When Not To Use PDFs

When is it appropriate to use a page instead of a PDF?
Don't lock up your content - set it free!

Don't lock up your content - set it free!

What is a PDF?

PDF (Portable Document Format) files are a digital representation of a printed document, and are useful for presenting certain types of information such as long publications. However, overuse of PDFs make web sites less friendly to visitors because:

  • Loading a PDF often causes the browser to "hang" while the PDF reader opens.
  • Going from a page to a PDF is not a seamless experience, since it removes the site navigation cues, and a PDF viewer behaves differently than a web browser.
  • Clicking on a link to open a PDF can surprise a user who expects links to lead to pages. This violates the "Principle of Least Surprise."
  • Downloading a PDF often takes longer than viewing a web page because of the larger file size, which is a large problem for those using a dialup connection.
  • Using bookmarks or a table of contents within a PDF requires extra manual effort on the part of the author. This type of navigation is easily done with the AgSci content management system (CMS).
  • PDFs are generally not accessible to screen reader users, which is not compliant with the Penn State policy AD-69: Accessibility Of Penn State Web Pages.
  • PDFs are more difficult to read on mobile devices than a corresponding page in the Plone CMS.

And, PDFs create problems for content owners:

  • Maintaining a PDF involves more steps than creating the equivalent content in Plone.
  • Visits from search engines to PDFs are not tracked in Google Analytics, which deprive you of valuable data on your site.
  • Penn State and college branding standards are occasionally updated. The web team handles these for the website, but the content owner is responsible for ensuring that PDFs are compliant.

When is it appropriate to use a PDF?

Appropriate uses of a PDF include:

  • To post material that uses technical fonts and/or specialized characters, or large and complex tables or graphs.
  • To post large, complex manuals or publications that may be difficult to post and less user-friendly as web content.
  • Forms, contracts, or educational material meant to be printed in a specific format instead of being read in a browser or on a mobile device.
  • Specific files that are meant to be downloaded and used as tools (e.g., Excel files)

In these cases, we must take the time to properly create and tag the file so it meets accessibility requirements.

When shouldn't I use a PDF?

In most cases, a web page should be used rather than a PDF, except as stated in the above examples. Specific examples in which PDFs have been used in the past when a page is more appropriate are:

  • The author maintains a Word document on their computer, prints the document to PDF, and uploads to the web site. This is more work for the author, and less friendly for the visitor. Site content should be maintained on the site, not on the author's computer.
  • The site owner receives a graphical flyer in PDF form for an event, and wants to feature that event on their site. Creating a Plone event (or events) with the information allows that event to be integrated into the site, and presents a consistent experience to the visitor.
  • The audience wants to print the information in addition to reading it on the web. The pages in the AgSci CMS are printer friendly without any additional work on the author's part. Although the layout can't be as tightly controlled as a PDF, it is a good compromise in web friendliness, print readability and effort on the part of the author.

PDF Brochures and Flyers

The information in PDF versions of brochures and flyers should be converted to web-friendly content instead of posting the PDF on the site. This ensures that the content is easier to read, easier to update, and more findable by search engines.

In particular, the tri-fold brochure format is unsuitable for presentation on the web because it appears as:

Page 1
Panel 2 Panel 6
Panel 1
Page 2
Panel 3 Panel 4
Panel 5

This forces users to perform mental origami to reassemble the panels into their intended order.

The exception would be where the brochure or flyer contains a registration form which must be printed, filled out, and returned.

Additional Information