Best Practice Article Series
Using PDFs on the Web
PDFs are a type of file that provides an electronic image of a document and are a common way to share information online. They’re easy to create, have a consistent look across different devices, and can be quickly added to a website. That said, there are some significant drawbacks to using PDFs on your website. Keeping these issues in mind will help website owners and managers use PDFs effectively.
The most popular way for people to navigate our websites is through search, which makes up about 80 to 90 percent of traffic to our pages. Search allows users to potentially skip over homepages or other overview pages and instead land directly on whichever page matches their question the best. If the user ends up on a PDF, they won’t be able to navigate to the rest of the site because PDFs have no top or side navigation.
Because of this, we suggest displaying important information like course requirements, application processes, and program information on web pages, rather than in PDFs. This allows and encourages users to visit other parts of the website, rather than resorting back to search or leaving the site entirely.
PDFs are not inherently web-friendly. They don’t adjust to users’ individual screen sizes, they can be difficult to scan and, as noted above, they lack the navigation that lets users quickly access other areas of your website.
In fact, the Nielsen Norman Group has published three different studies that show using PDFs on the web can hurt website usability by up to 300 percent.
Depending on how they were created, PDFs may be completely inaccessible to people using screen readers. Even PDFs that are accessible don’t always work well with assistive technology, which can make it harder for visually impaired people to access the information they need.
So, while it is possible to create PDFs that are more accessible, we still suggest putting information on a web page rather than in a PDF.
While it’s true that you want to avoid using PDFs to convey important information, there is one instance in which PDFs are incredibly useful, and that is for things that need to be printed. For information that needs to be printed—anything from applications and policies, to flyers and brochures—uploading it as a PDF is completely appropriate.
Using PDFs on the Web
To avoid the pitfalls above while still benefiting from this printable format, we suggest that you only use PDFs for content that you want people to print. It can also be helpful to give a brief explanation of the PDF so that people know what to expect before they click on the link. Or, if the PDF content duplicates the web content (like the CCAS handbook), an explanation can let users know that this is the printable version.
Finally, all PDFs should have listed either within or next to the link that it is a PDF. For example if I was linking directly to the PDF version of the CCAS handbook I would want to use CCAS Handbook (PDF) for my hyperlink. This lets users know that they will be navigating away from the site and gives them the option to download the content.
If you need help converting PDFs into web pages, or help creating web pages that can automatically update PDFs, contact the Arts, Sciences & Engineering web communications team at firstname.lastname@example.org.