PDFs hurt SEO, accessibility and user experience

Portable Document Format or PDFs are just about everywhere and they go from pages filled with text and images to interactive media like forms, digital signatures, audio and video. And because they are universally accessible on Microsoft Windows and Apple Macs, PDFs are a great way to increase interest and drive engagement with users. Creativity and productivity apps like Serif Affinity and Microsoft Office also make it super easy for anyone to create PDFs. With all the simplicity of publishing PDFs, it isn’t always the best medium or format for every scenario. You want to pick the right tool for the job that gives your users an amazing experience. As a customer of Get Pro Websites, you get access to experts who design, build and support your website with the look, feel and functionality that you want while following best practices which set you up for success.

PDFs are self-contained documents and because they aren’t web pages, users miss out on a seamless or immersive web experience. Jumping between pages with links in PDFs to web pages (and the other way around) can be jarring and features like the navigation or site search will be missing from PDFs which all give it a look and feel that’s completely different and can have a negative user experience. And if users find it difficult to navigate or find information on your site, you risk losing out on building positive relationships with existing or new customers, sponsors, donors and others which is generally a bad thing for any organization.

PDFs favor desktop screens and don’t always play nicely with mobile devices. If your site and content aren’t mobile friendly or adaptive to different screen sizes, users are more than likely to jump ship and look for alternatives. Browser support for PDFs in mobile devices varies dramatically. In almost all cases, there’s little to no ability to view PDFs with in-built viewers for all major web browsers (Figure 1) which fractures user experience as users have to rely on external apps like PDF readers.

Can I Use Browser Pdf Viewer
Figure 1 – Source: Can I use Built-in PDF viewer

PDFs get out of sync quickly too. If someone downloads a PDF from your site today, chances are that they’ll have an older version as soon as you update your site with the latest version. And there’s no guarantee that they’ll come back to your site to look for it only to download it again. This doesn’t include the labor and time intensive work you’ll need to put in to redirect users each time you update PDFs. Paired with limited native support across web browsers and poor mobile design responsiveness, you have the makings of a deal breaker.

Compared with web pages, PDFs can be painfully large in file size which has a cascading effect on search engine optimization as your site takes longer to load and interact with. And if users are forced to download ginormous files over slow and expensive mobile data which can cost as high as $5 or more for every 1GB in many parts of the world, you’ll be giving away the shot to engage with your users as they rethink their options with your competitors or comparators. If winning and keeping users is part of your growth strategy, you’ll want your users to have frictionless experience when they visit your site.

Users often come to sites to learn about a service or product, look for details about an organization and more. Site search plays a big role in finding the information users are after. Since PDFs come in all varieties that include embedded objects like photos or documents, websites powered by platforms like WordPress miss out on connecting with their users in a meaningful way because the content in PDFs isn’t easily indexable or searchable. This has a knock-on effect on analytics. Beyond tracking PDF downloads, understanding user engagement such as measuring the elements of the page users enjoyed the most or spent the majority of their time on is limited.

With all the downsides of PDFs, there’ll be scenarios that PDFs are the perfect solution. For example, digitized early prints, rare books or collections. To give users the best overall experience, use a combination of HTML landing or gateway pages that provide a summary of the contents from PDFs. It makes for a better user experience with the benefits of improving SEO and accessibility.

Wrapping it up

If you are thinking of publishing the amazing content you’ve crafted or if your site’s filled with PDFs, it’s an opportunity to reimagine and explore better, enriching ways of reaching your users. Start with small steps to redesign and reformat your existing content and take the chance to publish newer content that’s optimized to boost user experience, accessibility and search engine optimization.

If you need help or don’t quite know where to start, feel free to drop us a line. We’d love to work with you.