Stop publishing PDF-only content on your website

Mar 12, 2021   •   3 min read

By Sylvain Reiter

When you are looking for information online, isn't it a bit frustrating when you land on a PDF? Most of the time, you cannot read it clearly on your phone, it's really hard to find the right part of the document... And don't get me started about forms in PDF, it's the absolute worse!

There are a lot of problems with PDF, and this is why there is a big move in the accessibility community to to try and move away from them, where possible.

Let's explore why that is and how you can apply that on your own website.

Turn your PDF into accessible HTML documents

Hey, welcome to this new edition of Digital Blitz, your short brief on everything UX, Tech and Compliance. I am Sylvain Reiter and I'm here to help you succeed in digital by delivering better experiences for your team and your customers.

So on one hand, PDF are very easy to create and it's quite safe. If you have a word document or PowerPoint or Keynote presentation that you want to export and email to others, it's a standard format across all platforms. And it's also easier to print and to keep a consistent layout for presentation.

Main issues with PDF

But on the other hand, there are a lot of problems with PDFs.

  • The main one is that they're not responsive, which we discussed about. It makes it really hard to read on mobile devices for example.
  • They are usually very bad for accessibility, because you cannot adjust the font size, or the colours... it's basically not compatible with assistive technologies like screen-readers.
  • They also have very poor usability. You can have a table of content and external links or images, but it's all pretty basic, you cannot have any interactive elements.
  • You cannot track any interaction on the page, so you can completely forget about any analytics data.
  • And finally, they completely disrupt the user journey. I recently downloaded a case study from a company, read it. I was interested, but there was nothing at the end to suggest another piece of content, and the call to action had a broken link. It was all very disruptive I felt.

Time to challenge the PDF format

These are the main reason why the UK government recently have updated its PDF accessibility guidance for the main gov.uk website. To continue to make the web more accessible for everyone, they reaffirmed their commitment to open standards.

With this, I think the pressure will grow on all companies, including and mostly in the private sector, to ensure that their content is also presented in ways that is accessible to all users.

Fixing your PDF situation

If you have a lot of information in PDF on your websites, what can you do? Well, let me tell you it's not going to be an easy task! But I can share a plan and starting point.

  1. First, you need to start by auditing all your PDF. So this can be done with automated SEO tools, for example, but you will need to review the content inside each document and make sure it's still relevant and up to date of course.
  2. Second, you need to map each piece of content and how it fits in your existing information architecture, because you do not want to add hundreds of pages in random places. It still needs to flow in a simple user journey for your customers.
  3. Third, you can finally create an HTML version of each page using your content management system. And yes, you can still attach that PDF as a downloadable collateral, but the PDF file in itself also might need to be retouched to be more accessible. I'll share some links in the description about the best practices for that.

To wrap that up:

I'm not saying that PDF should be completely banned, but they must have an alternative HTML or open standard version.

Next time you generate a PDF for your website, and you want to upload it in your content management system, make sure that you think upfront about how you will publish the same information as a standard and open format.

If you need help with your content strategy or information architecture for your large set of PDFs, just get in touch. Don't forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel and follow me on Twitter to keep learning with me and grow your career in digital.

Until next time, stay safe and see you soon.

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