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The Use of PDF Documents

Portable Document Format (PDF) documents should be used sparingly on web sites. PDFs are ideal for applications that require documents to be printed, but they are not as web friendly or as easy to browse as regular pages. If your information is important enough to be posted online, it should be presented in a format that will reach the greatest audience.

When given the option to view large PDFs on the web, readers tend to shy away or don't take the time to download them. A 10- or 15-page PDF file is also an inefficient use of time and bandwidth if the visitor only needs to see a single page. They can be cumbersome to navigate, even with bookmarks. While the prevalence of broadband has increased dramatically, some people accessing your site from off-campus may still use slower connections due to availability or cost concerns. Small chunks of information are easier to absorb and process, which makes HTML ideal for users.

In most cases, the following types of documents should be converted to HTML:

  • Simple fliers with date, time and location information
  • Routine forms that are used on a regular basis
  • Policy manuals
  • Forms that can be completed online

The following types of documents may be acceptable as PDF files:

  • Forms that must be printed and signed by a third party
  • Microsoft PowerPoint slides (for supplemental information only)
  • Downloadable copies of printed documents (in addition to an HTML version)

HTML pages also help eliminate paper waste. The Sages Writing Guide on the ESS site is a great example of a site that benefits from HTML versus PDF formatting. Students have made far more use of the guide, and page views for the site have increased dramatically.

PDF to web conversions of large forms and documents do take time. Complicated manuals with bulleted lists and tables may require significant effort to cleanly convert to hypertext, but the IT Operations Group can assist you with building templates and pages to help you get started. In the long run, the benefits of a clean HTML web page far outweigh the added time it takes to build it, since the use of proper web style can easily turn a good document into a great one.

If you are unsure about a document, please e-mail us to determine whether a PDF is the appropriate format for your document. In addition, please review our accessibility guidelines to learn more about best practices for the web.

Additional Information
Last Updated: December 30, 2010