Understanding Tagged (Structured) PDF

Since version 5 of Acrobat, PDFs have the capability of having structure . . . aka tagging.

What is tagged PDF? Why is important?

Tagging is closely aligned with accessibility for the visually impaired, but it offers many other benefits for any PDF user.

Tag, you’re it!

One function of tagged PDF is to make a document accessible to the visually impaired. Visually impaired individuals can surf the web using screen reading software that offers audio cues to help them navigate. You can imagine the frustration of a visually impaired individual in navigating a PDF that contains no information about headers/footer, column order, captions, etc. Screen reading software needs structure in PDF to make the experience of using Acrobat for visually impaired folks a good one.

Fortunately, PDFs generated using Adobe Acrobat from Word, Excel, PowerPoint contain structure. Additionallly, Adobe’s own products such as InDesign, can directly generate tagged PDF.

One caveat . . . I don’t know of any third-party PDF generator that creates properly structured, tagged PDF automatically. If you know one, let me know!

The engineers tells me that creating good, tagged PDF is an RHTD issue. That is, Really Hard To Do.

Fortunately, you can add tags to a document later, even if it doesn’t have any, but it is not the most efficient way to do so,

Do I need to tag?

If you send someone a PDF without tags, you won’t receive a visit from the PDF Structure police.

However, firms that do business with the government or (potentially) work for clients, who have government contracts, may be required to create documents that are accessible to the visually impaired. Section 508 is the law that applies:

In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Inaccessible technology interferes with an individual’s ability to obtain and use information quickly and easily. Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make available new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals. The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Under Section 508 (29 U.S.C. ‘ 794d),agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to the access available to others.

I think it is a good practice to create tagged PDFs in the legal profession. Adding tags is on by default in Acrobat’s one-button PDF creators, so without much work you may doing something nice for the visually impaired attorney who reviews your work someday. You never know!

Playing Tag

When you add tags is an important part of the process. Using the one-button PDF creator for MS-Word is more efficient than adding tags later in Acrobat:

Note that the AdobePDF print driver does not produce tagged PDF. You can add tags as a post-process in Acrobat, but it is less efficient in terms of file size or (at least in my experience) functionality.

Because the one-button PDF creator lives in Word, it can efficiently gather information about column structure, paragraph hierarchy, headers/footers, tables, etc. Asking Acrobat to add tags later is quite a challenge because it has to guess about the structure of a document.

I’m not blind. Why should I tag?

The structure in tagged PDFs offers everyday functionality to any Acrobat user.

  1. Intelligent Save Back to Word
    Tagged PDF properly reflows when saving back to Microsoft Word (.doc) or Rich Text Format (.RTF). Yippee! Tables, most styling, and paragraphs are retained. Try it yourself with these two examples:
  2. Untagged or Tagged
  3. Reflow on Small Devices
    Tagged PDF reflows properly on Windows CE and other devices. Tagged PDF makes the job of delivering documents via servers that support wireless devices such as Blackberrys easier, too.
  4. Review Workflows
    Tagging helps keep track of where items are in documents. If you send a tagged PDF from MS-Word out for review, you can import the comments made on the PDF back into Word as track changes!
  5. WordPerfect to Word Conversion
    Law Firms often struggle with converting WordPerfect files to Word. In most cases, too much information is retained and numbering and other functions break leading to document instability. One service firm experience in document migration is Microsystems which has converted thousands of WordPerfect documents to PDF, added tags and then created well-ordered Word files.

How do I tag an untagged PDF?

Most legal documents are easy to tag, even as a post-process. In most cases the results are good. Complex documents such as newsletters, scientific documents and others are more difficult.

To add tags, go the Advanced menu . . .

Acrobat will traverse your document and add tags and structure.

I hope to create a more thorough tutorial on how to tag untagged PDFs in another column.