Smart Strategies for Using PDFs on Your Site

This post originally appeared on Beaconfire’s blog in May 2014. It is reposted here with permission.

I have some news to share with you: most PDFs on your site don’t get read. Sad but true. The good news is that you’re not alone. World Bank recentlyreleased a report that showed that nearly a third of the reports (in PDF format) on their site were not being downloaded and read. So much effort, so little ROI.

You may wonder if PDFs are even worth the trouble. They actually can be, but there are definite pros and cons to using them on your site.


  • Allow a document to retain a visual design (colors, fonts, style)
  • Are easily printable
  • Highly portable. You can save to your digital library and read later!
  • Facilitate browsing and reading extremely lengthy content
  • Facilitate presentation of highly formatted content – like data tables

  • Difficult to update
  • Much larger file size than a webpage
  • Not inherently searchable

When your organization is renowned for creating lengthy or data-rich print pieces, producing a PDF can be a quick and easy way to share the content. But posting a PDF isn’t always the best – or only – answer. When you’re thinking about creating new content for your site, think of other ways you could present the information: Infographic? Video?

So you’re sure you want a PDF? Ok then…

  • PDFs should not exist in a vacuum. If you’re posting a PDF, it should have a corresponding HTML page that includes, at a minimum, the title, abstract or overview, publication date, and file size with a link to the PDF. Creating a landing page for the PDF will also give external search engines an onramp to index the PDFs and display them in relevant search results.
  • When adding a PDF to your site, include metadata to the file to support it: a title, description, author, creation date, topic tags or keywords.
  • The version of PDF is important, too. Make sure that your PDF creator is packaging files in a relatively recent version for bug fixes and search indexing. You may need to revisit older versions of PDFs and update them.
  • Typical file naming standards should apply: not “123.pdf” but something like “NatureLoversSurveyAnalysis2014.pdf.” The file name should be illustrative of the contents of the PDF. This is good user experience and enhances SEO.
  • Don’t forget to open the PDF to search. Make sure that your onsite search has the ability to index PDF content. Test this out by running some site searches to verify that the content is visible in the results. Indexing PDFs helps your users and also SEO (by making the content visible to external search engines). If you don’t have an onsite search, the onramp pages are even more important to allow external search engines access to PDF content.

What’s in our crystal ball

Two vector-based technologies that are on the horizon may provide an alternative to PDFs: Canvas and SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics). These provide the best of both worlds: They have tight visual control, and they are open web standards.  Or will be. SVG has been around for about 13 years but really hasn’t experienced a high adoption rate for everyday web authoring. HTML Canvas is a second alternative. Canvas does provide the feature-rich design capabilities of PDFs, plus it also supports animation; however, as a pure web technology, it requires a web developer to create the markup. Canvas has been around for about four years and, while it shows promise, it hasn’t risen to the ranks and prevalence of PDF documents.

Now you know: Most of the content on your site is not going to be viewed as much as you think it is or would like it to be. If you’re going to expend extra effort on your content, make sure it looks smashing on your site – in whatever format – and that it works for your users.

Amy Knox
Senior UX Designer
is Senior UX Designer at Beaconfire. A seasoned UX consultant with specific expertise in User Research, Information Architecture, and Content Strategy, Amy has worked with an array of organizations with information-rich sites, such as the AFLCIO, Nature Conservancy, the Ad Council, American Diabetes Association, Feeding America, Living Beyond Breast Cancer, and the Association for Professionals in Infection Control, among others. You can find Amy on Twitter @amyk1203.