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What Is Document Comparison?

Managing electronic documents effectively is critical to the success of any organization. Since digital files are so easy to edit, companies often find themselves trying to sort through multiple versions of the same document, each of which may contain slight differences. That’s why document management systems need to have document comparison capabilities integrated into their core functionality.

What Is Document Comparison and How Does It Work?

Document comparison is the process of cross checking new versions of a document against previous copies in order to identify changes made by different contributors. These differences could include minor formatting modifications, such as font or spacing changes, or more significant grammatical changes. In some cases, however, the most important differences may be the addition or omission of words, sentences, clauses, or paragraphs.

Why would someone want to see such specific differences between documents? The main reason is to avoid version confusion. This occurs when a group of people working on the same document are not sure which version of the file is the most up-to-date. If just one person marks up the wrong document, another contributor may never see those edits when they begin to work on the file. By the time everyone is done leaving comments, there could easily be multiple versions of the document, each one slightly different from the others while also containing multiple redundancies.

Document comparison is also critical when two parties are negotiating contracts. Imagine that you’ve drafted a contract and sent it to a client or their lawyer for review. When the document is returned, any alterations that might have been made to the contract have already been added or subtracted from the original text. How can you tell if any clauses have been included? How about any stipulations that may be missing? One change can affect the entire meaning of the contract, and missing it could mean the loss of the deal, your company’s reputation, or even your job.

Why Use a Document Comparison Tool?

While most word processing tools have built-in markup features, these tools are only effective when everyone is working from the same document. If someone downloads or copies a document, it becomes much more difficult to compare the changes they make to the original, especially if they elect not to use the markup features. More importantly, not everyone may have access to the same tools. If some people are working from Microsoft Word files, others from Google Docs, and still others are making annotation edits to a PDF, it can be difficult to consolidate those changes.

Comparing documents manually, either by printing out copies or by viewing them side by side on a computer screen, is not an effective strategy for spotting differences. Not only is this approach a waste of time and resources, but it’s also incredibly susceptible to human error. Minor changes are easy to miss during manual review, but even major differences can go unnoticed if the person doing the review is distracted or fatigued.

A document comparison tool can automate the comparison process to ensure that even the smallest changes are flagged for closer review. While a reader might skip over an omitted word or misplaced punctuation, automated comparison will detect them when comparing the current version of the document to the original. Even better, the software can check multiple documents at much higher speeds, which is vital for larger documents that may include hundreds of pages.

Document Comparison Use Cases

There are a number of business applications that can find some benefit in adopting a document comparison tool:

  • Legal Services: Document comparison makes it easy to review contracts to identify changes that have been made or still need to be made.
  • Government: Thanks to document comparison tools, it’s easy to quickly compare different versions of legislation or regulatory guidelines within GovTech applications to determine what important changes still need to be made.
  • Insurance: Underwriters can easily reference previous versions of policies to see what changes have been made over time.
  • Education: Instructors using a learning management system can quickly compare student papers to determine whether or not necessary changes have been applied.

What to Look for in a Document Comparison Tool

As developers look to incorporate document comparison tools into their applications, there are a few important considerations they should keep in mind.

  • Readability: The most important feature is readability. Being able to identify discrepancies is useless if it’s impossible to determine where they’re located.
  • Type of Change Made: Sometimes contributors make changes without flagging them as changes. The ability to distinguish between intentional changes (such as editing markups) and mistakes is crucial.
  • Commenting: The ability to let another editor know why you made a particular change is another convenient communicative tool, especially when working in a remote office environment.
  • Archiving: Staying on top of multiple versions of the same document can become tricky. The ability to archive versions in an easy to decipher manner is invaluable for avoiding version confusion.

Add Document Comparison to Your Application

Accusoft’s PrizmDoc Viewer features a powerful document comparison API that allows users to programmatically compare documents within an HTML5 viewer. Capable of tracking thousands of changes over hundreds of pages, PrizmDoc Viewer can also be used to view, share, and annotate the most up-to-date version of a document to facilitate easy collaboration. Rather than relying on external word processor dependencies that could expose files and sensitive data to risk, contributors can instead manage access within their application to maintain control and prevent unauthorized distribution or copying of files.

To see how PrizmDoc Viewer’s document comparison features work in practice, check out our interactive demo. You can select any two versions of a Microsoft Word document and quickly compare them to spot differences.