The PDF (Portable Document Format) has long been the accepted standard for digital document sharing.
Despite everything the format has to offer, however, extracting data from PDFs can be rather difficult, especially compared to spreadsheets and other document types.
This is your guide to PDF parsing. We’ll breakdown the challenges of parsing a PDF (with some examples), and then highlight the different methods you can use to extract text and other data from your files more efficiently.
What is PDF Parsing?
PDF parsing is the process of extracting text, images, and or any other data from a PDF file.
From a high level, the process of parsing includes analyzing and identifying specific elements throughout a file, and then pulling out those specific elements.
Beyond text and images, that might also include fonts, layouts, tables, and even metadata.
What is PDF parsing used for?
PDF parsing is used by professionals across many industries, most generally to pull information from one document, to then repurpose and use more specifically in another place.
In many cases, that means pulling information from a PDF to input into an Excel file to manipulate as part of a dataset, to be used for specific workflows.
Example workflows that utilize PDF parsing:
- Invoice Automation: Invoice number, date, items purchased, and payment amounts can be extracted to automate invoice processing and payments.
- Purchase Order and Receipt Processing: Refunds and reimbursements can be automated by parsing items, dollar amounts, dates, etc.
- Legal, Medical, Governmental Records Analysis: Any in-depth analysis that requires the identification and/or extraction of names, dates, citations, dollar amounts, medications, and more, all make great use of parsing.
- Financial and Insurance Processing: Similar to analysis, PDF parsing is a very commonly used by companies assessing risk and analyzing balance sheets.
- Survey/Form Analysis: Text extraction is very helpful to pull responses and collect information from forms and surveys.
- Resume Extraction: Parsing makes it simple for recruiters to filter and analyze resumes based on candidate details, contact information, work experience, and more.
Essentially any type of reporting, analysis, or archiving can utilize PDF parsing at one point or another.
The challenges that can arise from PDF parsing, however, typically surface when it’s needed to be done at scale.
Challenges of PDF Parsing
There are many benefits of using PDFs.
PDFs are secure. They’re compatible with any device. They compress files to very convenient sizes. They’re easy to scan, and ideal for printing.
There’s a reason why they’re used for so many essential business documents and processes.
The discourse around PDFs, however, has also always been about how difficult it is to extract and translate information from them.
PDFs are limiting. The same characteristics that make them great are why they’re complicated to work with when digitizing documents.
- PDFs are a bit rigid in nature. While that is what contributes to the format’s consistency, it’s also what makes them harder to manipulate.
- Unstructured data presents a major roadblock to being able to quickly analyze the contents of a file and extract needed information.
In practice, there are many different scenarios and use cases where the PDF format makes matters more challenging.
Examples of Challenging PDF Parsing Use Cases
During a freight audit, shippers receive invoices and rate cards from carriers in a number of different formats—oftentimes, those files will come in the form of unstructured PDFs.
They might need to analyze thousands of invoices during an audit.
If those invoices are PDFs, they’ll have non-standard layouts and organizations of shipping data across the full lot of them.
It’ll take a great body of work to identify and standardize data across all of these invoices to combine in one place for analysis.
Logistics companies need to pull data from all kinds of custom documents, including packing lists, commercial invoices, bills of lading, certificates of origin, and more.
If these separate documents come as PDFs, it can be very difficult for logistics companies to match and centralize shared data that might appear across multiple documents.
Given they have to process so many different document types, the more that come in the form of a PDF, the more difficult it will be to parse and organize.
Methods for PDF Parsing
So then, perhaps you’re running a freight audit, or work in logistics. Perhaps you’re trying to complete one of the example workflows we mentioned earlier…
There are a few different methods to parsing PDFs—all of varying levels of modernity and technical know-how.
Online PDF Converters/Parsers
The first option is to use online PDF converters or parsers.
PDF converters allow you to convert your files from one type to another. You can use these tools to convert PDFs to Excel or other files by uploading your document and following a few quick steps.
Online parsers are a bit less common, but they allow you to extract data straight from your browser. Typically, these tools consist of three general steps:
- Uploading a document (sample document if it’s your first runthrough)
- Defining your parsing rules
- Downloading or sending your data
Docparser is an example of this.
Benefits of PDF Converters
- Convenience: They don’t require you to download any specialized software.
- Speed: Your only potential speed limitations are your own internet connection.
- Accessibility: You can easily use them on any device, simply via web browser.
- Free (sometimes): There are plenty of free PDF converters out there, they just likely aren’t the ones you’re going to rely on for business-related doc parsing.
Drawbacks of PDF Converters
- Limitations: They are limited in function, and also apply their own limits to what you’re able to upload and take action on (file size, size of export, etc.)
- Security Risks: In accessing these platforms via browser, you open yourself up to more risk compared to tested and guarded software platforms.
- Quality: The lightweight nature of these tools also applies to how they function, meaning accuracy and quality of your PDFs may not be consistent.
Using Adobe Acrobat, you can also directly convert a PDF to an Excel spreadsheet—where parsing becomes a much easier task.
To convert a PDF file into an Excel spreadsheet with Adobe Acrobat, in the platform, you simply have to open your PDF, click “Export PDF” in the right pane, and choose “spreadsheet,” then “Microsoft Excel Workbook.”
From there, you simply export and save your converted file, and off you go.
Benefits of Using Adobe Acrobat
- Preservation of Structure: Tabular data remains in its structure after conversion.
- Formatting Retention: Colors, fonts and other basic layout functions will remain intact in your Excel file.
- Predictability: With consistent input, you can always expect consistent output.
Drawbacks of Using Adobe Acrobat
- Formatting Issues: More advanced layouts and structures may not read correctly, and therefore, may not convert accurately.
- Manual Adjustments: Even after conversion, your file may still require a bit of manual clean up to fix formatting issues, merge cells, and so on.
Copying and Pasting
Good ‘ol copying and pasting.
Believe it or not, in some industries, this is still among the most used approaches to parsing PDFs.
While the main benefit of copy and pasting is the ability to maintain complete control over the parsing process, it can be a painstakingly slow process that’s very prone to (human) error.
If and where possible, you should instill software tools so that you can automate parts, if not the entire parsing process.
It may take a bit of work up front—but once your workflows are defined and set, the process becomes much easier.
Automating PDF Parsing with Parabola
Parabola is an example of a more modern platform that allows you to automate parsing of any unstructured data, including PDFs, emails, and more.
Parsing PDFs with Parabola requires just a few quick steps, and allows you to pull whatever information you want from your files, whether that’s specific line items, table data, labels, or other data.
Parabola utilizes AI to enable parsing automation that you can build directly into your workflows, and avoid any limitations that come from PDFs or unstructured data.
PDFs Aren’t Dead
The fact is, PDFs aren’t dead or dying.
They may have limitations, but the technology supporting them has been in need of evolving. The good news is that the software is evolving, as evidence of the ability to parse PDFs more simply than ever, and do so via AI automation.