PDFs. You don't need 'em.

October 20, 2020

‘PDF: Still Unfit for Human Consumption, 20 Years Later’

I love the title of this article, Sarah.

It has an opinion.

It gets to the point.

It makes me smile.

You could read it now and ignore the rest of this email if you’d like.

(Please don’t)

And I hate to say this, but I think it’s right.

By now, you should all know that I love a little history lesson, so let’s step back in time.

The PDF file format was created in 1993. It was created as a print format. This means, PDFs are,

  • Sized for paper, not screens
  • More likely to use a mix of columns, shapes and images
  • Not made for presenting connected (linked) content

This poses a bunch of accessibility and readability issues when PDFs are used to house core information on websites. Here are a few.

[Yes, I’m just talking about situations where PDFs are used online to extend, or in place of, website content. I’m not talking about delivering final files, sending press releases, invoices or anything else you don’t want altered.]

Data and access

Many of us think of accessibility in terms of disability and access, but forget how data and service also change access needs. PDFs need to be downloaded. If you do not have adequate service or data (Hi regional Australia! Hello teens, low income owners and other cool cats using prepaid plans! Hi black spots!) you will not be able to easily access the content.

Mobile viewing

I’ve already mentioned how PDFs are sized for paper not screens. Have you tried to read a PDF on mobile? You know, one with multiple columns? So you have to zoom in and read part of the page then use gestures to get to the next bit? Yeah, it’s not the worst experience (if you can use touch navigation. If you’re not using a screen reader) but it's not the best.

Navigation and connection

Links allow us to follow interconnected trails of ideas (think of how you might use Wikipedia to jump from one concept to another, or IMBD). The internet, as a result, is mostly a ‘non linear’ experience. By comparison, PDFs are mostly ‘linear’. It’s less easy to follow links between PDFs and other locations within the one window or Application, and you don’t have the benefit of a menu, return button or breadcrumb* to get you on track.

*the little trail of text that sometimes appears toward the top of web pages to show your path, for example Teams > Autobots > Optimus Prime


You’ve put huge amounts of effort into creating amazing content for your PDF. But, unlike the rest of your web content, it’s not as easily searchable as web-based content. Yes, Google can crawl and index PDFs. But Google also prioritises results based on what most people read. And sorry, most people aren’t taking extra steps to click through and read your docs.

You spend time, money and energy creating great content. You want it to work as hard as it can for you. If that extra special content you’ve created is living in a PDF and not on a webpage, in my opinion, it can’t do that for you.

People have been dragging on PDFs since 1996. So why do we keep using them?

It's ‘higher value’ content and therefore needs a nice design

We are all suffering the same hangover. The ‘print content is more valuable than web content’ hangover.

Yep, hiring a designer and printing a stack of flyers costs money. You know what else costs money? Building, housing, promoting and creating content for your website. We all need to reconsider what types of content are most valuable to our businesses. The answer won’t be the same for each of us.

They’re easier to update

Remember when only big companies with lots of dollars had websites? Or when you actually had to know a coding language to make an update? When these things were true it was much much easier to update a PDF than a web page.

But these things are no longer true. Most solopreneurs and in-house marketing teams know how to make changes to their website on the fly. Changes that are probably faster than updating, saving and switching out a PDF.

We already have them

This one I get. You’ve already invested in creating great guides, cheatsheets and what not, why would you duplicate the content and the cost? If the information is important enough to pay a designer to make 'pretty', it’s probably important enough to sit on a web page. We need to consider this as making our investment go further, not doing work over or disregarding the work that has already been done.

It’s a habit

Really, all of these could have said, ‘because we’ve always done it that way’.

9 out of 10 times if I ask someone why they decided that the content should live in a PDF and not on a webpage the answer is ‘oh, I don’t know. That’s how I thought people did it’. The web has evolved so much since the 90s, but some habits are hard to kick. My service provider pals, Service Guides often fall under this category. If you already have the content to describe your services, why is it not on your website? On the flip side, if you have it on your website, do you really need the PDF? (Maybe).

Sarah, stop being mean, can I ever use PDFs again?

On your website? Sure. When you want people to hit print.

I’ve seen PDFs used in some great ways online,

At the end of a long article explaining why a customer should use a certain type of software

 Print this to show your colleagues

As gated content on a holiday package page (get leads AND help them at the same time)

 Print the brochure

On a sales page for a conference

 Print ‘Why you should attend’ and show your boss

Alongside a digital price list (think beauty salon or restaurant)

 Print our price list for later

These cases have some things in common,

  • There is likely going to be more than one person making a decision on the service / holiday / event and this makes it easy for the users to get the right details to the right person
  • They will need that exact information later (printed pages change less frequently than websites) or when they're offline
  • The PDFs are not used to expand on, or instead of, website content. They are duplicate content.

PDF wisely.

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