I spend a lot of time talking to the folks who manage online content, some of the unsung heroes of the web.
PDF, viewed from the content manager’s perspective, is a black box. Traditionally, no-one expects content managers to modify PDFs; they’re supposed to simply post them when requested to do so. Under this model, content managers can’t be expected to take responsibility for the appearance or accessibility of the PDF content they post.
The problem, of course, is that content managers are held responsible for the usability and accessibility of HTML and other online content, but authors of PDF files are rarely held to account for the quality, usability or accessibility of the PDFs they produce. As a result, no-one is looking out for the PDFs. That’s why we see broken files, long documents without bookmarks, huge files posted without Fast Web View enabled, PDFs with oversize pages still showing the printer’s crop-marks, PDFs with no metadata, and so on. These are not isolated anecdotes, these are everyday examples from the pages of Fortune 500 websites.
For content managers, PDF is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, PDFs are easy to deploy. Once the author hands it over, the content manager need only post the file and provide a link (or update the database, whatever), and the work is done. Another 300 page Annual Report is now online, with all the real work neatly offloaded to the desktop publishing department.
On the other hand, PDF files are content, and content managers are supposed to be able to manage their content. PDFs are indexed by search engines, and are thus a factor in search engine optimization (SEO). Users flock to PDF files because they provide excellent printed results, appearing just as the author intended. PDFs are generally deemed more “authoritative” than HTML web-pages for this same reason.
Content managers have to come to grips with the PDF files they manage, just like the HTML, the XML, the SWF, the JPG files, and everything else in their domain.
PDF can’t stay in the black box. Content managers must take an active role in ensuring that the PDF files under their control are the best, most usable and most accessible PDF files they can be. Most of the time, this means helping document authors understand how to produce better, more accessible PDF files. Beyond educating authors, (a Sisyphean task), expertise in managing PDF content should be a basic skill of the modern content manager.