polite PDFs

PDF download links need “editorialization.” This is good web etiquette. Dropping users into a download without warning or cuing is bad UX. It can lock up their browser. Very irritating.

PDFs can easily be reduced with a freeware PDF optimizer to a tenth that file size. This is bandwidth politeness most developers don’t do for users. Apathy! Screen quality pages print just fine. Google for “online PDF optimizer”. Brainless. Nice.

Optimizing PDFs is a subtle way to say, “we care.” Host them on your server.

We’ve done library sections on websites before. They are popular (meaning they are visited from search engines). But success is contingent on several things for SEO (search engine optimization). These things are details improving what is called findability.

Findability means visitors can easily find what they are searching for on the site. And it also means being able to find relevant information from offsite (from search engine listings – like Google).

So why this tutorial?

The ebooks that are frequently on websites are not findable. They are invisible. In fact, they aren’t listed on Google.

Our goal is to get every single page and document listed on Google. WordPress will handle most of that problem. But other things can help.

Why are some PDFs not listed? They aren’t MACHINE-READABLE. They are image files. If you try and highlight (select) the body text with the cursor, it can’t be done. That means search engines can’t read the text either. The files haven’t been saved with embedded text.

Do PDFs rank well when they are machine readable? The answer is “yes.” Engines can crawl them just as well and fast as regular old web pages. The PDFs rank sometimes even better than HTML web pages. Search Engines are looking for credible content. And PDFs have high credibility. They take longer to prepare. They are less disposable. They have a longer shelf life.

A library directory is a good thing. But library production requires a little more tender-loving care.

Here’s what that means:

1. Save a PDF with embedded text.
2. Optimize the PDF for fast download.
There are various ways to automate optimization (file size reduction) with plugin or online tools. PRESS quality PDFs (300dpi) are too fat for downloading. Even PRINT quality (150dpi) can be marginally heavy. SCREEN quality (72dpi) can ruin images. So some experimenting is required. Visitors won’t tolerate slow downloads. And heavy PDFs open and scroll too slow. Fat PDFs say, “We don’t care.”

3. Build a thumbnail image for navigation.
We can’t use the regular WordPress thumbnail function on PDFs. It works on JPEGs and PNG files. So we build the thumbnail by opening the PDF in an image editing desktop program. And then just save the cover page as a JPEG image file. We then upload that to the WordPress image library. This will become the link to the actual PDF.

4. Add the thumbnail image to the library page.
Editorialize the image link. This means descriptive text is added that tells what sort of content is in the PDF and why the visitor would benefit from downloading it. (Search engines read this stuff, too). This text is called information scent. It cues the reader that they are on the right track. The text should state that the download is free. Also, the file size, dimensions, color, and page count should be stated. This information helps them know how long they will wait when they click the link. Visitors don’t like surprises and are apprehensive about pressing any “mystery buttons.” Consider this advertising the PDF.

So there are a few hoops to jump through when preparing a library. Based on our experience, do we think the trouble is worth it? Absolutely. Library sections are popular with both people – and engines. They are a good draw. Some people will drop into the site right on the library page – bypassing all other pages.

We also encourage harvesting content from the brochures and make HTML entries to the blog. This redundancy is perfectly acceptable because people like information delivered in different ways. They have a choice.

Just a note: These kinds of pages with many thumbnails (also called catalog pages) benefit from a WordPress lazy-load plugin to keep load time fast. One we recommend is Rocket Lazy Load. Lazy loading defers loading images in long web pages. Images outside of the browser viewport (below the fold) are not loaded until the user scrolls to them.

PagePipe is anti-waste and pro-thriftiness about more than just web speed. We don’t like the misuse of any web resources. Conservation and recycling create a better web ecosystem.

Find more time and space from positive optimization side-effects:

  • Don’t waste bandwidth.
  • Don’t waste server space.
  • Don’t waste the user’s time waiting.
  • Don’t waste your own time trying to optimize individual files.

“Portable Document Format” PDF is a powerful technology that can produce large, unwieldy files. Bloated PDFs are a big source of wasted resources. PagePipe publishes PDFs at a 150-dpi print resolution. We start with print quality and then optimize for web publication, too.

PDFs are usually created with a desktop, page-layout program at one of three different qualities:

  • 72dpi screen resolution with embedded fonts for screen reading.
  • 150dpi print resolution for laser printer output on paper.
  • 300dpi for press resolution on glossy, magazine-like printing.

