It's no secret that search engines are changing and evolving — fast. And while it's not advised to fill your website with PDFs over quality HTML content (more on this later), it's no longer the case that PDFs are ignored by Google and other search engines. Google treats PDFs very much like a webpage, and optimising for search can give you the edge over competitors and the opportunity to gain both exposure and link authority from external sites.
So if PDFs aren't snubbed by Google why do SEOs always recommend HTML content? The reason behind HTML's impressive performance in search is largely down to user-experience. People tend to be more comfortable with HTML webpages, it's easier to make this format interactive and engaging, and users are far more likely to share a webpage link with others than a PDF.
It's also worth bearing in mind that PDFs are overused and the web is packed full of them. Apart from a few exceptions, it's always better to create unique HTML content rather than uploading PDFs to every corner of your website. Keep this little mantra in mind when deciding how to present new web content: most PDFs on the web should be HTML but some documents should be PDFs. So, how do we assess what should be a PDF and what needs to be converted to HTML?
Ask yourself these two simple questions:
Are your PDFs already valuable?
- You may already have PDF pages on your site that people consider valuable. So before replacing these, check to see if your PDFs have back links, decent engagement metrics and good traffic.
What kind of content are your PDFs showcasing?
- PDFs work well for content that is meant to be printed or downloaded. This kind of content would include manuals, brochures and forms meant to be printed and filled in by hand for example.
If the above questions apply to your PDF content, it's time to start looking at how you can ensure your PDFs perform to their full potential by optimising. Tips include always using text-based PDFs, keeping the file size at a minimum as well as avoiding duplicate content if you are recreating sections on your website in HTML format. It's also really important to give your PDF a clear, descriptive title and to apply good SEO practices as you would to any HTML page. This means including keywords within the body text; adding alt text for imagery and above all understanding that good content always equals good SEO in whatever format.
In terms of PDF accessibility, the process of applying tags is recommended to ensure screen readers can read these types of documents effectively. It's important that PDFs feature an underlying logical structure — and reading order and tags are what build this essential structure. Tags define the intended reading order of the content on each page and screen readers rely on these tags to present text in a way that makes sense when someone is hearing the text read out loud. The tags allow a screen reader to interpret page elements such as headings, sidebars, tables, and multi-column text.