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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
To properly inform site visitors about your PDF archive, it is useful to create an information page. This can cover:
You may also want to include a reference to this page on your accessibility statement.
If you now have more time, you should work on systematically fixing the less urgent issues on your PDFs, perhaps on an ongoing basis.
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.