PDF In-Depth

Make PDF Files Web-Friendly

October 01, 2008

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Editor's Note: This article was written by Michael Cartwright of Solid Documents. His company specializes in PDF converter technology.

Is PDF really "unfit for human consumption" (as Jakob Nielsen says) or just misunderstood? Actually, PDFs can definitely be Web-friendly if they are handled with care. We'll teach you how to present PDFs on the Web in a way that minimizes usability problems and unpleasant surprises.

Jakob Nielsen, a well-known usability expert, has written several columns about PDF. He is generally critical of using PDF on the Web for many reasons, including the following:

  • Difficulty in navigation. Although many PDFs have hyperlinks and other features for the Web, PDF navigation is very different from standard Web navigation. This can cause substantial user confusion.
  • Wait and long download times. Users have to wait to see the first page of PDF content and it often takes a long time to download, depending on file size and other factors. This disrupts the quick flow of information users are accustomed to on the Web.
  • Formating problems. Frequently PDF files can be, as Nielsen puts it, "immense content chunks with no internal navigation." This makes it difficult for users to locate information within a PDF.

Nielsen's main point is that a PDF document is not a viable substitute for a Web page. With that in mind, here are some of his recommendations for making PDF usable in a Web setting:

  • Use PDF for documents primarily intended for print. For example, you might want to use PDF for large user manuals and diagrams that are not intended to be read on the Web.
  • Create a gateway page that links to the PDF. Tell users that when they click that link they will be viewing a PDF document.
  • On your gateway page, add a description that tells users what they will see when they open the PDF. This will enable them to make a decision as to whether they wish to open it or not.
  • Prevent search engines from indexing PDF documents. You want users to link to your main site, not a peripheral PDF. (Nielsen has more advice on this on his Web site.)
  • Open PDFs in a new browser window. This will prevent the confusion associated with the differences in navigation between PDF and the Web.

You can view all of Nielsen's specific recommendations at www.useit.com.

One more tip: make sure your PDF file is optimized for Web use.

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