A couple years ago, a client was launching a new product -- but they weren't the only company doing so. One of their main competitors was launching the same product, sourced from the same manufacturer. The product didn't have much search history. It also didn't have much competition for the relevant keywords.
Still, we screwed up. We took a very traditional approach to SEOing the new product: build out some great content on the web site, go after some links, do some PR, etc. The competition took a non-traditional approach: They slapped together a PDF with a couple pages of text content about the product, uploaded it to their web site, linked to it from their home page, and in no time flat that PDF file had the No. 1 ranking in both Google and Yahoo! for the relevant keywords.
Worse yet -- we had a heck of a time getting the great content we developed to outrank the PDF file. Ultimately, we followed the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" theory and produced our own PDF which immediately started battling the competitor's PDF for search engine supremacy, until our great content and links eventually caught up and won the battle.
With so many businesses having access to PDFs full of product and service information, here are some thoughts on optimizing PDFs for search engine visibility.
1. All three major engines can crawl and index text-based PDFs. If you need proof, just do a search on each SE with [PDF] in the query.
2. PDF optimization is similar to optimization for a regular content page. Try this: good use of keywords/phrases, appropriate headlines and sub-headlines, solid content that reads well to a human eye, etc. If the PDF will include images, a caption underneath each image would be a good idea, especially if the caption includes a targeted keyword/phrase. (Of course, don't overdo it.)
Also, take advantage of the document meta data that PDF-creation software or Adobe Reader itself offers.
3. The most important thing where PDFs and SEO is concerned is how the PDF is created. Don't use Photoshop to make your PDF, because when you do that, you're actually making a big image file, not a true PDF -- and the spiders cannot crawl or "read" the text from that image file. The PDF should be created with a text-based program, like MS Word or Adobe Pagemaker, so that the final product is text-based and can be crawled.
4. Your PDF can reside anywhere on your site, but the same rule about spiders not being likely to crawl content that's too deep applies. The safest thing to do is to put it as close to the root directory as possible.
5. When publishing a PDF on your site, you should very visibly link to the PDF from the home page, or from some page that gets crawled regularly. You have to lead the crawler along so it finds the new content as quickly as possible. Don't just post the PDF and then cross your fingers that it gets crawled.
6. It's probably a good idea to use a keyword when naming the files, such as keyword.pdf. I haven't done any serious investigation on what impact this has, but it would seem to be a good idea to use a keyword when naming the file -- to be safe, in case there's a little boost to be had.
When done correctly, PDF optimization can give you new opportunities to acquire traffic from natural search.
Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
Matt McGee is SEO Manager at Marchex, a search and media company in Seattle, Washington. He's guided successful projects for clients of all sizes and budgets, with special emphasis on traffic acquisition via organic rankings. Matt is a speaker at the Search Engine Strategies conferences, and writes about online marketing at Small Business SEM. He's a frequent contributor to several SEO/SEM forums, and is a moderator for the Small Business Ideas Forum.
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