PDF content tracking: Could it save the publishing industry?

The economy is in the dumpster, unemployment (we hope) is peaking, and the publishing industry just sloughed through one of the most brutal summers of the last three decades. Yet Adobe’s buying. On Sept. 15 the publishing software market leader announced its intention to gamble $1.8 billion USD on Omniture, a web-metrics tracking company that isn’t profitable and can’t compete with Yahoo and Google’s similar services that are free.

Go figure.

On the surface, it might seem like utter insanity to some observers, but Adobe usually figures out how to use its acquisitions to expand the capabilities of its publishing platform and enable PDF to take deeper root in more markets and put more space between PDF and wannabe competitors. While no one’s infallible, Adobe’s brain trust makes more good calls than bad, looking at past performance (the first two acquisitions that come to mind are Jetform/Accelio and Macromedia, both of which made PDF a much bigger deal than it was before their arrival).

With that in mind, we must assume that tracking content use within PDFs — a largely untapped market — is what Adobe’s planning to do with Omniture’s code. No way is Adobe going to take on Yahoo’s and Google’s free services head on, they just don’t buy into losing propositions like that.

Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen hinted at this, saying that an Omniture merger would ‘enable advertisers, media companies and e-tailers to realize the full value of their digital assets,’ mentioning applications as one of those assets. ‘Applications’ could mean a lot of things, but rich Internet apps utilizing Flash and AIR come to mind when he tosses that word out.

It makes much sense: As I wrote in an article back in June for the Seybold Report, interactive PDF editions of print publications still live on, despite persistent reports of their demise — and despite publishers’ inability to derive revenue streams from their production, especially in this down economy.

People want them, and publishers want to make them, but no one knows how to pay for them.

Advertisers are reticent to invest in space in these PDFs because it’s hard to get the same granular information they get from Flash banners on the web, a model much more mature and familiar. If Adobe attacks the problem with its typical technical aplomb, I have no doubt it can bring similar power to ads in PDF publications — which already can serve up forms.

Any fruits of the Omniture acquisition could take a good two to three years to ripen, considering how long these deals take to get approved by the government, and Adobe’s software-development cycle. One analyst predicts Acrobat 10 will come out early next year, making Acrobat 11 and the next versions of InDesign, Flash, Dreamweaver and other relevant tools the targets to contain Omniture’s tracking tech.

The interesting thing is, ‘smart PDF’ traffic analytics can be done today with Vitrium Systems’ Docmetrics, either as an enterprise server installation or on a software-as-a-service (SaaS) basis, where Vitrium hosts the tracking apparatus. It combines content tracking with dynamic forms, rights-management and lead-generation tools on a document-level basis.

‘Adobe’s purchase of Omniture validates the direction we’ve been taking for the last few years in developing Docmetrics,’ says Vitrium CEO Peter Nieforth. ‘Our customers have a huge head start and are already leveraging the value of PDF analytics on whatever scale it makes sense to their businesses.’

Being able to potentially monetize PDF publications such as newspapers and magazines — and make PDF catalogs, which cost zero to print or ship, much more effective — has got to be welcome news for the beleaguered publishers still left standing. If companies like Adobe and Vitrium can make this work, it could be the post-paper publishing model the industry’s desperately seeking.

We’ll never go back to the pre-Internet, pre-500-channels way of life. But there will always be buyers for quality, high-value content, and ads to sell with it, making it a potentially explosive market. Adobe’s betting a couple billion on it.

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About the Author: Don Fluckinger

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