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PDF Obsolete for a Mobile First Internet?

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Roger Montti
Roger Montti SEJ STAFF
PDF Obsolete for a Mobile First Internet?

There are many solid reasons why the PDF format is irrelevant in a mobile first Internet. But if that’s true, then why did a Googler retweet a link to a page hosting a PDF, a tweet that received 97 retweets?

A tweet promoting a PDF document received 97 retweets, including one by John Mueller of Google.A tweet promoting a PDF document received 97 retweets, including one by John Mueller of Google.

Flaws in PDF for the Web

It has been suggested that one of the reasons PDFs are inappropriate for the modern Internet is that they are dead end pages. In most cases there is no site navigation within PDF pages.

It’s like a dead end street, a site visitor or a bot crawler has no where else to go once they reach the end of the document. The bot and the site visitor may leave the site after reaching the dead end page. Such a page can be considered a poor user experience.

On a technical level, the flow of PageRank could stop at a dead end web page. This is called a PageRank Sink. The ideal situation is to keep the PageRank flowing throughout the site so that more pages are indexed.

PDF is Often Incompatible with Mobile

Another criticism of PDF for web is that they are inherently incompatible for mobile browsing. They don’t display on a browser and require a separate app to view. This breaks and interrupts the flow of information from the website to the user.

The first offense is that the user has to wait for the PDF to download. Long wait times are associated with higher abandonment rates. After the PDF has been downloaded, the mobile site visitor has to wait for a new app to open.

One of the most respected seo audit professionals, Alan Bleiweiss, offered this assessment of using PDFs in an Internet that’s mobile first:

“PDFs as a viable data containment entity for anything other than contracts, invoices and other back-end type scenario, are a dying entity given how much of a train wreck they are for mobile usability.

I recently began pushing clients to consider replacing their archaic PDF white papers and case studies with mobile friendly HTML.”

Screenshot from a PDF file published by Internet Marketer Edward Lewis. “Here you can view the “Outline” of your Word Document. Using proper formatting allows the automation of Document Bookmarks using the Heading elements.”

Is the PDF Format Obsolete?

Not according to Internet Marketing expert Edward Lewis (also known as PageOneResults), someone who has been in the business since 1995.

Here’s what Edward Lewis had to say:

“There are many industries where PDF is a predominant method of information storage. There’s nothing archaic about it. PDF has a purpose. In many instances it is used to supplement HTML with “additional information” that may not be easily converted to HTML e.g. the strict formatting needs to remain intact.”

On the issue of hreflang tags, canonical tags, pagination tags, this is what Edward Lewis offered:

“We’re discussing PDF Documents, not HTML. But, if you wish to travel down this path, you have the ability to add all of that in the “Additional Metadata” located in the “Description” tab of the “Document Properties.””

Edward Lewis published a document titled, SEO for PDFs (PDF) outlining how to optimize PDF files. It’s full of tips on how to apply SEO concepts to PDF documents.

A screenshot from a PDF document titled, SEO for PDF.A screenshot from a PDF document titled, SEO for PDFs.

Are PDF Documents PageRank Sinks?

Yes and no. They don’t have to be dead ends. Links can be embedded into a PDF file. While many PDF files are PageRank sinks, they don’t have to be. So if you need to host a PDF, then consider adding navigational links so that users can return to the site.

Is there Value to Publishing PDF Files?

Yes, there can still be value in hosting PDF files. One way is the use of PDF files as bait as a way to harvest an email address. If the newsletter has value then the PDF bait is useful for stimulating traffic and email sign-ups.

Another way is the example that started off this article. Two Internet marketers wrote a guide to GDPR (PDF) and started promoting it. John Mueller spotted it and retweeted it. There’s no sign up required to receive the PDF. It’s a useful document and a good example of using a PDF file to add value, build awareness and generate links.

Six Takeaways

  1. PDF files are increasingly irrelevant in a mobile first Internet.
  2. Many common applications such as restaurant menus and business white papers are losing value to site visitors.
  3. Other technologies such as AMP, PWA, Apps and responsive HTML can gracefully fill the niche in the mobile first era that PDFs filled during the desktop era.
  4. PDF files can still be used creatively for promotional reasons
  5. PDF files can be SEO optimized
  6. PDF files can pass link equity and help users navigate back to the website if they are planned appropriately.

Is PDF Obsolete?

Share this article and post your opinion: is PDF Obsolete?

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Images by Shutterstock, Modified by Author

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Roger Montti

Roger Montti is an SEO Consultant with nearly 20 years of experience. I specialize in Site Audits to help sites ... [Read full bio]

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