Content Delivery Strategy: Say No to PDFs

How you deliver content dictates how your visitors can consume it, as well as what they can do with it. The easy route is often to simply a link to a file, but why restrict your audience. Give them content the way they want it, and with the ability to share it with their friends and family. The first part in this series will deal with the common approach to posting weekly bulletins; the PDF.

The most frequently updated section of a church website is probably its news and announcements. Other areas, such as tenants of faith, pastor biography, or worship times; do not change nearly as often as your news. With this frequency of updates, many churches want to go with the path of least resistance.

The person who publishes your weekly bulletin probably accomplishes this in some sort of desktop publishing tool. Rather than taking an extra step to post HTML content, many churches will simply export a PDF rendition of the bulletin; upload the file, and post a link to it. You assume that users will download the file and either view it on their device, or print it out. It is fast, efficient, and gets the job done. Unfortunately there are four roadblocks to this:

Portability

Many devices can read PDF files, yet they are locked into the intended design. This includes print margins, font sizes, and page width. This might not seem like a problem when viewing the document on your desktop computer; but becomes more complicated with tablets, and almost unusable on smartphones. Most likely your PDFs lock your visitors into only viewing content on a desktop computer; which is a problem when they are trying to find out what time your pancake breakfast is on their phone while their spouse is driving.

Shareability

Sharing a link to an external file might not seem like an obstacle; until you try to share it on a social media website. Often these sites skim content from the link and post it as a preview. This includes a snippet of the content and a thumbnail photo to further preview where the link goes. With a PDF, you miss out on a lot of that, and severely hamper your social media strategy. Plus, you do have to consider that some people may not have a PDF viewer or plug-in on their device.

Findability

Although Google and other search engines are able to parse PDF files, there are still many gaps. The primary advantage that HTML has over a PDF is semantics. The tags that structure an HTML document not only dictate how they will display, but also tell us their importance. For example, heading text differs from paragraph text in both looks and priority. Search engines pay more attention to keywords in your headings than in your paragraphs. PDFs are often just flat text files and every word,save for the title, is treated equally.

Searchability

Your website most likely has a search functionality built into it. Unless it is robust and like Google has the ability to parse PDF documents; that content will be invisible to search-oriented users. Additionally, Google’s search algorithm ranks certain content specifically for QDF, or queries deserving freshness. This means it expects some content to remain fairly intact (directions and locations), but expects other parts to be updated with some frequency (news and events). The HTML content from your bulletin will add ranking specifically for this QDF portion of Google’s algorithm.

Action Item

Instead of exporting your weekly bulletin and announcements to a PDF, consider the benefits of creating HTML pages and posts. If you are using a content management system such as WordPress, this is a great use of the blogging functionality. Each week could be a new blog post, the category would be “Bulletins”, and the tags would be subjects covered that week.

Note: Learn more about QDF on SEOMoz’s website.

Photo courtesy of Vullioud Pierre-André

Author: Stephen Morrissey

I have been making websites since 1996, and using social media since 2006. My current profession is designing user experiences for corporate software, websites, and mobile applications. I started sharing my knowledge with the world in 2011, about a year after a revival in my faith.

6 thoughts on “Content Delivery Strategy: Say No to PDFs”

  1. Great post, Stephen! Hoping some admins and site managers read it. Right on with the SEO and content search from Google, also. Using PDFs as content holders is an old school technique, and I’m betting most of the time it’s used – is because of the ease and quick upload of the PDF.

  2. Thanks Bryan. Although many churches are limited in time and technical resources; I hope this article will convince some they need to try and push for HTML content. Thanks for the comment and encouragement.

  3. From my experience, I would hesitate in killing off the PDF and trying to create some crappy looking html version. There has to be a strategy and purpose behind everything we do online. Personal experience: I edited the PDF version of my churches bulletin for 6 months and added links, and cleaned up some of the content. It didn’t take that much more time. We called it an interactive online bulletin. It held our weekly choruses in it and some of our members had iPads or iPhones so they could use it in the services instead of wasting paper.
    In addition, the links I added seemed to add value as an informative file in Google’s eyes because it always got picked up int he SERPs very well for events and staff members.
    I think it all comes down to strategy and planning. You raise some good concerns but I believe there is a valuable place for this medium if you use it intentionally. 🙂

  4. PDF’s=portable document format. Their intent is to lock down how a document looks. This functionality has its place and should not be casually tossed aside.

    HTML=lousy formatting. Even HTML5 is not particularly clean in this regard.

    As you stated at the head of your article: know your audience; know their needs; respond accordingly.

    KEEP writing!

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