Leaving Money on the Table: Printable Versions of Articles

If you offer printable versions of your site’s content with all the graphics and ads removed you really need to take a couple steps first to make sure you aren’t leaving money on the table.

Back in 2001 SitePoint had an article linked to from Slashdot and thousands of people came to view the article. Good right? Well unfortunately the printable version was linked to, not the normal version, so SitePoint got to deal with all those bandwidth issues associated with a link from Slashdot but they didn’t reap any ad revenue from it. You can read more about it in this old issue of the tribune.

Their solution was to do a referrer check on printer-friendly articles and, if the referrer is not the site itself, to redirect to the normal version of the article. This is something I recommend everyone who offers printer-friendly articles to do.

Likewise you should block such pages from search engines as well, even if you choose not to do the redirect. The last thing you want is for search engines to start ignoring your normal articles in favor of your printable ones, you don’t want to compete with yourself and there is also the possibility (though unlikely in this case) of getting in trouble for duplicate content.

What I like to do is put all files I want to block from search engines, such as author email forms, redirect scripts, and yes printable article scripts, and put them in a directory that I then ban with robots.txt. I think this is the easiest method to make sure those files don’t show in search results.

This same concept can also be applied in a way to forums. For instance vBulletin has an archive feature that basically creates printable versions of your forum threads. The idea behind the archive is that it is a way to get more of your forum indexed in search engines because the pages are bare-boned and do not use query strings in the URL. Unfortunately the last thing you want is someone finding your site through the archive. There is nothing on archive pages to entice someone to join, and there aren’t any advertisements either of course. The truth of the matter is that the archive isn’t even needed, so long as you disable session IDs for search engines, something vBulletin now does by default, you don’t need the archive feature for search engines to fully crawl your forum.

Printable versions are a great tool and you should include them, just make sure they aren’t competing for page views with your normal pages.

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  • hifigrafix

    Very intersting points.. thank you for this!

  • Etnu

    Why not just provide print style sheets and eliminate the problem altogether?

  • Mel81

    I was just thinking the same thing as Etnu

  • Lira

    Why not just provide print style sheets and eliminate the problem altogether?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but most users wouldn’t expect a website to look different when printed.

  • http://rtasks.com SRTech

    Good Points, but we also need to make sure that our websites normal article page is not so cluttered that users always choose to read the print versions.

  • LinhGB

    I usually do a print stylesheet and make it available only to registered users.

    My opinion is that print view of a page should only be accessible when the user actually decides to print (or do a print preview) and should not be an actual page that’s viewable with a browser.

  • Mel81

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but most users wouldn’t expect a website to look different when printed.

    That might be true but if you put in a little printer icon or a note to show the page is printable the problem is solved.

  • shadowbox

    Good points to consider, but I’d definitely go for the print style sheet option as a solution to all issues (assuming the site was designed correctly in the first place to allow effective use of such a style sheet)

  • Matt Fletcher

    Yes, print stylesheets are the way forward. The possibilities for them have only recently become apparent so there hasn’t been enough time for the average user to learn to expect them. Once they reach a critical mass the old fashioned printer friendly page will die a death I reckon.

  • http://www.dvdverdict.com/ mjackson42

    Good Points, but we also need to make sure that our websites normal article page is not so cluttered that users always choose to read the print versions.

    I understand the business reasons why sites put multiple ads on a page and split an article into multiple pages, not to mention that “normal” users prefer shorter text screens, but whenever sites do this, the first thing I look for is the printer-friendly version so I can read in peace.

  • http://www.designity.nl peach
  • http://www.peterakkies.com/ Kilroy

    Print stylesheets definitely are the solution here. It’s true that users will expect a website to look the same when printed, but I’ve already thought of a solution for that problem. See print stylesheets for everyone.

  • kmsiever

    Another ditto on the print stylesheets. I’m surprised a site like SitePoint is still promoting an outdated practise as developing multiple sites.

  • LinhGB

    If people are too used to the “Print-friendly Version” link, then put a Print icon on your page which is a JS link to activate the print dialog of the browser.

  • Etnu

    If people are too used to the “Print-friendly Version” link, then put a Print icon on your page which is a JS link to activate the print dialog of the browser.

    Exactly.

  • http://rtasks.com SRTech

    If people are too used to the “Print-friendly Version” link, then put a Print icon on your page which is a JS link to activate the print dialog of the browser.

    Or better yet, some site I saw used a javascript style switcher to switch to the print style sheet so the visitor could tell that they would be getting a print style.

  • LinhGB

    That stylesheet switching seems like a more elegant solution. I’ve used it before for other kinds of stylesheet switches but never thought of using it for print. It’s basically a print preview as well, which is good from an usability point of view, I suppose.

  • cwsteam.com

    Very valid point, and it does make sense.

  • http://www.metalunderground.com dgibson

    Checking the referrer is evil. Lots of “security suites” may alter them without users knowing (like it’s some privacy protecting feature), so you are affecting legit users by using this method.

    Print CSS is the way to go, IMO. “Printer-friendly version” is so 7 years ago.

  • Anonymous

    Really interesting point of view, thank you very much for the tip!

  • http://www.calcResult.co.uk omnicity

    I hate having to wait for a Print-Friendly page to load, especially when it turns out to be full of ads anyway – just use a print stylesheet unless you have a multi-page article – which I hate as well.