What it lacks in excitement and fanfare, it makes up for in reliability and durability. This year the PDF celebrates 27 — a remarkable feat for any digital technology. What exactly is a PDF, you ask? It is the granddaddy of file formats. It is the OG “electronic paper” created before anyone dreamed we should eliminate paper, and has been hailed “the world’s most important file format” by Vice News.
Lining digital filing cabinets everywhere, the PDF format is used most heavily by governments, HR departments, legal institutions, and any airline passenger with online check-in. However, it also makes an appearance in the marketers’ toolbox. Content marketing today is largely cloud-based, but the PDF still has a supporting role in the form of case studies, ebooks, whitepapers, and more. Yet many industry leaders are claiming the file format is more harmful than helpful to marketing efforts. We set out to investigate this claim.
Document in the stone: The birth of the PDF
Although today we commonly associate Adobe with Photoshop and their Apple-like reign on all things design, it was the PDF that put them on the map. Back in 1992, the internet was basically the wild west of digital landscapes. Macs and PCs were busy playing Indians vs. cowboys, and their competing operating systems made send documents from one to the other a frustrating task.
Adobe co-founder Dr. John Warnock launched The Camelot Project to solve this conundrum. Team Camelot was tasked with designing a platform-agnostic file format — one that everyone could use. In 1993, Adobe launched the PDF. For the first time, users were able to share documents, including text formatting and inline images, among users of disparate platforms who may not have access to mutually-compatible application software.
Introducing Adobe Acrobat 1.0
We have the IRS to thank for PDFs’ ubiquity
Despite its revolutionary capabilities, the PDF format wasn’t a runaway hit. Lengthy download times (remember, this was dial-up) and the paywall of purchasing Acrobat discouraged many would-be users. Luckily, the format found an unlikely champion who helped boost it to public use.
Not famous for being “early adopters,” the IRS turned to the PDF to help save money on printed tax forms. The use case was hugely successful, saving millions in printing costs and boosting customer satisfaction.
The PDF has since become both free and open format. In 2007, Adobe worked with the International Standards Organization to create what has become the standardized PDF of today, highlighting just how prevalent the format has become. Many new features have been added over the years, but the PDF remains the same universal and reliable format.
In an evolved internet, do we still need this ancient file format?
Today, sending a document from a Macbook to a PC is not the struggle it once was. The internet has outgrown its petty rivalries, and most documents and webpages are universal across devices and systems. Some have begun to question whether the world still needs this relic of a file format.
There has been criticism from content marketers about PDFs’ lack of flexibility, slow loading times compared to HTML, and mobile incompatibility. However, a growing number of PDF applications aim to target these hurdles with creative solutions. For example, PDF mobile flipbooks that are easy to read on a smaller screen.
Another complaint — and one that we also feel strongly about — is the question of measurability. Being able to track how users engage with content is huge. Without it, we have no idea what is working and what is a waste of precious time and resources. Traditionally, PDFs have been a closed book… but this too is beginning to change.
Wait, but what about SEO?
Many point to SEO as being a reason to leave this file format in the dust, but search engine optimization for PDF is an untapped opportunity. Many marketers don’t realize they can optimize PDFs for SEO much the same way they can web pages. Google crawls and indexes millions of documents a day (as long as they are not password protected or encrypted). Those who fail to optimize these documents miss out on valuable traffic-generating potential.
Many of the best practices for optimizing PDFs are unsurprising and straightforward: choose file friendly title and headers, include relevant links, write a solid meta, don’t forget alt text, and avoid duplicating content. But there are other PDF-specific best practices that can boost your visibility.
Keep an eye on your PDFs’ file size. Rule of thumb is that your PDF file should never be larger than 5 MB. If so, make sure to compress any high-quality images in the document or simply compress the entire document before uploading it.
Choose text-based documents
To the untrained eye, it may seem that PDFs are all created equally but there are two very different versions — text-based and image-based documents. The first is a standard document, while the second is an image of a document. Google always does a better job crawling text and text-based documents will perform better for SEO. How can you tell which kind of PDF it is? Try to select, copy, and paste the text. If you can’t — that means you are dealing with an image-based PDF.
Enable fast loading
Loading times can deter today’s impatient browsers, so we want to make the process as fast and smooth as possible. “Fast Web View” is a mode you can enable where the first page loads ASAP instead of waiting for the whole document to download. Always optimize for Fast Web if users will be viewing one page at a time online instead of downloading to local storage.
Why PDF today is just as relevant as ever
The clincher for team PDFs isn’t in SEO hacks or layering plugins that boost usability — the reason this file format is here to stay is psychological. Because of the way computers developed, we perceive and consume web content differently on the web versus “physical” files.
Our brain digs it
Humans like to own things. Web-based blog pages, no matter how meticulously researched, well-written and widely shared, do not stay in the reader’s possession. Time stamped and dated, they quickly fade from glory. This ephemeral format of web content is both a strength and a challenge for the content marketer. Our computers are built with a folder system that allows us to create digital folders much the way we would with physical objects. Even though bookmarking web pages works largely the same way, it doesn’t feel the same. Old habits die hard.
Consistency is key
There is also the question of design. Yes, documents today are now compatible with all operating systems, but cannot promise the same pixel perfection that a PDF offers. Especially when working with embedded designs, graphics, or charts — we want the final product to be perfect when it arrives on the readers’ screen. Even the smallest of formatting hiccups can be off-putting and lead to a lack of trust.
In it for the long haul
Not all marketing material is made to be evergreen, but when it is, we want it to last. Imagine you’ve spent days or weeks researching, designing, and refining a case study document — you want the finished product to feel polished and stay relevant. You want it to feel like more than just another blog post. In the digital world, the PDF has come to mean permanency. It carries weight and seriousness that web pages just don’t.