File comparison: The definitive guide

File Comparison – What’s at stake?

When you’re executing file comparison every change matters. With contracts; agreements; legal correspondence the stakes are high and you can’t afford to miss a thing.

Whether there are material changes to the content, small grammatical corrections or brand new additions, file comparison must reveal any change, because it can alter the overall sense and intention of a document. It’s essential for individuals involved in a review process to have a precise way to compare documents; identifying anything that’s different between two versions of the same file.

To get to an agreed final draft of any file, each iteration should progress through a series of structured reviews. File comparison takes place so the people involved in the process can be confident they have full disclosure on every dot and comma, as they could become accountable for what that means in the overall context of the final document.

Document comparison solutions are essential to professionals, because it’s not just money that’s at stake. Any oversight, error or omission in a final agreement could cost a company, their client or a professional their reputation.

Business services organizations in particular have an important and vested interest in accurate document comparison. Professionals working in law firms; real estate; accounting; finance; transaction management all need to be 100% confident that the file they are signing off states everything exactly as agreed. The stakes are high because fully executed files; final signed contracts; letters landing on a doormat become legally binding and individuals or organizations are liable for them.

Who needs to compare files?

Having a precise way to compare files; compare contracts or agreements is essential for any professional that needs to execute a structured review of a document with multiple parties. Document reviews are where agreements are crafted and finally delivered, so access to automated solutions that will compare documents quickly and accurately are indispensable to lawyers, negotiators, administrators and anyone who collaborates on files as part of their daily life.

Manual comparison used to be the norm, but it’s exceptionally long-winded and now completely redundant when there are automated ways to compare files.

In many firms, it used to be that if you had to compare documents in various iterations you were consumed within a time-hungry, labor-intensive process. In a legal practice, for example, to compare contracts one junior lawyer in the team would read a revised document aloud, while their colleague simultaneously and scrupulously went through the previous hard copy marking up corrections. This edited version of the contract would then be returned or sent on to the next party for review, so the process could move forward.

And, this was the idea scenario to manually compare files!

There were also many instances in which a single individual was left to navigate through amendments and compare documents. They would be left to make their edits and create the next iteration flying solo. When considering that reviews usually form part of an important process where the pressure is high and time is tight, this manual method of file comparison is far from ideal. Those having to compare documents would, of course, be subject to fatigue, making the probability of errors even more likely.

The inefficiencies of manual document comparison for world-class business services organizations are obvious, as are the risks of human error occurring. We’ve all suffered the uncomfortable feeling of having read a document through tens of times and still missing a typo. When working on financially or contractually binding matters, this goes way beyond just being an embarrassing slipup – it simply can’t be tolerated.

In today’s work environment, people don’t just need to compare Word documents either. Content comes in different formats, people need to compare PDF files or compare PowerPoint presentations too. It’s equally important to be able to execute a comparison on these types of files as it is a Word document. Those tasked with going through a document need to be able to work in whatever format the content is presented.

Business services firms work on hundreds of different files each day, week, month and year, which makes manual file comparison unworkable, unaffordable and just plain unacceptable. It was a huge drain on time, resources and budget, and now it’s easily avoided with the right file comparison software.

How to compare files and documents

Leading file comparison software makes a review process fast and simple. The obvious benefit of automation when comparing documents is the increase in accuracy and reliability, which are of the utmost importance. Arguably, when looking at comparison solutions, delivering accuracy is more important than saving time – although the best file comparison software obviously delivers both.

If legal professionals spend up to 40hrs per week managing different documents to sign off, the efficiency, productivity and cost savings associated with using document comparison software are significant. This is especially true as administration often can’t be charged back to clients.[1]

True document comparison software goes way beyond the ability to “track changes”. It involves identifying amendments, yes, but it’s also about changes by category, managing version control, keeping on top of the latest draft and speeding work flows to their natural conclusion – i.e. a final draft. The issue with running comparison technology in Word, for instance, is that it can only be used in Word – you can’t compare PDF files or compare PowerPoint presentations; you can’t run a comparison from Outlook, or direct from a document management system (DMS). Effectively, it limits flexibility and is prohibitive if the content is shared through any application other than Word.

