How to Make a PDF File Searchable

A newsletter reader asked the question: “How can i make a PDF file searchable?” I thought others might have the same question, so I will reply here in the newsletter so that everyone can benefit. Also, anyone with additional methods is invited to post comments at the end of this article.

A searchable PDF is a PDF file that lets you both search for keywords in the text and use copy/paste to extract text from the PDF. Unfortunately, many PDF files are not searchable. Instead, they are simple images of an original document.

In short, a PDF file usually can be made searchable ONLY when it is created. There are some exceptions, however. I will describe some exceptions at the end of this article.

If the file is searchable, the reader typically can press Control-F on Windows or Linux or Command-F on Macintosh. A small search window will appear, and the user can enter the word or phrase that he or she wishes to find. If the PDF creator did not make the file searchable, the search by using Control-F or Command-F will never find anything.

The normal method to make the file searchable at the time of creation is to use Adobe Acrobat Pro or Adobe Acrobat Pro DC (but not the simpler and free Adobe Acrobat Reader) and following the steps described in an article by Tammy Clevenger on the Techwalla web site at: http://bit.ly/2rsJriI.

Once completed and saved, the PDF file will be searchable.

If you have downloaded a non-searchable PDF file created by someone else, you can try any of the suggested methods at the end of this article.

Of course, Adobe isn’t the only vendor to make programs that create PDF files. There are other PDF creation programs available from a number of vendors, and each of them may or may not have the option to create searchable PDF files. The simpler (usually free or cheap) PDF creation programs typically do not have an option for creating searchable PDFs.

In addition, there are a number of programs that will convert any PDF file into other formats, such as a conversion to Microsoft Word’s .DOC or .DOCX formats or Excel spreadsheets or other formats as well. Once converted, you should be able to search for text by using the newly-created file along with Word, Excel, or any other compatible programs. However, the conversion programs typically will not create searchable PDF files.

EXCEPTIONS

There are a few programs or services that are “backdoor tricks” that will convert an existing, non-searchable PDF file into a searchable PDF without using Adobe Acrobat Pro or Adobe Acrobat Pro DC:

  • My favorite method of converting a PDF into a searchable version is to use the FREE cloud-based Searchable PDFs application at http://www.searchablepdfs.org. However, it only is free for PDF documents of ten pages or less and also the file must be less than 5 megabytes in size. For larger documents, you probably will need to pay for a service or software with the needed capabilities.

DISCLAIMER: I haven’t tested the following methods, so I am not aware of the various advantages and disadvantages of each method. However, each of these claims to be able to convert non-searchable PDF files to their searchable equivalents.

Several more methods of creating searchable PDF files may be found by starting at: https://duckduckgo.com/?q=create+searchable+pdf&t=hz&ia=web.

10 Comments

PDF Converter by Readdle is about five bucks on your iOS device automatically makes the PDF’s it converts searchable. Also, PDF Pen Pro can make searchable PDF’s.

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The free Microsoft One Note program can extract text from scanned PDF images.

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For the Mac, PDF OCR X Enterprise Edition costs $30 and has worked well for me. It’s not perfect but I doubt if anything besides retyping is. It has handled book-sized files (200, 300 pages). (In fairness in those cases I don’t know how many words it might not have recognized). ScanSnap has also worked really well. I’ve printed out digital files for the sole purpose of scanning them and getting a searchable document.

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Thanks Dick for another great article. I would only add that PDFPen has been providing Optical Character Recognition searchability on the Mac for many years. In fact, when it opens a non-searchable PDF, it automatically prompts you as follows: “This document appears to be scanned. Would you like to perform optical character recognition (OCR) on it? OCR will allow you to select the text.”
(No connection with the co. just a long satisfied user.)
Regards, Nate

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Got WORD? Try this, copy the PDF text from your computer/ device. Open a new Word doc, paste the text there. You can manipulate / format the text as you wish (margins, line spacing, etc), but you are now go to go with “finding”. Have used this on large genealogy texts posted online, so as to search quickly and easily for names, state name to see if any were born, lived, died in a particular state. Steve Graves St. Petersburg FL

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I was recently faced with the need to edit a 21-page document that was a PDF document that was scanned as page images. The solution I eventually found was to upload it to a free website that processed it and allowed me to download it as an editable Word file. The site is http://www.online-convert.com/ and I had to select OCR as an option, and avoid the temptation of clicking the advertising links.

I was able to edit the Word file to update it and then Print > Save as PDF to create an updated PDF file that was fully searchable and a tiny fraction the size of the original non-searchable PDF.
Total cost $0.00 Total time maybe 10 minutes. (YYMV)

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Actually, if you have Adobe Acrobat X (maybe other versions too, I don’t know), you can make text searchable after the fact by going to Tools/Recognize Text/In this file. I do this often at work.

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Can we please get sync back on line so that we can get back to work on our trees.

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For Windows, Tracker Software’s PDF-XChange Viewer and PDF-XChange Editor (both free) have OCR. For Linux users there’s Master PDF Editor.

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Some copiers and scanners now include an app that allows you to scan a document as a searchable PDF. You will need to print a paper copy of your document first and then copy or scan it to PDF. Check your scanner’s manual to see if it offers searchable PDF’s as an option.

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