features Wondershare offers, I would avoid it for simple metadata updates since Wondershare doesn’t let you save PDFs without a watermark.)
Next, let’s talk about what metadata to put into each field.
Choose an appropriate SEO title.
Your title is the file name that will appear in bold letters in Google search results. You should keep your title under 55 characters so that it doesn’t get truncated when Google displays it.
If your title is short, add a few extra words with either relevant keywords or your company name.
This title is only 32 characters:
How to Optimize Your PDF for SEO
So I would choose this 50-character title instead:
How to Optimize Your PDF for SEO | Nexus Marketing
“Pipes” are popular for separating content in SEO titles. On a Mac, you can make a pipe by pressing Shift and the backward slash button at the same time: Shift + \.
Fill out the authorship fields.
You’ll notice multiple fields related to your PDF’s authorship. I recommend writing your company name in the fields for “Author”, “Creator” and “Producer”.
Enter today’s date.
For “CreationData” and “ModDate”, put it in today’s date so that it’s clear to you and others that the content is up to date.
List 5-10 keywords.
Google is unlikely to reference the keywords you put into the “Keywords” field.
To be thorough, you can enter 5-10 keywords related to your subject. Note that a keyword can be a keyword phrase.
Be sure to separate each keyword or keyword phrase with a comma.
Write a meta description.
“Subject” will be your meta description. You should enter the text that you want Google to display under your title in Google search results.
Write a 150-character description that you think will entice people to read your PDF. If you go over 155 characters, Google may…
Rename the file with a search-engine friendly file name.
After you download your PDF with updated metadata, I recommend editing the file name. (Your file name is not your PDF’s title. Your file name is the actual file on your computer that you’re going to upload to your website.)
Your file name will become the URL for your PDF, so you’ll want it to follow best practices for URLs.
- Avoid spaces, unusual characters, and capital letters.
- Keep your file name around 50-60 characters.
- Use common language that corresponds with the words your ideal audience is likely to use when searching for information.
This isn’t hard. Usually, you want your file name to match the title of your PDF. For example, if this post were a PDF, I would probably name it:
Make Your Body Text Easy to Read
Use the language your users use.
If you ever wondered what SEO gurus are saying when they talk about “SEO keywords”, guess what?
SEO keywords are simply the words your audience uses when discussing your topic.
If you’re targeting highly technical people, then use the jargon they use. A person with advanced knowledge will probably use technical terms when searching Google. If you use the same technical terms, then your content is more likely to appear in their search results. Thus, you’ll attract advanced readers to your content.
If you’re targeting newbies, then use newbie language. This will help you reach people seeking beginner level information on your subject.
Optimize for online reading behavior.
Treat a PDF like you would any other web page, and use a writing style optimized for the web.
- Use short sentences. Verbosity is not necessary or helpful in online content.
- Use short paragraphs. 3-4 sentences each is plenty.
- Use “you” language. People engage more with text that sounds like it’s spoken directly to them.
- Use bullets and numbered lists. This will help you quickly convey information.
- Start sentences with strong action verbs. This will keep your readers speeding through your content.
- Front load important information. Many readers will only see the first few pages, so get across your big ideas upfront.
By the way, make sure your PDF actually uses body text and not just images. (So long as you didn’t export a group of JPGs and then merge them into a PDF, you shouldn’t have to worry about this.)
Chunk your content.
Break up your document into sections, and start each section with a heading less than 50 characters.
If you have 200+ words of text under a heading, you can break it up with subheadings. Your subheading will have a smaller font size to indicate that hierarchically it’s less important than a main heading.
In a long document (15+ pages), you might include chapters. Typically a PDF will put a chapter title in large font on a new page to emphasize its importance. Sometimes a designer will even place chapter titles by themselves on blank pages so they stand out.
PDFs with chapters usually start with a table of contents breaking down the page numbers where each chapter starts. Format your PDF like you’re formatting a novel for publication, and this will all come easily.
People generally scan content. So, by chunking your content, you’re making it easier for people (and Google) to get the gist of your subject by scanning titles, headings and subheadings.
Enhance Your Content with Visuals
Add graphics, charts and infographics where applicable. Images break up text and make your content more engaging for readers.
Add alt text.
For accessibility, add alt text to any photos or images you include. Alt text is usually a sentence that describes an image in order to clarify the image’s content and meaning for someone who can’t see.
Google crawls your images’ alt text, so what you write will inform Google about your PDF’s content. Thus, your alt text affects how Google ranks your PDF in search results.
Visually design your PDF.
To make your PDF visually appealing, I recommend hiring a graphic designer. After you finish writing the content, your designer can create appealing formatting and apply decorative elements matching your brand.
Believe it or not, your visual design affects your SEO. When a PDF is well designed, people are more likely to spend more time reading it. Google tracks how long people spend on any web page, including a PDF. So it’s important to optimize the visual appeal of your content to increase user engagement and search ranking.
You can’t embed a video inside a PDF. However, you can place the thumbnail of a video inside your PDF and link out to the video from the image itself and the description text underneath the video.
Add outbound links.
Outbound links are links inside your PDF that point to other content on your website and the broader Internet. Outbound links make your content more authoritative. Both your reades and Google appreciate when you cite sources and link to resources where people can access additional information.
The text that you link with is called your anchor text. Your anchor text should usually include a specific keyword that relates to the content you’re linking to.
Make your links easy to identify. People will recognize your links if you format them with blue font and underlined text.
If you plan to print your PDF on physical paper, create a version of your PDF where you spell out the URLS of important links. This way, people reading a hard copy can still find the content you reference.
Add inbound links.
Make sure to link to your PDF (or your PDF promotion page) from other pages on your website. These internal links will help your website visitors discover your PDF.
Your internal links will also signal to Google that the PDF is an important resource on your website. This can lead Google to rank your PDF higher in search results.
Format Your PDF for Mobile Devices
Most likely, 50% or more of your audience is reading your PDF on their phone.
Most PDFs are formatted for 8.5” x 11” paper. When a user previews a document formatted to be 8.5” across on a mobile device that is 2.8” across… text gets pretty… pretty… pretty tiny.
Even if a user turns their phone sideways to view the PDF in landscape mode, they’re still looking at an 8.5” wide page on a 5.8” wide device. (That’s a realistic scenario if they’re on an iPhone 14.)
So… what can you do?
First, this is why I recommend using a web page rather than a PDF when possible: A responsive web page will dynamically format text and images to optimize screen space and keep text at a readable font size.
Still, if you believe a PDF is the right choice for your content, consider using some of these formatting techniques to make your PDF easier to read on a phone.
- Format your PDF as a 5.5” x 8.5” page. This way, users can still print the PDF onto paper if they want, but the PDF page width will be more similar to the size of a mobile device, and thus easier to read on a device.
- Use large fonts. Adobe recommends 30 point bold font for headlines and 26 point font for body text. (That’s significantly larger than the 12 point body text many people were taught to use in printed materials.)
- Keep your margin between 0.25” and 1”. A margin provides white space for your readers’ eyes to “rest” while viewing your PDF. Keeping the margin small maximizes the screen space available for your content.
PDFs face some disadvantages compared to regular web content. However, PDFs absolutely can rank on Google.
There are many instances where a PDF outranks everything else for a Google search or even appears in a featured snippet.
Follow the tips I outlined to give your PDF the best chance of ranking on Google.