The most important thing to remember when using PDFs in website content is PDFs are for printing. If content does not need to be printed, you do not want to offer it as a PDF on your website.
What are some of the ways you are using PDFs on your website right now? Forms, handbooks, annual reports – these are all excellent uses of PDFs primarily because these are items that someone might need to print, sign, and return to your office or documents that you expect someone to reference frequently in the future so they might want a printed copy.
The best way to use PDFs on your website is to talk about the important information on your website, and if you need to offer a way for them to download, offer a link to download the material in a PDF format. A great example of this is in Financial Affairs, where they post policies and procedures for the university. Content on each policy is available on separate web pages, but if a visitor wants to download the entire policy, a link to a PDF is also offered on the page.
PDFs alienate website visitors when used to house important information that users want to find through searching the website such as event times, event dates, admission requirements, and policies. One of the major reasons using PDFs for this type of content aggravates visitors is that PDFs are not searchable on the Loyola website. Web Communications has purposefully hidden them from Google’s spiders to protect confidential information in internal documents.
Website Usability Expert Jakob Nielsen offers additional reasons for avoiding the use of a lot of PDFs in your website content in his article PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption. Some of the reasons include:
- Jarring User Experience: PDF lives in its own environment with different commands and menus. Even simple things like printing or saving documents are difficult because standard browser commands don’t work. And once you open the PDF, it’s not easy to navigate back to the website.
- Orphaned Location: Because the PDF file is not a Web page, it doesn’t show your standard navigation bars. Typically, users can’t even find a simple way to return to your site’s homepage.
- Crashes and Software Problems: While not as bad as in the past, you’re still more likely to crash users’ browsers or computers if you serve them a PDF file rather than an HTML page.
- Breaks Flow: You have to wait for the special reader to start before you can see the content. PDF files take longer time to download because they tend to be stuffed with more fluff than plain Web pages.
- Content Blog: Most PDF files are immense content chunks. They also lack a decent search, aside from the extremely primitive ability to jump to a text string’s next literal match. If the user’s question is answered on page 75, there’s close to zero probability that he or she will locate it.
- Text Fits The Printed Page, But Not The Computer Screen: PDF layouts are often optimized for a sheet of paper, which rarely matches the size of the user’s browser window.
If PDFs are needed so that visitors to your website can print reports or forms from your website, be clear to identify the links as file attachments in both the naming of the link and in visual cues you provide to visitors to your pages (e.g. icons with the word PDF, a link that says “download the full report in PDF format”). The author of webpagesthatsuck.com describes it perfectly: “Web design is the opposite of a magic trick. A magician’s goal is to distract you. On the web, you have to tell everyone what’s going to happen – no surprises.”
Web Communications has tried to do some of the work for you by providing icons (e.g. PDF, Excel, Word) for links to file attachments in the content management system, Drupal. These icons automatically appear on your page any time you link to a PDF, Excel, or Word document. But in addition to these icons, you always want to indicate to the visitors what they should expect to find when they click on a link.
Your intranet is the one place that we tell all campus web editors to post PDFs. This is not a place the average Loyola website users are visiting to browse web pages. Intranets are used as “filing cabinets” at Loyola, cataloguing reports and documentation for accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
Almost every type of file can be indexed by search engines, and naming each file appropriately (i.e. with keywords) can help with search engine optimization. When naming pdfs and images: use all lowercase letters, use name of the university, and use hyphens to represent spaces in file names. Here are some examples: An image of Loyola students playing basketball: loyola-university-new-orleans-students-basketball.jpg. A pdf of the faculty and staff handbook: loyola-university-new-orleans-faculty-handbook.pdf
If you’re not sure if a piece of content would be best as a PDF or a web page, err on the side of creating a web page instead of PDF. Caution will help you in the treacherous world of web editing and provide the users of your website a much more accessible experience.