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Adam Turner

Avoiding PDF nightmares


Managing the PDFs on your website so they are up to date, accessible and do not cause any issues is one of the most challenging aspects of managing digital channels. Recently we have been having numerous conversations with customers and contacts about the challenges they face; these have been on the back of a number of free, open online sessions relating to PDF accessibility that we are running. More sessions are planned in the New Year.

The experiences mentioned by customers echo the challenges that we highlighted in a recent article – Managing PDFs on your website: what you need to do and why

  • An archive of PDFs rapidly builds up with a volume that can be hard to manage, with teams not always having an accurate picture of all the PDFs on their site, whether there are duplicates etc.
  • PDFs aren’t usually editable or viewable in the same way web pages are, so issues get missed
  • PDFs are seldom managed by the website team and involve multiple stakeholders, so are less easy to control
  • Sometimes one may have to return to the source file to make a change, and this may not be available or hard to find
  • Links associated with PDFs can be hard to manage
  • Content Management Systems aren’t always geared up to managing PDFs
  • Managing PDFs is not usually a strategic priority, so problems can build up
  • The person or team actually responsible for the content in the PDF is not always clear.

Three PDF nightmares 

The article also highlights various reasons why taking time to manage website PDFs is important, including the need to drive accessibility, brand and regulatory compliance. While on the surface, managing PDFs might not seem like a high priority, the associated risks of not doing so can be serious. We have heard some genuine PDF nightmares which have both had a major impact and could have been easily avoided.

PDF nightmare #1: Falling foul of the regulator

One global company issued critical health and safety information relating to its products on PDF documents that were online and available in different languages; ensuring that this information was correct was critical. However, some information was incorrect, which came to the attention of their industry regulator. The digital team made the necessary changes and reported to the regulator that the changes had been actioned. However, because of the associated difficulties in managing PDFs, the regulator was able to find that all the changes had not actually been actioned, partly due to duplicate PDFs. This was not only a potential safety issue but also caused a loss of confidence with the industry regulator, a significant impact from a relatively simple issue.

PDF nightmare #2: Letting down customers

Another issue with a PDF was experienced by a retailer who sold a digital product where the set-up instructions were contained in a PDF online. A part of the set-up process involved customers confirming details through a link provided in the PDF, but it was the wrong link, meaning that the set-up could not be completed. This had a major impact, with a high volume of support calls that were an administrative burden, a damage to the reputation of the brand and around a third of the products returned.

PDF nightmare #3: Letting down employees

Additionally, we heard another story of how a holiday request and approval form in PDF format housed on an employee intranet included an error leading to a serious backlog of unapproved annual leave requests, and subsequent significant costs.

Taking a pragmatic approach to managing PDFs

The issue that these three stories have in common is that PDFs are part of a critical and important process or activity, and the associated challenges of managing PDFs meant that issues did not get spotted until it was too late. With the case of the health and safety information, remedying the issue proved difficult too.

To lessen the risks associated with managing PDFs, website teams need to take action. Here, a pragmatic and proactive approach is often best to avoid issues. Here are five steps to follow.

  1. Get an inventory of your PDFs with the information you need

    The first step in managing PDFs is to carry out an audit of the files you have on your website, or the PDF files you link to. Getting this information is not as easy as it might seem; site sprawl, PDFs buried deep on old pages, a potentially large PDF archive and a lack of capabilities in your CMS, make this less than straightforward. Here, a new document report from Sitemorse allows you to get an effective inventory in Excel or CSV format to be the starting point for effective PDF management. This report covers the salient details that help identify the issues you may need to fix:

    • A summary overview of numbers of PDFs, different issues and more, to be able to track on a regular progress, as well as help for each of the other worksheets.
    • A list of all the PDFs hosted by you and which of your pages link to them.
    • A list of broken links contained in the PDFs.
    • Any erroneous email addresses contained in the PDFs.
    • PDFs accessibility tests.
    • Any duplicate PDFs, that is, PDFs that are exactly the same but in two or more locations on your site.
    • Any missing PDFs, that is, your pages that link to a PDF but we could not find the PDF.
  2. Identify critical risks and take any necessary action

    Armed with the right information, it’s important to identify any critical risks that require immediate attention. For example, if you have duplicate PDFs that include important information such as safety details, then act now. This can help you to avoid the PDF nightmares that lead to serious consequences. If you do have an important PDF involved in a critical process, it may also be worth considering if a PDF is the right format for that content.

  3. Create an archive area for your PDFs

    Inevitably there will also be some PDFs that you cannot change or do not need to change. For example, local authorities cannot change PDF documents that describe the minutes of past meetings; while companies may feel no need to change the contents of old reports. 

    Here, creating an archive area for your PDFs where it is clear that files are part of an archive, gives critical context to the content, and drives customer expectations. 

  4. Add an information page with all the warnings you need

    To properly inform site visitors about your PDF archive, it is useful to create an information page. This can cover:

    • Overview of why there is a PDF archive – for example stating that some documents are historic records that can’t be changed
    • Any information relating to PDFs that are actively managed
    • Any disclaimers needed
    • Any action that you take to manage PDFs, for example using Sitemorse
    • Accessibility-related information
    • Contact information if people want to get in touch.

    You may also want to include a reference to this page on your accessibility statement.

  5. Fix non-urgent issues

    If you now have more time, you should work on systematically fixing the less urgent issues on your PDFs, perhaps on an ongoing basis.

Avoid those PDF nightmares!

You really don’t want to end up with a PDF nightmare. Taking a proactive and pragmatic approach to managing your PDFs to prevent more serious consequences further down the line is the best approach.

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