“Quit Using Those Damn PDFs”

I feel as if every day I am asked to post a PDF of a print communication up on the web. They look pretty, have nice pictures, and in the mind of the client, their work is done: copy’s been written and design has already approved. But PDFs are not the same thing as HTML and were never intended to be used as web content. Here are 3 reasons why:

  1. They do not allow for site visitors to stay engaged with your site, taking users out of your web experience by opening up a new window that forces them to scroll through the document or “fit-to-window” to find the content they are looking for.
  2.  PDFs do not offer navigation that pushes the user back to your site and often, these PDFs are visually different from the visual experience your visitors were just engaged with.
  3.  The copy in a PDF has been crafted for the tactile experience not for use on the web.

Jakob Nielsen’s studies in the area of usability starting over a decade ago enlightened the world to the fact that web users are scanners, not readers. According to Nielsen, “users spend 4.4 seconds for every extra 100 words on a page.” And here I have clients, asking me to post full conference brochures (including the mail panel) online. My response to these requests makes me sound like a broken record and I am regularly challenged with finding a way to convince clients that PDFs as web content are not a great idea.

Last week I came across an article on searchenginewatch.com that provided me with my answer. SEO is such a hot topic where I work.  Everyone wants to focus on making their pages rank and SEO is topic that my clients will listen to. Lead Strategist at Vizion Interactive, Josh McCoy covered the role of PDFs page ranking, SEO and user experience in his recent article, Beyond SEO: Retaining the Visitor.

“Your PDFs rank. You know that and I know it, but they would rank better if they were HTML. Outside of SEO-ability of a PDF we have to think about the user experience. Yes, they see your content but do they enjoy the same HTML page experience of supporting main and supporting navigation? No – and most often, there are no links in the PDF allowing the user to peruse the site further. I absolutely hate seeing this.

Besides not being able to track organic entries into the site through this point, you should give users the ability to utilize the same site template as any other site user viewing a standard webpage. While the engineering world needs PDFs for extensive diagrams and such as well as company brochures and manuals, for all else, convert to HTML and provide a PDF download link for your “print and run” crowd. If you must use your PDFs, provide a link to the homepage or most relevant standard site page in the footer of each PDF page.”

You can read McCoy’s full article Beyond SEO: Retaining the Visitor at Search Engine Watch.


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