Some of the most valuable content is created in PDF format: reports, ebooks, whitepapers…

If you’ve created content like this, it’s only natural to want internet users to be able to find it in search engines. But can they?

Though it’s not the same as ranking a standard web page, Google has indexed hundreds of millions of PDF files since 2001. But the indexing process is a little trickier.

When ranking content, search engines have to determine how each resource serves its users and decide whether it provides more value than competing web pages. But since PDFs are different from standard web pages, the algorithm judges PDFs a little differently. And that means not all standard search engine optimization (SEO) tactics work for PDFs.

Fortunately, there are specific tactics you can use to improve the click-through rate of PDF documents on search engine results pages (SERPs). Today we cover some established best practices that work for creating SEO PDFs, as well as the tactics involved in SEO for PDFs specifically.

Are PDFs good for SEO?

One advantage of using PDFs is that they retain their formatting across all devices. That means you don’t have to tweak the document to accommodate various presentation methods.

There are many reasons why you may consider uploading a PDF file to your website. The most likely is that your PDF provides valuable, comprehensive content that’s too long for reading on a web page. You may also want it to be printable, too, as in the case of a manual or report.

Even so, for SEO purposes, PDFs aren’t the best option. Although they share similarities with standard web pages, these documents don’t perform as well in SERPs because:

  • They lack important metadata that search engines use as ranking criteria.
  • It’s oftentimes harder to earn backlinks from them.
  • Google Analytics can’t follow or track important content engagement metrics.
  • It’s difficult to format them as optimally as standard web pages.
  • In the absence of a title tag, Google will use the file name to create one.

Between a web page and PDF file with the same information, Google will show the web page in the results listings. If your PDF is unique and there are no duplicate pages, the content is crawled and indexed as HTML pages.

Like regular web pages, Google displays PDF files in search results with a special “PDF” tag. It also converts image text into regular text using optical character recognition (OCR) software. Both the written content and images on PDFs are indexed, as well.

A search result with PDF next to the title.

Despite the fact that SEO for PDFs isn’t as strong as that of regular web pages, there are ways you can improve these files’ performance.

How to optimize PDFs for SEO

PDFs have valuable information that can benefit users. Programs like Adobe Acrobat allow you to make SEO-friendly PDFs through advanced document settings and other editing features.

Following these methods will make your file easier for crawlers to read and understand, which ultimately will improve its ranking in SERPs.

1. Add title tags and meta descriptions to your PDF

Because PDFs are harder to rank on SERPs, every little optimization counts, so creating your own title tag and meta description is an important SEO best practice to follow.

If you don’t create a title tag, Google will use your file name as the title in the search results listing. That’s why, as a backup, it’s always a good idea to make your file name the same as your title (with hyphens between each word instead of underscores).

The meta description should be 160 characters or less, include relevant keywords, and explain to users why your PDF is important to their search. Title tags should also include keywords but it should be a more succinct, enticing snapshot of what the PDF file covers. It should be less than 60 characters and allude to the document’s contents.

You can add these metadata elements to your document using a program like Adobe Acrobat.

A module for adding metadata in Adobe Acrobat for PDF SEO.

In the PDF’s “Properties” box, you can enter the title tag in the “Title” section and the meta description in the “Subject” section.

2. Create a keyword-optimized title

Choosing keywords is an important step in helping your PDF content compete with established web pages. You should determine the search terms that you want to rank for prior to creating the document.

For title ideas, enter your keywords in the Google search bar. See what pops up. How are people framing their content? What words are they using in the title? Make sure your title accurately reflects the keywords you’re targeting. For SEO purposes, add the keywords as close to the beginning of the title as you can.

When it comes to PDFs vs web pages, Google is always going to choose a web page over a PDF file with similar content. Having a keyword-optimized title is one way to prevent your PDF from becoming lost in the search results. It tells crawlers up-front what your focus is and tells users why they should click on your file.

3. Use keywords in your body content

Keywords are the search terms that people are looking for when they use a search engine. They are concepts, topics, ideas, words, etc. that people want to learn more about.

In SEO, using these topic words or phrases throughout your web page’s content, images, code, and more shows crawlers that your information is relevant to the user’s search for those terms.

Adding target keywords in your PDF content is essential for it to rank highly. Because the different format already makes it slightly harder for crawlers to index, keywords provide much-needed direction and context for this process.

Keyword research will help you determine which search terms to target and will give you direction for writing your content. Make sure you avoid keyword stuffing, as this will negatively impact the SEO for PDFs that you upload.

4. Produce high-quality content

Providing top-notch content in your PDF is the easiest and most effective way to add value. The more value you provide, the higher your PDF will rank in Google.

Writing stellar SEO content means providing relevant and in-depth information on the keywords that you’re targeting. Some of the higher-ranking PDF files are academic reports, case studies, or full-on guides for a specific subject.

What all these have in common is the quality of the information and how it provides a full-scope view on the topic. In other words, PDFs should be comprehensive and satisfy search intent.

A comprehensive PDF doesn’t necessarily have to be long, but it has to leave no questions unanswered on the topic. Whether through a mixture of text, diagrams, images, charts, etc., PDF files should create a well-rounded explanation of the information they’re providing or point users to resources that the areas that need further discussion.

Satisfying search intent is the process of creating content that gives users the information, explanation, or resources that they’re looking for when they make a search. You should ask yourself “what would someone using these search terms be looking for?” But don’t just guess. Look at what’s ranking on page one of Google search engine results.

