Dispelling the Myths about using PDF on your Website

According to Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman group, “Forcing users to browse PDF files makes usability approximately 300% worse compared to HTML pages.” He then goes on to state that this “statistic” comes from a rough estimate based on his own observations; meaning there is no real data that backs up this claim. Regardless, there is a common belief that you should avoid PDF files when it comes to your website. Some of the reasons cited for keeping a website free of pdf documents are:

  • The pdf reader can hang when loading the file for display preventing the visitor from viewing the desired content
  • Transitioning from browser to PDF reader is not seamless therefore not an ideal experience for the visitor
  • When a PDF document opens after a user clicks a link it surprises them if they expected a new page to open
  • Downloading PDF documents takes longer than opening a webpage causing visitors to become frustrated
  • It’s more difficult for the website owner to create pdfs than it’s to put the same content into HTML for the web

However, when you take a closer look at each of these reasons there are simple arguments that counter them. While it’s true that a PDF reader might hang when you open it, this is often caused by the computer itself and not the software. Browsers hang frequently, and often because of the type of content they are trying to display. Opening a PDF reader is not uncommon to the average user. People are familiar with them so they likely won’t cause any surprise or issues in transitioning. Download time for any file increases when the file is large; web pages with multiple images and multimedia can take long to load as well. Finally, using the right pdf software makes creating these documents easy—the process is not onerous, as some would believe.

When you should use a PDF file

While it’s important to understand that using PDF files on a website won’t do harm, it’s even more important to understand that there are actually many cases where you’re better off using a PDF file on your website.

When you intend for users to print content such as manuals, books or similar publications delivered via the web or view it in an electronic reader, then using a PDF file would be the best choice. That’s because HTML content does not print as it displays on screen.

Likewise, it’s better to deliver any content that is very long via PDF. Studies show that ideally, content on the web is best when it can be consumed in less than seven minutes. Anything that takes longer for the average person to read is better when you deliver it through another format, like as a PDF file.

Another area where PDF documents excel is when it comes to secured documents. If you need to restrict access to a file, you can employ tools such as password protection and encryption to better secure a PDF document. Doing the same to a webpage requires a far greater degree of skill in web development.

Downloadable content is another area where PDF files are a far better option than HTML. PDF software allows you to embed images, fonts and any other extras. If you’re trying to download content via HTML, you’ll find this much more difficult to do.

Tools such as Foxit PhantomPDF makes it easy to create web-ready PDF files and forms to upload to any website. For content consumers, Foxit PDF Reader offers stable, feature rich technology to allow visitors to easily read any document delivered using PDF. All in all, there’s no reason to shy away from using PDF documents on your website. And, as we’ve seen, in many cases, it makes good sense.


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