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Creating Searchable PDFs with Adobe Acrobat X - Quick Start Guide


Many scanned PDF files are not usable with technology because the content is perceived as images by computers and other devices. These files need to be fixed so that devices can recognize the text. To do this, we need software that can process files using OCR (Optical Character Recognition).

OCR is software that recognizes and interprets text in an image and converts it to text that a computer can read.

Adobe Acrobat Professional (the type that can create PDFs, not just read them) is one of the cheaper and more common methods available with OCR, and is the focus of this Quick Start Guide.

Running OCR on a file has many benefits, including:

  • Searchable text
  • Copy and paste capability
  • Text-to-speech capability
  • Screen reader compatibility

Downloadable Guides

If you prefer to use a downloadable, printable version, guides for both Acrobat X and Acrobat XI are available in Word and PDF format below. The online instructions are for Acrobat X only.

To Create a Searchable PDF

The minimum you should do to make a PDF accessible is to create a Searchable PDF using OCR.

OCR at the Scanner

Some scanners and photocopiers have the ability to OCR documents as they scan so that you don’t have to fix it afterwards. Many Xerox photocopiers can scan to PDF via email or network, and you can select the option to make that PDF searchable.

OCR with Software

In case you are unable to OCR at the source, it is easy to make a document searchable using software such as Adobe Acrobat Pro. This guide focuses on using Acrobat X, but the process is similar in other versions.

  • Open your PDF in Acrobat Pro.
  • Make sure you are not in Adobe Reader, as you cannot edit a PDF in the Reader version of Adobe.
  • To see if you are in the correct program, check the top left of your document window. It should say Adobe Acrobat Pro:

Screenshot of scannable PDF tutorial

  • If you are in Acrobat Pro, skip to the next section, Use the “Recognize Text” Toolbar.
  • If your document says Adobe Reader, close the program.
  • Right-click on the document and select Open With:

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  • Choose Adobe Acrobat. The choices on your computer may look different than the screenshot below.
  • To make Acrobat your default program for PDFs so you don’t have to repeat this process, make sure the box is checked to “Always use the selected program to open this kind of file.

Screenshot of scannable PDF tutorial

Use the “Recognize Text” Toolbar

  1. Now that your document is open in the correct software, click on Tools to bring up the toolbar on the right side of the screen. Tools is a menu bar located at the top right of the screen.
  2. Click on Recognize Text to expand the menu.
  3. Select In this File to bring up the OCR menu box.

Screenshot of scannable PDF tutorial

  1. When the Recognize Text box comes up, choose how many pages to OCR at once. If it is a large file, try only a few at first, since it could take a while. Otherwise select the All Pages radio button and click OK.

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  1. Once the process finishes running, you should be able to select text in your PDF file and you now have a searchable PDF! Simply save the document and it is OCR’d forever.

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To Make the Searchable PDF Fully Accessible

Add Tags to the Document

Running OCR on a scanned document is the most important step towards an accessible PDF, and it is the minimum you should do because it allows text-to-speech to work. Tags go a little deeper, telling software the order in which to read the text aloud, and they also create a table of contents for your document that is useful for pre-reading and scanning capabilities.

  1. To add tags, open the Accessibility Tool.
  2. In the expanded Accessibility tools menu, select Add Tags to Document.

Screenshot of scannable PDF tutorial

Check the Reading Order

Many users listen to documents rather than reading them. To double-check that your document will be read in the right order, use the Check Order Panel.

  1. In the Accessibility Toolbar, click on TouchUp Reading Order.

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  1. In the new window that pops up, click on Show Order Panel.

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  1. Your page should fill with sections that are numbered. If they are not in the correct order, Select and Drag the numbers into the right order using the pane on the left side of the screen.

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  1. Check each page in the document and save.


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