PDF quality settings affect web user experience. Those UX  factors include:

  • Download time.
  • Offline printing time.
  • On-screen visual quality.
  • Readability.

Our PDFs are 11 x 7 inches horizontal (landscape format) for screen reading and for printing on letter-size paper. That is 1099 x 699 pixels. A computer viewing screen can be much larger than that. A PDF reader utility may use a best fit to fill the entire screen.

For example, a common 19″ screen size is 1024 x 768 pixels. That makes for a pretty good display of our PDFs. But what if the monitor is larger or set for an even higher-resolution view. Then embedded raster-based images look ugly. Type still holds up well because it’s vectored and stretchy. But our PDF content is full of visuals.

Screen resolutions are just too grainy for PagePipe’s design-sensitive audience. We’ve user tested this and they complain about image quality when using 72-dpi, screen-resolution PDFs.

Why? If users read on a large screen, it’s perhaps enlarged by 200 percent or more. This is when image graininess and pixelization starts showing up. Publishing a print-resolution PDF online makes for a more readable, quality format. But it’s still page-weight overkill. There’s that carelessness, again. Things can be better.

Press-quality PDFs are out of the question for us because they’re so heavy. When websites download huge, press-quality PDFs, it’s complete laziness and overkill. A waste! Big downloads happen when print design department’s hands off bloat to their web people. They either don’t know how to optimize or it’s just too much of a hassle. What happens is the user pays the price waiting for long downloads. We call that bad web etiquette. This impoliteness is often overlooked by site builders and owners. They suppose no one will notice – a bad assumption.

Compressed PDFs are a wise communication strategy that is called a post-decisional reassurance. It helps end any possibility of user remorse for pressing a download button. The choice to download is a good one when we get reinforcement of how fast the download is working. It makes us feel like someone cared. To not compress, indicates site-owner apathy about basic user’s needs.

User eXperience (UX) means being polite. Many web developers are inconsiderate of end user’s when they serve uncompressed PDF files. We’re a big advocate that users are grateful for the small polite details of faster downloads. Things feel right. That’s a UX goal. It’s good hospitality.

Was it our brilliance that lead us to find a better optimization process for our case studies? No. In truth, a wonderful image optimization service in Romania pointed out the possibilities. They are ShortPixel, the creators of the ShortPixel Plugin for WordPress. In the web world, Romania isn’t that far away.

ShortPixel pointed out they could optimize more than just our JPEGs or PNG images. They also would improve PDF files. This had never occurred to us. We then realized we were doing things backwards by uploading our PDFs via FTP client.

With the ShortPixel plugin installed, the WordPress Media Library would automatically optimize our PDFs. Faster PDF downloads without stress or hassle was a relief.

ShortPixel compression was a much better compromise for balance between image quality and speed. We were more than satisfied with the results. We were even happy! Unusual for us.

Our PDFs now politely downloaded 3 times faster without visual quality loss for users. Fantastic! It wasn’t as aggressive as screen-quality compression –nor was it as heavy as print-quality. ShortPixel hit the sweet spot for our PDF-publishing needs.

You can now bulk process all your existing PDFs in the WordPress media library. This feature is important when retrofitting an old website for site optimization. Rebuilding an old website is much more painful than building a new fresh one. ShortPixel reduces the pain and frustration during site retrofits.

ShortPixel not only told us the savings for each PDF but also a summary of the total savings from compression for the entire website. It’s a warm fuzzy that makes us feel good about clearing out so much deadwood from our page loads and server space.

Some designers might consider saving server space insignificant. Please remember that for us – with just 10 PDF files – we saved as much hosting space as WordPress occupies. That puts the previous waste into perspective.

We don’t want to store backups on our server. ShortPixel permits deselecting backup if desired. We feel PDF backups are wasteful since we keep copies on our computer and, also, have our site backed up on DropBox. We don’t want junk floating around. If you have backups selected, you can revert to saved originals.

Install the ShortPixel plugin to discover your unrealized potential for website savings. But optimize too many PDFS or images and the plugin will cost you money.

NOTE: Here’s an online PDF compression tool: For one-at-a-time, manual compression of PDFs, visit http://www.verypdf.com/online/free-pdf-compress-online.php >

Return to Top ▲Return to Top ▲