PDFs: not so friendly to readers or your firm as you think

PDFs for professional services firms’ articles: disadvantages trump visual appeal

Things have changed on the web since the mid 1990s.

Swirly Flash-based introductions to websites have gone because website owners realized that avoiding delays and giving the user the ability to control their experience on your site is very important if you want them to keep coming back.

PDFs however still valiantly try to hold back the tide in controlling the visual appearance of a page, no matter what the device, and also impose waits on users, who studies show grow impatient with even quarter second delays.

Despite the fact that many lawyers love PDFs we have found over the last few years that law firms are phasing them out.

Why? There are a lot of reasons, but here are five of the more important ones:

1) Tracking: Most attorneys and accountant websites use Google Analytics to monitor their website usage. However when you put a PDF up on your website Adobe Acrobat does not execute the javascript Google Analytics tracking code like Chrome, Firefox or other browsers do. So you can’t see which of your PDF articles are popular, where people came from to find it, or what they did afterwards (with the right analytics setup even did they actually contact your lawyer after reading an article). A further wrinkle is that Google directly indexes the PDF (70% of traffic to prof services websites comes from search) so when someone comes directly from a search engine to your PDF article your website won’t even register a visit (want to double your traffic overnight – port your PDFs to HTML).

2) Mobile devices: Mobile device usage of articles has seen double digit increases for several years. Collectively mobile and tablet now account for about 31% of visits to Mondaq.com and in most lawfirms in our benchmarking it is hitting 25%. Because text in PDFs does not ‘re-flow’ the experience of reading PDFs on mobiles is poor. Even on a PC screen, users have to wait while the Acrobat Reader engine loads.

3) Search optimization: In our experience PDFs do not rank as well in Google searches as HTML web pages as they are a more difficult ‘visual’ versus ‘logical’ markup for Google’s crawlers to read. This is usually compounded by PDF filenames that are not keyword rich (corporate2017-6-3.pdf), and blank titles in the PDF title field (press Ctrl-D when viewing one of your PDFs to see what is in your own PDF fields). And when you run identical PDF and HTML versions of the same article from the same website this may cause your articles to compete against eachother in Google’s rankings.

4) Marketing pipeline: Ideally what do you want a new business prospect to do after they’ve read one of your articles? If they are looking at a PDF choices are limited. On a web page you can more easily connect them to other articles, a profile of the author, your newsletter signup, your seminar program etc. In addition when you upgrade your website or change your branding PDF-driven sites are ‘frozen in time’ versus new branding or functionality flowing through to old articles presented in HTML.

5) Sharing invisibility: users of social media sites are less likely to share a PDF than a web page (and on some you can’t share a PDF at all). And if a user takes a copy of your PDF you cannot see it being forwarded around at all so sharing is invisible. Sharing has two important elements: firstly that something is shared and secondly that other people see it being done; as both elements constitute a recommendation of sorts for your firm. PDFs support neither aspect of sharing.

PDFs are not always inappropriate (brochures come to mind, maybe, or articles with significant table or image content) but it pays to be aware that your neatly formatted PDF comes at too high a price in our view. If you do use PDFs (and especially if they duplicate HTML content) we recommend at least telling search engine crawlers not to index the PDFs on your website (contact us if you need help on this point).