Optimizing PDFs for Search and Tracking Them in Analytics

A common misconception is that PDFs are images and are therefore not crawlable to search engines. This is simply not true. PDFs can be crawlable and can have individual ranking potential, much like any static HTML page, if they are built correctly.

Make Sure PDFs are Text-Based

PDFs can either be text-based or image-based. Text based PDFs are created using text-based programs, such as Microsoft Word or Adobe InDesign. Image-based PDFs are generated through scanning in documents or creating them through programs such as Adobe Photoshop. Here’s the test: Check whether or not you can select/highlight the text. When you hover your mouse over the text, it should change from the arrow to the text icon. Then it should allow you to select or interact with the text. This means that the content is registering as text to the search engines. Check out this snippet from our SEO Beginners Guide as an example:

PDFs can be crawlable

As Always, Use Those Keywords

Use keywords throughout the text, just like in any other piece of content that you are optimizing for search engines. Namely in the headers, body copy, and as anchor text to other pages within the site. More importantly though, use keywords when naming the file. The PDF filename is generally what will show up as the direct URL in the SERPs (see below), unless of course you manually change it.

Screenshot of PDF in Google

As we have discussed in many blog posts and best practice documents, URLs are such a huge contributor to ranking potential, they can’t afford to be overlooked.

Cross-Linking

Much like we have discussed before, internal linking is extremely important for passing link equity (we call it link juice) throughout a site. The same goes for PDFs. Especially if PDFs are being shared with external domains (discussed in my next point), it’s extremely important that they link back to relevant internal pages, and vise versa.

Link Building

PDFs can be great link bait. That is if they follow these guidelines:

  1. They are informational, not promotional.
  2. They are visually appealing and include diagrams, graphics, and charts.
  3. They provide a value to one or more segments of your audience.
  4. They are published on sites that are visited by these segments of your audience.

 

Create Supplemental HTML Pages

Let’s say that you have followed all of these steps and have an optimized PDF ready to be shared. Now what? Where do you place that PDF? We have a simple solution for that. For every PDF, create an HTML page specifically dedicated to it. This page should be targeted toward the same or similar keyword terms and should include information such as:

  • Who would derive benefit from reading the PDF
  • What the basic topic is about
  • How to download it (the literal link)
  • Why it was created or why it is important
  • Where on the site they can find similar information

For an example, check out our SEO Audit Checklist page: /seo-audit-checklist/.

Tracking PDF Downloads

While we are on the subject of PDF optimization, it’s also important to discuss how to track PDF downloads in Google Analytics. There are quite a few methods out there, but this is our recommended method.

Event Tracking

PDF downloads can be tracked internally with Google Analytics Event Tracking. Hereas how to set it up:

  1. Find the internal href link(s) to the PDF
  2. Insert the code that follows:<a href= a#a onclick=_gaq.push([a_trackEventa, acategorya, aactiona, alabela, value]);a>Anchor Text Here</a>
  3. Replace “Category” with the over-arching category of the action. So for example, “PDF Download.”
  4. Replace “Action” with the specific action item being measured. For example “SEO Audit Checklist.”
  5. Replace “Label” with any additional detail that is needed to keep each item separate. This is an optional step, but sometimes is necessary when there are a few similar items for download.

This is useful for tracking downloads that occur from any internal page with the GA tracking code. But what about external links to the PDF? As far as I know, there is not a simple way to measure traffic that links directly to a PDF using Analytics (if any Analytics gurus out there knows of a way, please post it). That is part of the reason why we dedicate pages within our site that correspond with PDF downloads (like this one: /seo-audit-checklist/). This serves as a gateway page, from which PDF downloads can be tracked. When conducting link-building initiatives, we try to request that the link be sent to this gateway HTML page. From there we can easily track behavior, whether that is a PDF download or not, and we can see referral traffic. There are other ways to do this, such as through additional tracking software, but we find this to be the easiest.

Recap

PDFs are misunderstood creatures. They can actually provide significant SEO benefit when created and shared correctly. Make sure the work you put into creating an awesome PDF pays off by allowing search engines to interpret the content and share it with the correct audience.