The top-ranking search listings represent content that Google has determined to be most valuable to users for the given search term. Study them. What can you learn from them? Don’t copy, but use them as a template to make something better.

5. Break up your content with headers

SEO performance is directly correlated to the user-friendliness of your content. One of the simplest and most effective ways to make your content user-friendly is by adding headers.

Headers allow users to jump around your content and find the information that’s most relevant to them. It also helps readers better understand how concepts relate to each other within the content.

Not to mention, PDF headers allow you to simplify the crawling and indexing process by providing context to search engines for each section of the document.

6. Reduce image size

Images are important for creating PDF files that are engaging and unique. On the flip side, images can also slow down the load time of your document. This causes poor user experience which is counterproductive to any digital marketing objective.

Optimize your images by:

  • Compressing them so they take up less space
  • Resizing them into smaller dimensions
  • Using vector file format so they appear in high resolution on any device

Although it may seem small, optimizing PDF images prevents your entire file from becoming slow and unresponsive on mobile devices.

7. Add alt text to your PDF images

The search engine crawlers that index your PDF won’t be able to understand the content that your images portray. To fix this, you can add alt text to them – a short written description of your image.

Example of good image alt text from Moz.

Not only does this make it easier to crawl, but it improves the document’s accessibility to visually impaired users who rely on voice technology to read documents. Adobe has instructions on how to add alternative text to images, an SEO technique that ultimately makes your PDF file more user-friendly and easier to index.

8. Add links to your PDF

An easy way to increase traffic from your PDF to your website is by adding internal links. This is an especially useful tactic if you want the PDF to demonstrate your credibility within your industry.

Search engines do crawl the links in your document and since they are typically longer pieces of content, you will have many opportunities for internal linking to more of your work.

Internal linking comes with several advantages. It allows you to…

  • Generate traffic to other pages on your site
  • Share link equity or “juice” to lower-ranking pages
  • Allow crawlers to find other pages on your website

When you link internally, make sure you use relevant anchor text that gives visitors and crawlers an idea of what they’ll find when they follow the link.

9. Reduce your PDF file size with compression

Because they’re often longer documents, PDF files can take up much more space than regular web pages. This causes them to load slower, which ultimately decreases user experience and subsequent ranking.

You can reduce your PDF file size by:

  • Selecting the “Fast Web View” format
  • Using Adobe’s “Compress File” option under the “File” menu
  • Formatting with standard Adobe fonts
  • Changing how the document appears when opened

A slow PDF file could cause users to bounce off the page and negatively impact your page speed, which is an important ranking factor in the Google algorithm.

10. Don’t save your PDF files as images

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when doing SEO for PDFs is saving the document as an image instead of a text file. When you do this, crawlers have trouble understanding what the content is and won’t be able to index it properly.

It also makes your content harder for users to share and reference. Most people, when quoting or sourcing PDF files, like to copy and paste the information they want. If you save the PDF as an image, they won’t be able to copy and paste content and probably won’t take the time to type out the information word-for-word. Use the “File” → “Save as” option to save PDF files in the  “.txt” format and you won’t run into this issue.

11. Set your reading language

Help out search engine crawlers by setting a PDF reading language for your file.

All you have to do is go to the “Document Properties” box, navigate to the “Language” drop down menu, and select the correct language. Finish the process by pressing the “OK” button.

12. Canonicalize your PDF files

PDF files can compete with web pages containing duplicate content – content that is similar or identical to what’s in the PDF. This competition leads to worse rankings for both pieces of content and can prevent you from reaching page one.

To keep duplicate pages and PDF files from sabotaging each other, add a canonical tag to your header.

Example of a canonical tag used to create an SEO PDF

This will tell the search engine which page or PDF content you want them to crawl and index, eliminating any conflicts with other pages on your site.

When to use a PDF

There are several situations where using a PDF file makes more sense than using a regular web page. Depending on the type of content you’re creating, PDF files offer formatting and presentation styles that may be more appropriate than uploading content to your website.

  • Ebooks: You can achieve the proper formatting and design for ebooks with a PDF file. Web pages for ebooks usually look a little bit off, mostly due to the lack of page numbers, headings, etc. Plus, users can upload PDF versions of books to apps like Google Books or Kindle, whereas website versions must be read online or printed out.
  • Reports: Data reports are best in PDF format because they are typically long and require academic citations. The graphs, images, charts, etc. that you can create in a PDF file are optimal for presenting long compilations of important information.
  • Tip Sheets: If you’ve created industry-related tip sheets to gain more credibility, PDF files make them easy to distribute to others. They’ll look professionally-done and may serve as good flyers for users to post or hand out.
  • Templates: People generally enjoy printing out templates to write on at home/work/school. PDF files allow you to ensure that your templates print in the same format from any device–making them more user-friendly.
  • Whitepapers: If you are in an industry that requires evidence-based research to back claims, whitepapers are an excellent way to gain credibility. Users can find and cite them for academic or professional work, and they are often long enough to make them better in a PDF format.

Some content requires the style, length, or format that PDF files provide. Choosing a PDF file for any of these pieces of content is a great way to improve SEO through user experience.

Get a complimentary SEO audit

PDF files allow you to provide in-depth, long-form content that supplements your website and builds credibility. Although not all content should be uploaded as PDFs, various types like templates, reports, and ebooks work best in this format.

Applying SEO techniques like optimized title tags and meta descriptions, compressed images, and more, to your PDF file can increase its readability and chances of ranking highly for its target keywords.

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