Using PDF files – Pros and Cons

PDF files: pros and cons

Good Reasons to Use PDF Files in Your Website

I have been working on a web development project recently where the customer has requested the use of PDF files in the content. This actually happens frequently, especially when the customer is not that web savvy. It usually also involves a lengthy discussion on the use of PDF files and the impact to the visitor.

But it has caused me to sit back and think about this from the perspective of my customer and their website visitors.

Using a PDF file or two is not necessarily a web design sin. In fact, there are a number of reasons why PDF files should be used. So I thought it would be beneficial to highlight the pros and cons of using PDF files in your website content.

The Basics of PDF files

If you are not familiar with a PDF file, this is a file format developed in the 1990s to present documents. A PDF file includes text formatting and images, in a manner independent of application software, hardware, and operating systems.

First, let’s consider the Cons of using PDF files in a website.

PDF File Cons:

  • Non-editable content – This is listed as a negative, but this point could also be a positive, depending upon your needs. If someone is looking at your content and would like to reference or report on a portion of it, they cannot do so as easy with a PDF file.
  • Legibility on all devices – On smaller devices, PDF files can be difficult to read if not formatted properly.
  • Not the Best for SEO – THIS IS A MYTH. Google can and does index PDF files and has done so many times already. But, the website owner or developer must make sure they use SEO best practice so the PDF files are indexed. ref: https://www.searchenginejournal.com/pdf-seo-best-practices/59975/

PDF File Pros:

  • Protecting & Securing Information – If you have a portion of content that you do not want copied by visitors, then PDF files are the way to go. This format also enables the creator to insert information that stays with the content so readers always know exactly where it came from.
  • Consistent Presentation – Microsoft products can now save documents as a PDF file now. Offering a Powerpoint presentation or report as a PDF file is a great way to maintain styling, format, and font usage along with the content.
  • Portable – Most devices (PC’s, Macs, Mobiles phones, etc.) can display PDF files.

When Should Your Website use PDF Files

We have had a number of opportunities to effectively use PDF files in our web development projects:

  • Offer product catalogues for download
  • Offer product reference manuals for download
  • Offer an eBook for download
  • Offer a secure user form to fill out and download

There are times when using PDF files in your website content format works best. For instance, one project wanted a place where potential investors could download a Powerpoint Presentation for the investment pitch. They converted the Powerpoint to a PDF to reduce the size and maintain the formatting of the actual presentation.

To summarize, thought should be given on how best to use PDF files in your website.

Do you have any other uses for PDF files? Any suggestions we haven’t covered here? Leave us your experiences as a comment.

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2 thoughts on “Using PDF files – Pros and Cons

  1. Thank you Leonard,
    This is very helpful. It sounds like there is room to expand on your points about preparing your PDF files for online use.
    I was not aware of these features.
    Thanks again,
    Eric

  2. I would like to correct two points you made.

    First, about “browser load times”.

    PDF offers a feature called “Fast Web View”, where the PDF is prepared in such a way that the pages can be loaded “on demand” – so that only page 1 need be downloaded in order to view it! This makes for VERY fast viewing of documents.

    Unfortunately, many people don’t properly prepare their documents for use on the web (ie. enable this feature) or use PDF creation tools that don’t support this feature. This gives people the (mistaken) impression that PDF doesn’t have the feature – it does, and has had since Acrobat 4 (over 10 years ago!)

    Second, about “linking to PDF sections”.

    PDF, like HTML, has the concept of ‘named anchors’ – though in PDF terminology they are called “Named Destinations” and they have been part of PDF since Acrobat 3. These can be used in all the same ways that one would use an HTML anchor – inside the same document or between documents INCLUDING of different types. So you can quite easily link from an HTML page directly to a heading/paragraph/etc. inside a PDF. In addition to just getting you to the right place in the document, a PDF “Named Destination” also supports the specification of ‘viewing criteria’ such as zoom factor, scrolling, etc.

    Of course, just like HTML pages, the PDF has to have been authored (or post-edited) to incorporate the necessary destinations/anchors.

    Hope that you can incorporate these corrections into your page for future readers.

    Leonard Rosenthol
    PDF Standards Architect
    Adobe Systems

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