Emma Barnes

Emma Barnes

Senior Insights and Analytics Analyst

Many websites use PDFs as a form of downloadable content, but what many people don’t realise is that they might be losing valuable information about the performance of these kinds of pages.

Background: I noticed that, for the keyword [Shower Tray Installation], Google ranks four PDFs on the first page:

Shower Installation Keywords

I did a bit of digging and saw that:

  • Mira Showers rank for 582 terms (162 on page 1) with PDF pages
  • Simpson’s Enclosures rank for 165 terms (74 on page 1) with PDF pages
  • Victoria Plum rank for 416 terms (71 on page 1) with PDF pages (all of which are on the old Victoria Plumb domain)
  • Bathstore rank for 239 terms (37 on page 1) with PDF pages

The majority of these keywords are “how to”, “guide”, and “installation” type keywords. Google obviously likes PDFs for this purpose and is getting better at reading them.

So you’re probably wondering:

What’s the problem with PDFs?

This post isn’t really about PDFs being the problem, but more about the fact that you can’t really track a PDF.

You might roll your eyes and say “you can track PDF downloads with event tracking, duh”.

That is true and don’t get me wrong, PDF downloads can be worth tracking, but you can only get information on PDF downloads if the user was already on your website before downloading the PDF.

If you’re using Google Analytics, you might be aware that the GA script only runs if a page has the relevant Javascript tracking attached to it. A PDF cannot have this tracking, so you’re unable to see things like:

  • How many times this pages was viewed
  • Whether viewing the page led to any conversions
  • Where users came from to end up on a PDF page

So, your PDF might rank in Google for hundreds of terms but you just don’t have visibility of this traffic in Google Analytics or whatever tracking system you use. While you are not “losing” traffic, you are losing visibility of that traffic and its worth, thus under-reporting your campaign’s value (if your campaign involves PDFs).

How do you solve a problem like a PDF?

So, we want to see the traffic that our PDF landing page is supplying us with. You can find a bit in Search Console on the “Search Analytics > Pages” report.

Search Console PDF

And this is okay, but the only information you can get is:

  • Information relating to the PDF’s performance in Google Organically
  • Clicks, impressions, ranking, and CTR

This isn’t an awful lot of usable information. It’s mostly useful for getting a list of PDFs that rank in Google. Which is really good if you want to take into account the following advice…

Move beyond PDFs and into “real” web pages

Sorry if you came here hoping for “one weird trick” to start tracking PDFs accurately in Google Analytics. Please accept this next piece of advice as a consolation prize.

Pros of translating a PDF into a normal webpage

  • They can integrate really well as part of a content marketing strategy
  • They would be integrated with rest of your website, ultimately increasing engagement and conversion rate
  • They present a good opportunity for strong internal linking
  • Not all mobile devices can open PDFs by default (I speak from experience as a Windows Phone user)
  • You can still link to the PDF for download purposes
  • Google will find these kind of pages easier to read and understand

Cons of translating PDFs into normal webpages

  • It’s hard work. You need to write and format all the content again, as well as find relevant images
  • It’s also potentially a really long process
  • There are several SEO considerations to take into place, such as placing canonical tags on the PDF version and update any internal links

In conclusion…

It is very difficult to accurately track the performance of the PDFs on your website. If the information is good enough for a PDF, why not have it in HTML format? If you only have a few PDFs, are you losing enough visibility of information to warrant a process like this? If you have a lot, there are a few considerations to put in place before migrating.

If you’re interested in putting together a migration plan for your PDF content, please let us know.

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