Should You Use PDF Files For Your Web Content?

should you use PDF files for web content

That is the question.

Just like Shakespeare’s infamous opening soliloquy in Hamlet, the question remains, should you use PDF files for your online content?

When you use a PDF file online, you are providing a paper document on the web rather than web-based information. If the document looks like a paper document, people are likely to print it rather than read it onscreen.

World-renowned usability expert Jakob Nielsen believes PDF is great for distributing documents that need to be printed. But that is all it’s good for. No matter how tempting it might be, he says you should never use PDF for content that you expect users to read online.

On his Alertbox, Nielsen states that forcing users to browse PDF documents makes your website’s usability about 300% worse relative to HTML pages. Therefore we must question, when should we use PDF files online?

When Is A PDF File Not Appropriate?

Usability consultant Ginny Redish says PDF documents are not the best way to create a useful and usable website. She says it is best to break documents into non-PDF pieces:

  • When people don’t want the whole document
  • When people want to read from the screen
  • When your audiences are not comfortable with PDF files or with downloading software
  • When accessibility is an issue

The Problem(s) With PDF

PDF was designed to specify printable pages and therefore it is optimized for letter-sized sheets of paper, not for display in web browsers. Nielsen states that users often get lost in PDF because the print-oriented viewer gives them only a small peephole on a big, complicated layout and they can’t scroll it in the linear manner they are used to online.

PDF pages do not have navigation bars that help users move from one page to another. Because PDF documents can be very big, the inability to easily navigate them can be frustrating for the user. PDF files usually lack hypertext because they are designed with print in mind.

Guidelines For Using PDF Files Online

If you are going to use PDF, use them only for documents that people need to download and print. That is, anything with five pages or more, since users don’t want to read a lot of text on the screen.

Be sure to follow these guidelines should you use a PDF file online:

  • Create a separate HTML web page that tells people how many pages the PDF document is, the file size and how long it will take to download. This will let users decide whether it is worth downloading
  • Give people the option to download the entire PDF document or create HTML pages on specific topics and provide links for readers who prefer to read online. Some users may only want to read certain sections of a document without having to download the entire PDF.  If users want the whole document, they can see it or print it in PDF
  • From any other part of the website, link only to the separate HTML web page, not to the PDF document
  • Never let search engines index the PDF file. Instead, ensure that your HTML web page is indexed. Usability can suffer when users are dumped into a PDF file
  • Ensure that your PDF document format is at least one version behind the latest offering. As with any Internet software, many users are slow to upgrade when new formats are available

PDF documents have their place, however, they should not replace the use of HTML web pages. When writing what becomes the PDF files, it’s highly likely that the writing won’t work well on the web.

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  1. Great article Shae, I’m often asked about PDF files on websites and my view is always to add the content to your website, and also offer the PDF as a version that can easily be downloaded.

    It’s also important to make sure the PDF is well branded and includes your website address in case other people want to find the info again later.

    • Thanks Mel. PDFs should be used for special reports and ebooks to download and not as web pages themselves. It’s surprising to see, however the number of websites that do use PDFs for the wrong reasons. Hopefully people like us can help them with this.


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