PDFs on the Web (Part 2): Solutions

A laughing mask with a white-on-red PDF logo overlaps a crying mask with a red-on-white PDF logo.In Part 1 of this series I discussed why people post PDFs on their websites and the myriad problems that stem from a well-intentioned act.

How We Got Here

If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, here’s the short summary:

  • People post PDFs on their websites for a variety of reasons. Many of those reasons boil down to a lack of time, technical knowledge, or resources.
  • When quickly posted, PDFs often suffer from at least some of these problems:
    • Slow to load due to file size and forcing a new program to open.
    • Inaccessible to people with vision impairments and search engines.
    • Low “granularity” forces people to wade through irrelevant or out-dated content to find what they want.
    • Contains writing not intended for the web.
  • The time gained by only posting a PDF translates to lost time for the reader. That’s not a good tradeoff.

But now, let’s turn that PDF despair into PDF joy.

Appropriate Uses for PDFs

PDFs are best suited for printing and archiving. Unlike webpages that look different depending on the operating system and browser in which they are displayed, a PDF keeps its color, layout, and font settings very consistent across any computer or printer. That means posting a PDF online for printing or saving is a good idea. But printing or archiving is almost always a secondary means of digesting content.

Giving Your Visitors the Best Experience

A web page containing content intended for the web is a more effective means of online communication than a PDF. We all strive to give our website visitors the best possible experience because a good experience leads to engagement with our business or organization.

Here are three questions to test whether your PDF should also be posted as a web page or pages:

  • Is this content written for the web?
  • Can  this content be divided into more “digestable” content chunks (“increased granularity”)?
  • Would posting this content in a different format increase reader engagement?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, do your best to post web pages containing the content rather than just PDFs.

Identify Links to PDFs

When you do post PDF links, please label them as such. Internet users reasonably assume that a link leads to a web page unless stated otherwise. (This tip also applies for any other document type.) Here’s how easy it is:

  • Download Nov2011Newsletter.pdf
  • Download our November 2011 Newsletter in PDF format
  • You can read about it in our November 2011 Newsletter [PDF].
  • Download our November 2011 Newsletter PDF Document Icon

Those last two methods can even be automated! (Free download coming soon!)

Make Your PDFs Accessible

If you’re scanning a document to produce a PDF, make sure you use Optical Character Recognition (known as OCR) to embed the text of the document along with the image of the document. If your PDF only contains a picture of words, many people and machines can’t read the content.

Additionally, use headings in your word processing documents used to create PDFs. Headings, a topic I’ll be covering soon, are a very important means of dividing up content in a document into more browsable chunks. If you’ve ever seen a table of contents generated by Adobe Reader, that structure is created from headings in the document.

Embed Your PDFs

A final—and in my opinion, seriously underutilized—way to present PDFs on the web is to either embed them or link to them in a browser-friendly PDF reader.

One great service is Scribd. You might think of Scribd as a YouTube for documents. ((Scribd’s greatest shortcomings is the absence of baby- and kitten-centeric content.)) Once you upload documents to Scribd, you can copy an HTML embed code to display your document in a browser-friendly reader.

Alternatively, Google Docs allows you to upload PDFs and then gives you a link to display them in their own online PDF reader.

As examples, I have embedded a PDF of an earlier blog post on an example page using Scribd. Alternately, you can read that post as a PDF hosted on Google Documents.

Do Your Best

Making content accessible matters, but it takes time and experience to do it well. Everyone’s time is finite, so do your best. Corner cutting will happen, but it’s important to understand all the drawbacks of the corners you cut (as I covered in Part 1). So when posting PDFs (or if you honestly answered “No” to the three questions I posed earlier) follow these best practices.

Talk Back

Got other recommendations for making PDFs more manageable on the web? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.