Are PDF documents always appropriate?

Jackie and I here at BMON Towers have been looking at a lot of companies’ technical and sales documentation online recently, and what we’re seeing leaves a lot to be desired. I’d go so far as to say that most companies really need to take a long, hard look at what they’re offering, and I’ll be focusing on this all week.

The standard format for technical and sales documentation is Adobe’s PDF, so if you have any documentation which (for whatever reason) you wish to reproduce looking identical to its printed version, then it needs to be presented in PDF. Please don’t expect customers or prospects to be able to open Microsoft Word documents, because many people cannot do so.

I’d like to make a serious point about PDF documentation though. Is it really the most helpful format for users? Or are you just offering customers or prospects a PDF document because you happen to have one already prepared, and you can’t be bothered to make a proper web page (“HTML”) version?

PDF is not often great for SEO (something we’ll cover tomorrow), and it can be hard to read on screen. The main thing the format is good for is to allow users to print off a facsimile of a printed document, but for anyone who’s ever lifted a soggy, crinkled piece of paper from an inkjet printer, it’s not always a quality reproduction. If the document is more than a few pages, nobody’s going to print it anyway, so you’re just presenting people with an inconvenient format not designed for their particular viewing medium. I despair at company websites which offer me a 64-page PDF catalogue. I can’t print it out in its entirety, and it doesn’t fit on my screen. Why is this information not being presented to me as web pages, which are designed for reading on screen, for searching, and for general interactivity? Even when it comes to data sheets, I’d much rather see the information presented in web format, with a link at the end to view and print off an A4 PDF document for my project file, should I wish.

I’d therefore ask the question: are you using the fact you’ve got a PDF document as an excuse for not creating a proper HTML web page for that document? If so, you may be missing an opportunity to provide a better experience for customers.

Discussion

  1. Dave J.

    That’s a doosey of question actually. The thing is that people actually click on links to PDFs. What they get can oftentimes be disappointing. If done well, a PDF is like having an online ‘app’: a little walled garden that presents your product and its details perfectly, without distraction of navigation from the website.

    I posted a few years back about this issue. My main problem at the time was why were we formatting PDFs as if they are paper documents.

    One more argument for PDFs: the added layer of content and the significance that a (virtual) brochure adds to a product, gives your product substance and perceived value. A ‘these people really make these things and care about them so I should buy from them’ kind of reaction.

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