Search Engine Results and the PDF User Trap
Many major search engines now have the capability to index PDF
files created by Adobe Acrobat and return them in search results.
If you are a Web site owner with PDF files on your site, this is
What you may not know is that this capability presents potential
usability problems, especially for searchers. What is the big
deal? Let’s find out.
Searching for “blessing of a Christmas tree” on Google returns a link to a PDF file in the results.
If searchers click on this listing, the link automatically opens
a PDF file with no navigation to the main site. Users are
trapped! They have no way to explore other pages of the site for
So, what’s going on and, more importantly, how to do we fix it?
Essentially, the PDF format is not the culprit; the real problem
is the author’s failure to create the files with Web users in
mind. This is not unusual since pdf files are often documents
created for other media and not specifically for the web.
PDF authoring software, such as Adobe Acrobat 5.0, offers the
ability to include both a navigational structure and hyperlinks
on a PDF page. This will allow users who land on this page from a
search engine to continue to navigate the site. Whenever
possible, use the built-in capability of the software to add
navigational elements before publishing the document.
Ideally, the best solution is to create your pages in HTML,
rather than PDF format. If the information contained in the pdf
files is very popular or highly requested, consider making the
effort to convert them to HTML for best results.
Depending on the purpose of the document, a PDF format can be
preferable. For example, PDF files offer better functionality for
pages that are highly structured and commonly printed, such as
application forms and price lists.
To fix the PDF USER TRAP, you will have to republish your files,
adding some type of navigation structure and/or link back your
main Web site. An easy way to accomplish this is to add a footer
to the bottom of each page that includes a link back to the home
Often the pages published as .pdf files were never intended to
receive traffic from the search engines in the first place. If
you have .pdf files on your site you do not want to be accessible
to the search engines, the best solution is to place all of your
PDF files in a single folder and do a robots exclusion
Don’t overlook the potential traffic from your .pdf files. Take a
few extra steps to help users continue on to your site and you
may be surprised and pleased by the results.
Craig Geis is the search engine specialist for the The Karcher Group (http://www.thekarchergroup.com), a full-service web design and marketing company based in Canton, OH.