PDF on the Web: Best Practices

Christian Knoebel

Once in a while we face the question: should I publish my content as a downloadable PDF or as a web page?

The question is not new (I peg it to the mid-90s when both the PDF and Netscape's browser were born). Twenty plus years later we're still wondering. So which is better? It depends.

PDFs are great for printing documents with complex layouts and precise formatting. That's it.

We can say they make documents readable offline, but between the office or school, home and 4G mobile service, few of us are ever without an internet connection.

PDFs also come with baggage, a lot of it. They are a separate download, and as complete files they can be heavier than a comparable web page. Pity the reader who has a mobile device with limited storage and a small data plan.

They're hard to read on small screens. Compare these two screen shots of an iPhone. The first is a responsive web page, the second is the same content in a PDF:

Screen shot of a responsive web page on a mobile phoneScreenshot of a PDF on a mobile phone

The web page wins the readability race.

Also see from the screenshots that the PDF is out of context with the site that hosts it. The web page has navigation, making it easier to understand its relationship to content nearby.

Finally users find them jarring. We've heard it in usability studies, and we're not alone. One recent test subject told us when hitting a PDF from a website: "Nuh-uh 24 page what? ... I was not prepared."

In 2003, usability expert Jakob Nielsen said PDFs were "unfit for human consumption." Maybe not so much today, but they're still not fit for every document. 

Our best-practice recommendations:

  • Use PDFs for highly structured documents that users need to print, such as off-line forms or this beautiful Campus Plan document
  • Use web pages for everything else

A note about accessibility: It's a heck a lot easier to make your web page accessible than to make your PDF accessible. PDFs can be accessible but they take some work. Also, think about the person who uses a screen reader. Do you want to add that extra click for a download and then throw them into a completely different technology than the one they were just using?

As a result, we are posting fewer PDFs.

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