To PDF or Not to PDF – That is the Question

Written by Hirsch Fishman

Linking to PDF files on the web is an interesting issue in the web usability and accessibility world. It’s something I’ve come across more in my full-time job than with my Addicott Web clients, but it’s still worth taking a look at here.

My recommendations are based around the idea that a PDF file is, by nature, action-oriented. You want people to do something with the files they’re opening – and when PDFs are linked to properly, the intended actions can be one of two things (and sometimes both):

  • Download
  • Print

So, with that being said, here are my tips and recommendations for when to use a PDF and when not to use one, followed by some general tips for how to use them.

Yes – Use PDFs

  • Forms – the US Postal Service, Internal Revenue Service, and other official government agencies are great examples of this. They all have the most requested forms available as PDFs for you to download. If you have forms that people need to fill out regularly and would be coming to your website to get, then posting them as PDFs is ideal. Just make sure that they are easy to find – but if your website is already designed with usability in mind, this won’t be a problem.
  • Reference guides – Do you want to post information intended for distribution or for use as reference material? There’s certainly nothing wrong with that from a usability perspective, and posting that information as a PDF file is an ideal way to do that. Just make sure that if what you’re intending for distribution might also be useful as actual content posted on your website, then by all means do that – don’t bury it as a PDF.
  • Menus – A lot of restaurants will post their menus as PDFs. Why? Because the menus change so frequently that it doesn’t make sense to have someone post the information as actual content on the page.

No – Don’t Use PDFs

  • As a replacement for page content – My rule of thumb is to never, ever post actual content as a PDF file unless there is a very, very compelling reason to do so. Content should belong on an actual page on your website – that way, search engines (both internal and external) can find it and direct people to it. Making an actual page of your content also makes it as accessible as possible, since there are people who either cannot install the Adobe Reader on their computer, or who won’t install it, but can certainly see what is posted on your website.
  • To show off your marketing material – Did your business or organization just have some snazzy new marketing materials printed, such as brochures, posters, etc.? It’s great if you want people to see them, but let them see those materials as they were intended to be seen. Besides, your website serves a similar purpose as marketing material anyways, and if people are already on your website, then your marketing material has already done its job. And to further complicate matters, often times marketing material is designed to get people to go to the website and do something, which they are already doing! The catch is that the “something” is most likely not opening up the very marketing material that brought them there in the first place.

Tips for the Best Ways to Post PDFs

If you are going to post a PDF file, then here are some general guidelines I use:

  • Indicate that it’s a PDF file – By default, most people expect a link to take them to another page on a website. But if you’re linking to a PDF file, that’s not the case. So generally, I try to let people know that the link they’re about to click on is a PDF file – either by writing (pdf) after the link, or by using the little Adobe PDF icons.
  • Have it open in a new window – Just by nature, PDF files tend to be dead-ends in the sense that when you click on a link to open one, there’s no way to incorporate another link within the PDF file to allow people to go back to your website. They have to use their browser’s “Back” button, and more often that not, people will just close the window entirely. So why have them close your website altogether just because they opened a PDF? Just code it so that the PDF opens in a new window, and that way, when they close the file, they’ll still be on your website.
  • Make the PDF printer-friendly – This is a big one, especially if the file you’re posting is intended for people to print in some way. The contents should be in black and white only (skip the color), and absolutely must be formatted for a standard, 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of paper.
  • Optimize it for the web – Newer versions of Adobe Acrobat allow you to optimize your PDF file for web browsers. Of course, if you have a lot of images and artwork in your PDF, it will take longer to load anyways when compared to a black-and-white document with nothing but text in it. So if you are posting something with a lot of colors, photos, etc. in it, make sure to optimize it when you create the PDF file in the first place.
  • Include a link to download the Adobe Reader – I’m iffy on this one, only because the Adobe Reader is getting to be a pretty standard feature on most computers nowadays. But, there are still people out there who don’t have it installed already, so the easy thing to do is provide a link to the Adobe website, where they can download it for free.


What do you think about this – do you have any ideas or best practices about this that you would like to share?

About Hirsch Fishman

Hirsch Fishman is a professional web designer who has worked with synagogues and organizations in the Jewish community since 2006. Originally from Albany, NY, he has previously lived in New York City and Chicago, and currently resides in Raleigh, NC.

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