Professionals working on complicated matters may have tens of different documents to review at any one time, so bespoke file comparison software is an irreplaceable tool. Each document could run to hundreds of pages in length, which all need to be reviewed and edited by multiple parties. Using track changes for this process can make it incredibly hard to simply read a document, let alone discern what’s changed, who made those changes and what stage the draft is now at.

To get a “clear” version of a document, it can also be tempting to turn-off track changes mid-review cycle, but forgetting to switch them back on again can lead to confusion at the next stage of review (not to mention issues with hidden metadata).

The best file comparison software ensures nothing can be lost or overwritten during a review by keeping an archive of previous versions, while highlighting only what’s changed in the latest iteration of the document. This level of precision around changes should also be possible to achieve when comparing PDF and PowerPoint files, not just Word documents.

The seven must-haves of a file comparison solution

To review files with speed and accuracy, the comparison solution employed should have the following features, i.e. it should be able to: 

  1. Customize comparison themes, e.g. by color, to identify and display specific changes to a document.
  2. Easily compare multiple versions of a file and show only what’s changed.
  3. Review, accept or reject changes directly within the application without having to change platforms.
  4. Quickly move between differences in versions by navigating between pages or individual changes.
  5. Categorize changes, so reviewers can focus on the different types of amendments they might be interested in.
  6. Provide automatic change notifications synchronized to Outlook, so when modified attachments are received, comparison can take place directly within Outlook.
  7. Compare Word documents, compare PDF files and compare PowerPoint presentations 

The best way to compare files

By using specific file comparison software - designed to support structured review processes - business services firms can gain efficiency and productivity, while avoiding embarrassing errors and potential damage to their reputations.

Those working in law firms, real estate, accountancy, finance etc., exchange documents as part of the currency of their work each day and these files need to be perfect. This means edits and corrections must be made with complete accuracy. The only way to ensure 100% accuracy is by using the right document comparison software for the job.

A file comparison solution should fit seamlessly with existing workflows, so as not to be disruptive. It should also be able to work with the native format that was used to create the agreement or contract e.g. Word, PowerPoint or PDF, and synced to Outlook or a DMS to streamline the whole file comparison activity.

The edits or “redlines” should be such that they don’t make it hard to simply read the document. Instead they should make it easy to identify areas of change and show items what require attention. Overall, the file comparison software should reduce the amount of time and resources it takes to evolve high stakes documents to their final stage.

With the right document comparison solution, the risk of changes or comments being missed is mitigated, no matter how long or complex the content; no matter how many people are involved in the review process; and no matter how many times it needs to be changed.

And the bottom line is, file comparison software should remove the risk of human error.

When professionals are dealing with high stakes documents, every change matters. Large or small, each comment, edit or correction by different parties involved in a review process can alter the ultimate meaning or intention of a document. Those responsible for delivering contracts, agreements and other important documentation become liable for their contents and that makes it essential for them to feel 100% confident in what they are signing off, and that means using the right file comparison software.

Workshare - Other solutions don't compare

Since being first to market with the ground-breaking DeltaView technology, Workshare has honed and perfected document comparison software. 15 years of experience has led to the best way to compare two documents. If you would like a demonstration of Workshare’s file comparison solution, please call us on +44 (0)20 7426 0000.

About Workshare

Workshare is dedicated to helping professionals compare, protect and share their high stakes documents. Since 1999, Workshare has developed and released intelligent technology for business services firms. Now, more than two million professionals use Workshare around the world.


Workshare: “Smarter working report”. Based on a survey of 220 legal professionals - "Legal professionals spend up to 40hrs per week managing documents to sign-off".