Summary — Publishing PDFs on your website may save you time and effort, but your visitors pay a heavy price. With rare exceptions, it’s not worth the trade-off.
When it comes to publishing on the web, PDF files are rarely the answer.
The question is should I post a PDF?
No is (almost always) the answer.
For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
Are there appropriate uses for PDFs online? Sure. Maybe. But that expensive, glossy, fold-out, 4-colour printed brochure you had produced? Of course you want to repurpose it — because you’re proud of it and it serves a purpose — but no one can make any sense of it on a smartphone (probably half of your visitors), and no one — no one — is excited to print it out at home.
The thinking behind posting PDFs on websites is completely understandable — everyone wants their job to be easier, and everyone wants their website to be as useful as it can be with as little time/effort/training/expense as possible. Click the little “PDF” icon in Microsoft Word and move on, right?
Not so fast.
Punting to PDF shifts the effort to your visitors. It literally makes your site harder for people to use. It adds more steps that will confuse some people. It can be a jarring context-shift where the browser’s controls no longer work because the PDF viewing tools take over. Then they have to search within the PDF.
Other people are just as busy as you are. Expecting them to take the time to sort out your messy-but-convenient publishing workflow falls somewhere between delusional and negligent.
How PDFs thwart your visitors
- Large PDF files are slow and expensive to download (time is money and cellular data is expensive). Even a small, efficient PDF would be much smaller and more efficient as HTML
- PDFs don’t adapt to screen size — if formatted for letter-sized (or larger) paper, they can’t be easily read or navigated on a phone
- You named the PDF poorly (so it can’t be found later)
- You linked to it poorly/confusingly (so people don’t know what kind of file they’re dealing with)
It’s too late — the PDF is published or the boss insists on it, despite everything — what’s the damage?
Suppose converting the PDF’s contents to HTML would’ve involved added expense or delay and might’ve compromised aspects of its design…
- What happens next? The file may download to the user’s desktop or downloads directory on a desktop operating system (meaning they have to go find it and open it); it may open directly in the browser; it may open in 3rd-party software (some version of Adobe’s Acrobat Reader (or whatever they’re calling it this month) or Apple’s Preview app); some will find this trivial, others will have no idea what to do. Either way, providing instructions on this is not straightforward and is almost certainly beyond the scope of your website.
- You make them search again — the keyword search on your site (or on Google) that brought them to PDF won’t help them find the content they’re after inside the PDF
- You make them wait and/or cost them money — the PDF was print-optimized, so it’s 230 MB (with no warning). Mobile users on slow, pricey data plans (a group otherwise known as people with cell phones) will not appreciate this.
- You hand them a filing task — the PDF was generically named “
June Newsletter.PDF” — stripping it of useful context once it’s been downloaded (there’s no date, organization name, or topic in the filename); worse, the filename exposes your internal editing/revision/approval process (“
final newsletter draft rev. 3 final (revised).pdf”).
- You’ve turned getting the file into a multi-step task for the visitor — mobile operating systems, in particular, can be confusing when it comes to downloading and saving files.
- There was no warning that it was a PDF; in the worse possible case, the link was some variant of “click here…” (see also Your site can use “Click here” links or it can be easy to use — pick one).
- Spaces in the PDF’s filename may be rendered as
%20, so what people see when they preview your link is “
June%20Newsletter%20final-revised2.PDF”; this is unfriendly at best.
This poor visitor to your website already had 137 things to do and just wanted to know what time that thing was tomorrow.
Really, this is just one tiny example of how thinking things through from the perspective of your website’s visitors can improve their experience with your organization.
Everybody else does it — what’s the big deal?
The way to make a site easy to use is by sweating the details. Instead of thinking “I could just upload a PDF!”, work backwards from the end result you want. You’ll usually find that there’s a better, more accessible, more flexible, less-costly way to get there.
Some final thoughts
- Terrible, hard-to-use, frustrating websites are made of tiny decisions in the form of screw it, I can just post this PDF and move on.
- Websites that need to be burnt to the ground every 3–5 years are slowly built through all of these little choices. This is economically unsustainable.
- If you can’t (or choose not to, or haven’t the time to) empathize with those who want or need your website, find someone who does.
- Websites need champions. They need advocates. They need passion. They don’t need glitzy slide-shows, more social media sharing icons, benign neglect, or bigger logos.
The answer is almost always to convert the contents of your PDF publications to HTML, where they can serve everyone — regardless of the size of the screen they’re using.
- PDF: Still Unfit for Human Consumption, 20 Years Later, an August, 2020, piece from NN/g (Neilsen Norman Group) opens with: “Research spanning 20 years proves PDFs are problematic for online reading. Yet they’re still prevalent and users continue to get lost in them. They’re unpleasant to read and navigate and remain unfit for digital-content display.”
- PDFs: We need to talk — How to spot and counter the most common excuses for publishing PDFs on the web. This May, 2018, post by Dan Craddock makes some excellent points about the time/effort/expense arguments against converting to accessible HTML instead of taking the lazy, inaccessible way out. Yes, I know: it’s Medium. Still.