Editorial: PDFs that read you — don’t believe the hype

Spyware creeps into Adobe Reader

I saw this piece on the Sydney Morning Herald web site the other day… Headlines like this have been circulating in PDF and technology circles in the recent months, referring to the March release of Toronto-based Remote Approach’s traffic-monitoring solution. In essence, the Remote Approach solution allows document creators to upload documents and have JavaScript-based tracking information embedded before sending them out for distribution. As far as the tracking is concerned, this innocuous service simply allows for the logging of the number of times a given PDF document had been opened. It’s similar in concept to the measuring of web site impressions or visitors, but (at this point) less sophisticated.

In addition, the solution allows users to add specific identifying information, such that you send Joe Schmoe at XYZ a PDF specifically created for him. If he distributes it and — for good or ill — 1,000 people ultimately read the document, then it’s possible to know that you have Joe to thank for it and can act accordingly. This is just as pertinent for paid PDF content as it is for free publications. After all, in both cases, the document creators need to know the size of their audience. In free, sponsorship-funded publications, accurate distribution figures are crucial, as the content creators are ultimately accountable to their sponsors.

While I’m not in favor of totally surrendering to the voyeuristic tendencies of our eldest male sibling, I believe that the buzz over this latest development is a storm in a teacup. It has been presented as the vanguard of more malign applications of the technology, but frankly, I don’t see it. Web sites have been tracking visitor statistics for years, and despite numerous scares, web literacy and usage are still on the rise. Privacy legislation and the use of trusted sources are far more effective than purely technological barriers.

In the print world, very few publications are free-of-charge, and none are free to produce; there are raw materials to consider, prepress and printing costs, and of course, the writers’ time. While web-only content can do away with most of these overheads, it adds some of its own, such as server maintenance. In response to this, commercial web site owners need to make the crucial decision between charging their users via a subscription model, obtaining sponsorship coin, or some combination thereof. In any case, tracking the results in terms of web site traffic offers an objective measure of a site’s success. The data can then be used to improve the quality and relevance of future content, informed by the popularity of various pieces.

So what happens when the aforementioned web sites want to offer content in PDF form? It’s more print-friendly and portable than simple HTML, and is frequently offered as a replacement for or alternative to HTML for online content. Should web site owners sacrifice tracking and all that goes with it — such as enhanced quality control — in order to use a superior medium? I believe that a reasonable level of tracking is a crucial step in the continuing evolution of PDF as a delivery mechanism for commercial content.

Want to talk about this topic? Visit the Planet PDF Forum’s Talkback Conference and put in your two cents.

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About the Author: Dan Shea

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