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How to create optimized and accessible PDFs for your website

Ryan Boudreaux tells you all you need to know to create PDFs for your website that are optimized for readability, searchability, and accessibility.

Adding metadata and tagging to your Portable Document Format (PDF) files will help improve search results and will also assist text readers as they render content in audio output for the impaired, therefore creating a document with universal usability. This post will feature generally accepted standards, tips, guidelines, and steps to improve the readability and search results of your PDFs linked from web pages.

When should I use a PDF?

Confusion generally arises out of knowing, or not knowing, when to include the content as coded paragraphs within the web page document itself, or determining when the information should be contained within a PDF and linked from the page. Typically, any content that supports the general topic of the page and is more than five pages of normal typed text should be formatted into a PDF, for example, a specific set of instructions for a particular task, supporting documentation such as a memorandum, an eBook, or any document that needs to be presented electronically that looks exactly like the printed originals, such as an instruction manual.

How do I link a PDF?

The following are generally accepted standard guidelines for linking PDFs:

  • Include the title of the document and the acronym "PDF" in parentheses in the link text. For example, July 2012 Memorandum from the President (PDF).
  • After the linked text, show the number of pages and file size as unlinked text, separated by commas, in parentheses, for example, July 2012 Memorandum from the President (PDF ) (7 pp, 65K). For the number of pages, use "1 pg" for a single page. For multiple pages, use "XX pp" with a space between the number and "pp". For file size, use "K" for files smaller than 1000K and "MB" for files larger than 1000K. For MB, use at most one decimal place. Do not put a space between the number and "K" or "MB." You may also code the file-size information in parentheses to appear in a smaller font.
  • Provide disclaimer text either in-line with the linking if only one or two PDFs are linked from the page or within a special box if many PDFs are linked from the same page. Typical disclaimer text might include: "You will need Adobe Reader to view PDF files on this page; it is a free download from Adobe.com." (The link goes to the free Adobe Reader download page.)

Options include:

  • In-Line disclaimer: Add an "About PDF" link which points to a short disclaimer or speech bubble as the last item in parentheses after the link, page and file size. Typically only one disclaimer should be required per page.
  • Extended disclaimer: Contains the same disclaimer information but is provided on the page as a separate paragraph or boxed area in one of three locations: at the top of a page that includes many PDFs, positioned right before a paragraph or list of PDFs, or immediately before the first reference to a PDF.

Accessibility

A PDF creates a picture of how a printed document looks and feels, and makes them useful for circulating picture-perfect replicas of printed documents in an electronic format. This extremely useful format preserves the look and feel of the original document; however, it presents problems for text readers and search engines because the text of the document is now represented as an image.

Preparing your documents for accessibility

If the document is created within a Microsoft Office application and Adobe is linked to it, the "Adobe" tab will show up on the top ribbon or menu bar; typically, you can convert any Microsoft Office document to PDF. For example, let's say you have a Word document that you want to convert into a PDF file format; the following general guidelines will get you started on the right path. Before you convert the .doc or .docx file to PDF, review the following steps to ensure the Word document is ready for PDF accessibility.

  • Add structure: Design your documents with styles, for example, creating heading formats such as "Title", "Heading 1", "Heading 2", etc., and make them progress in a logical format. Structure added to your documents makes them usable to screen readers and search engines.
  • Add Alternative (Alt) Text to graphics and images: Double-click or right-click on embedded images and either select the "Web" tab or "Size" tab, in the "Alternative Text" window add in a description of the image, for example, "Photograph of server front cover". A few notes about alternative text fonts:
    • Text should be at least 12 point type.
    • Avoid using Microsoft Word text boxes.
    • Avoid using the "Enter" key to create space between paragraphs. Use the "Space Before" and "Space After" properties in your styles.
  • Columns in your document? Do not use tabs to make space between your columns. Use the "Column" commands to create column styling within the document.
  • Add descriptive hyperlinks: A "Click here" hyperlink does not give the user any useful information. Add descriptive hyperlinks to documents, and use the screen tip button to add a text description.
  • Tables in your document? Use the "Insert Table" command to create styled and formatted tables, and avoid table rows from breaking a page, and any tables that do go beyond a page should repeat the header rows at the top of each successive page.

Converting your documents to accessible PDF files

Now that the document has a structure, alternative text for images, formatted columns, and correctly styled tables, it is ready to be converted to the PDF file format. These general steps will get your document to an accessible PDF.

#1 With the document open and from the Word toolbar or ribbon, select Adobe PDF or Acrobat.

#2 Configure the PDF Maker from the Change Conversion Settings or Preferences tab, then make sure the following are selected:

  • Settings Tab: Check Fully Functioning PDF
  • Add Bookmarks To Adobe PDF
  • Add Links To Adobe PDF
  • Enable Accessibility And Reflow

Figure B

#3 Security Tab: If Permissions are applied, check Enable Text Access For Screen Reader Devices For The Visually Impaired.

Figure C

#4 Word Tab: Check Convert Cross References, Convert Footnote And Endnote Links, and Enable Advanced Tagging.

Figure D

#5 Bookmarks Tab: Check Convert Word Headings To Bookmarks, and set the proper indent levels for all elements and types (headings, text styles, etc.)

Figure E

#6 Save the document as a PDF.

  • MS Word 2003 (Acrobat 7 & 8): Convert to Adobe PDF from Adobe PDF Menu, and then select Convert to Adobe PDF toolbar.
  • MS Word 2007 (Acrobat 8): Select Create PDF from the Create Adobe PDF Group, then Save as Adobe PDF from the Office button.

By following these document preparation and conversion steps you will get your PDFs to show up in more search results, and give your website more accessibility for users with disability. Adobe provides this Quick Reference Card in PDF file format by the way, which provides more details and screen captures in an easy-to-follow two-page guide for getting Word documents to accessible PDF formats.

About

Ryan has performed in a broad range of technology support roles for electric-generation utilities, including nuclear power plants, and for the telecommunications industry. He has worked in web development for the restaurant industry and the Federal g...

3 comments
Swwamm
Swwamm

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damiel126
damiel126

As above, recommend Acrobat X Pro for the additional accessibility features. For basic accessibility, if you're including tables then tick the 'repeat as header row' box regardless of whether it goes over the page or not. This flags the top row to convert as TH cells and not TD cells. If you're using images and working in DOCX format, save it as a DOC format before you save it as a PDF. Otherwise your images will be bunched up at the front in the tags list and won't read out in the right order to a screen reader even if you define the reading order with the Tough Up Reading Order tool. If accessibility is a focus or if you have policy or legislative obligations around accessibility then the most appropriate resource will be the sufficient techniques for PDF published on the W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines website.

jebswebs
jebswebs

Thank you for this article. I've been providing some training on Accessible Digital Documents and highly recommend investing in the Adobe Acrobat X Pro application and testing all PDFs for accessibility using the Accessibility Checker (ACC) built-in to Acrobat Pro. This is particularly important for organizations that are sharing information to the general public. Using your method as described, the ACC finds (creates?) problems with the "language" code of the each page as well as the language of the document. This is with a conversion of a MS Word (2010 - Windows) file that has been checked (and passed) the accessibility checker in Word. However, when I use the simple, native "Save as PDF" option in Word, the file converts perfectly without any accessibility errors. So, using the Adobe PDF Maker application actually introduces errors when none exist. BTW, my resource are all posted at http://www.mainecite.org/add/

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