How Law Firms Can SEO Enhance PDF Versions of Published Work

Posted in Commercial Publishers | Content Marketing | Law Firms | Search Engines

So … you’ve just published a great article with a legal publisher or a niche news site. Naturally you want to publicize your newly validated expertise and upload a copy of the article to your website immediatamente.

Not so fast, amigo.

That beautifully formatted PDF file provided by the publisher looks great on the outside. But it’s got problems. In the first place, the document was created to promote the publisher not your law firm. Secondly, when you crack open the PDF file, you’ll see that none of the critical metadata mentions you or your firm. The PDF is also lacks metadata necessary to help search engines properly index the article and associate your law firm with its contents.

In this post I’ll show you how to fix these and other issues.

Don’t Link to the Publisher’s Website

Merely linking to the publisher’s website is a bad idea because there is no way that the law firm can control how the article is displayed, how long it is displayed, or whether it is displayed at all. Linking out to the publisher’s website creates a risk that the reader will encounter a paywall, such as this one:

Or this one:

That paywall is not advancing the firm’s business development objectives, is it?

In this situation, the audience for the article is limited to the publisher’s paid subscriber base. That size of that audience is, for all practical purposes, unknowable to the law firm.

Thus, providing a link out to the article’s URL on the publisher’s website is a mistake in most cases.

Publishing the Article PDF on the Law Firm’s Website

On the other hand, publishing the article on the law firm’s website is a good idea. The firm has control over the presentation and contents of the article (helpful if the article requires revision). The firm can also ensure that the article is always available online. When publishing on the law firm’s website, there are two main considerations:

  1. Writing and tagging a PDF-formatted article so that the contents and authorship are clearly understandable to readers and search engines; and
  2. Displaying the article on the law firm’s website for maximum SEO benefit.

1. Enhancing the Article PDF

In most cases, the publisher will provide the law firm with a PDF-formatted version of the article. As provided, the PDF file will likely not have been formatted with the law firm’s interests in mind.

For example, here’s the Law360-supplied PDF version of an article written by a pair of attorneys at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP:

Take a close look at this screenshot. Which business does the publisher-provided PDF primarily promote? The PDF prominently carries the Law360 logo along with detailed contact information about Law360. Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP’s contact information is nowhere to be found. In fact, the firm is not mentioned until the end of the article, buried between the article conclusion and its footnotes.

The Law360 PDF contains hyperlinks. Clicking on takes the reader to Law360’s website. Clicking on Law360’s customer care email address launches the reader’s email client with a new message to Law360 already filled in.

Nothing happens when the reader clicks on the name of the attorney authors or clicks on Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP.

I would score this one “Law360 1, Sutherland Asbill 0.”

All publisher-provided PDFs behave the same way. Obviously, the publisher’s marketing department has given some thought to optimizing the PDF to advance the publisher’s interests. The PDF transmitted by the publisher is designed to promote the publisher’s business, not the law firm or author.

Let’s fix this problem right now.

First, the law firm must take care to ensure that good contact information and biographical information about the authors is provided within the article itself. These matters should be negotiated at the outset and bird-dogged throughout the article development process.

Second, once the publisher transmits the article PDF, the law firm should edit the document to supply any missing law firm branding and contact information. The law firm’s logo can be added to the top of the article. That might strike some as cheeky, but the firm is well within its rights to do this.

References to the law firm and its attorney authors (enhanced with hyperlinks to the author’s profile pages or to practice group descriptions) can be added to the document wherever appropriate. The law firm might also consider adding pages to the end of the PDF describing its related practice groups or listing other articles written by the authors.

There is no legal requirement that the version of the article published on the law firm’s website be identical to the version available on the publisher’s website.

In all instances, the PDF should be edited to the maximum extent necessary to promote the law firm’s business development objectives.

Third, metadata embedded in the PDF should be edited to provide the article title, author names, law firm name, and subject-matter keywords. This information can be added via the property sheet (found under the File menu in most PDF editing programs). The inclusion of this metadata makes the article much more findable on the web. This is the place Google looks first to understand what the PDF is all about, and it uses any available metadata to construct the SERP.

Publishers are sloppy about including metadata because the PDF is being provided merely as a convenience to the author.

Let’s take a look at the property sheet accompanying the Law360 article Did Apple Get it Right on Data Security and Privacy? (PDF), written by Jeffrey Glassman, of Ervin Cohen & Jessup LLP in Beverly Hills, Calif.

As you can see, this PDF is bereft of metadata connecting the article to the author or his law firm. Nothing for Google to hook into at all. In fact, the author is listed as “Portfolio Media,” Law360’s parent company. That’s not very nice.

Here is what the SERP looks like for this article:

Promoting Law360 again, aren’t we? The PDF is on Ervin Cohen’s website, but Google is associating this article with Law360.

These problems can be fixed. All that is required is for the law firm to edit the PDF to include the proper metadata. Here’s a revised property sheet that contains adequate metadata describing the substance of the article, and a proper attribution to author Jeffrey Glassman and his law firm, Ervin Cohen & Jessup LLP.

That’s better. Now Google will correctly index the subject matter and authorship of this article. Note that I edited the filename to make it more descriptive; this will give it a small SEO bump.

Presentation on the Law Firm Website

Finally, a few words about publishing the article on the law firm website. We’ve already improved the PDF quite a bit. We moved the law firm front and center, we built some hyperlinks to our authors’ profile pages, and we optimized the PDF so it will surface higher in response to searches.

But at the end of the day, it’s still a PDF, sort of a fish out of water on the Internet. The article might not look terribly inviting online, particularly on a mobile device. The PDF will likely be formatted for print, set in either two or three columns. For example, this article:

The firm can do better.

My suggested fix is to convert the PDF-formatted article to HTML and publish it on the firm’s website in the same manner as a blog post or a client alert. (In all cases, it is a good idea to request that the publisher give the law firm versions of the article formatted as a PDF, an HTML file, and a word processing file (.docx, .doc, .rtf).

Edit the HTML-formatted article to alert the reader that it was published elsewhere. To additionally highlight the fact that the article was first published elsewhere, take a screenshot of the first page of the article or of the publisher’s logo, then build a hyperlink on the image that takes the reader to the PDF version of the article.

By working in this way, the law firm can have the best of both worlds: a search-optimized HTML version of the article that looks good across devices with an embedded image that takes the reader to a PDF of the originally published version.

This article, Inside New FAR Rule On Untimely Payments To Subcontractors, from Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, is an example of this type of treatment. The law firm, the authors, and the article, are the star of the show here.


To sum up, law firms can maximize the benefits of publishing thought leadership articles with commercial publishers by:

  1. Taking care to retain the copyright in the article as well as the right to re-purpose it for client development purposes.
  2. Requesting PDF, HTML, and word processor versions of the article from the publisher.
  3. Editing all PDF documents to include metadata that includes the author’s name, the law firm’s name, and keywords describing the subject matter of the article.
  4. If at all possible, creating an HTML version of the article that will be readable on all devices.

This is not an onerous chore. Planning on the front end and an hour’s time after publication are all that is necessary.

If publishing is part of your firm’s business development strategy, you might want to read this post, How to Successfully Publish Legal Articles With Commercial Publishers.