Some time ago, I wrote an article about the difference between Data Merge PDF Export vs regular PDF export. The article highlighted the difference between the two PDF exports, but not why the data merge PDF export appears to have been throttled. Admittedly, this seemed more of a curiosity than anything else, and no further research was undertaken.
In October 2018, the issue was once again raised by a reader who asked about preparing tagged PDFs via the Data Merge palette for the purposes of Section 508 accessibility – a way tagging a PDF so that PDF-reading software with accessibility features can assist users with limited accessibility in various ways, such as the example of tagging an image with a description that can be read aloud for users with little- or no vision.
As I couldn’t offer an explanation, all I could do was point to my previous article and submit a request to the InDesign Uservoice team to allow the Export to PDF to have all features of a regular PDF.
Then one month later, I fielded a query on the Adobe InDesign Forums concerning Interactive PDF and Data Merge Conflict where a user had hyperlinks in an interactive PDF where data merge fields were present, even though they weren’t linking to anything.
That reminded me of an article from InDesignSecrets about Ghost Hyperlinks explaining that data merge fields can also be shown in the hyperlinks panel, meaning merge fields are hyperlinks themselves.
However, Data Merge can’t export to interactive PDF from the data merge panel, so the only way I could replicate the forum poster’s issue was to prepare an InDesign data merge file, navigate to a relevant record, then go to the file menu and export an Interactive PDF of the visible record on the page.
It was at that moment it occurred to me that THIS may be the reason that the hyperlinks checkbox is greyed out from the “export to PDF” dialog box in the data merge palette – because the merge fields are – in effect – hyperlinks themselves, and having hyperlinks enabled would also make the variable text clickable in the resulting PDF, despite having no actual link to go to. It would also explain why data merge does not offer an “export to interactive PDF” option from the data merge palette.
So, despite having a “eureka” moment of solving why the exports were different, it also made me realise that – without overhauling the way data merge works in InDesign – it may be unlikely to directly export PDFs with hyperlinks or interactivity via the Data Merge Panel anytime soon.
It is worth noting that if the data merge is exported to an InDesign file first (as explained in my workaround linked at the start of the article), and then exported to an interactive PDF, these issues do not occur. However, it is double-handling.
Still, this is frustrating in a world moving online, particularly for marketers who want to prepare unique PDFs that contain:
- Hyperlinks, not just for navigating to URLs, but within the PDF itself, such as footnotes or page navigation;
- Interactivity such as form fields for the purposes of surveys and feedback; and
- Accessibility, not only from the legal standpoint of Section 508 conformance, but the genuine desire to engage with people with limited accessibility.
On that note, isn’t it about time to update the data merge feature so that exports are no longer limited to throttled-back PDFs or InDesign files as their only options? As an addition, how about the ability to print a merge directly from a data merge file, a feature that has been available in Microsoft Word for nearly thirty years.
Or what about the ability to merge to uniquely named files based on each record, something that I’ve already prepared a script for but would welcome as part of the InDesign user interface. And why stop at full-throttle PDFs… how about image formats such as jpg or png, or other formats such as html? Statistics from an InDesignSecrets poll show that print PDFs account for just under half of the participants’ usual file output exports.