Why PDF Documents Shouldn’t Be Used For Web Content

October 13, 2011

two people stuck in a room

Getting information up on the web can sometimes be a rushed and last minute job. We’ve all done it. You’re under pressure and have lots of competing demands. Then you get an email that says they need something online by the end of the day. Attached is a long word document full of content, so you PDF it to get it online and meet the deadline. No drama, all is good and the client’s happy. Where’s the bad? Some of this may not be news to many of you, but for those (like me) who didn’t get the memo, substituting html content by using a PDF document leaves many web users out in the cold, often unable to access the information contained in the document. After attending a recent Web Content Manager’s Forum in Brisbane, presented by Vision Australia and 4Syllables, I now know that there are many reasons why PDF documents really should be avoided to convey web content. PDF documents prove problematic to users as they often don’t download properly, their file sizes are often too big, the documents interrupt work flow or they are not formatted in user friendly ways.  However, the main and very important reason, which I’m going to focus on here, is because they aren’t easily accessible to people using assistive technology. You can check out the resources from the forum, which have detailed information about the varied reasons we shouldn’t use PDFs to present web content. Instead of presenting important web content using html, an epidemic practise has evolved where important information is often only provided as PDF, excluding a multitude of users.  This has certainly become the case for Australian government intranet and internet sites and as government move toward WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) compliance, the conversation about web content best practise has become all the more important.

 Why Are PDF’s So Bad?

Assistive technologies (such as screen readers) and the PDF format just don’t play nice together. So all that important information that you want to get out to the users of your website are really excluding a large portion of the world’s population. Even if the person is a tech savvy blind, vision or mobility impaired user, the popular and widely used assistive technologies that are available today have serious trouble reading and interacting with a PDF document. This can be because of the way the document is formatted, however it’s often because the PDF format is largely unsupported by assistive technologies. Vision Australia have recently done a research study on how PDF and assistive technologies interact with some interesting results.  Check out their resource to find out more about this very revealing study. So, the moral of the story; if you are going to have a PDF document, make sure all the necessary information is available in plain ol’ html too.

Is It Ever Ok To Use a PDF?

Before you put a PDF on line, first think, ‘can this information be represented in html?’. If the answer is yes, then avoid using the PDF or as mentioned before, provide the same level of information in good semantic html. Make sure that all  important key information is represented in both formats, so no one is missing out. If you can’t represent the information in html and you just can’t get the information on line any other way, then below are some useful tips to help ensure the PDF document is more accessible.

 Tips to Make a PDF Documents More Accessible

  1. Use correct markup  – use true heading styles in whatever word processing program you use. Rather than making your headings bold or italic to set them apart from the rest of the document, choose heading styles. This enables screen readers to navigate the user through content properly. This is good practise as it enables you to update all your styles much quicker (much like CSS) and you can easily make a table of contents.
  2. Image Alt Tags – just like in html, add descriptive alternative text to your images in your document. In MS Word this can easily be done by right clicking, going to ‘format picture’ and going to the ‘alt text’ option and adding descriptive text here.
  3. Identify Headers in Tables –  depending on your word processing software, you can simply do this by going into the header of the table (right click) and adding titles in the table properties.

If you want to know more about how to make your web content more accessible then head over to the resources and slides that were presented at the forum.

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