The great PDF mistake

Once upon a time, a salesperson was talking to a client and saw the client’s project folder. In this folder were several pages printed off from the salesperson’s company website. They looked awful. The salesman went back to the office and told the website manager that every product page on the website should be designed to look great when printed out.

“What we could do”, suggested the website manager, “is to make an image of the data sheet available for customers. We could offer them the file we create for the printers to use. It’s called a PDF file, and if they’ve got something called Adobe Acrobat Reader, they’ll be able to download the document and print it out beautifully”.

And so the “Download PDF” button was born, alongside the “Download Adobe Acrobat Reader” link. Pretty soon, it could safely be assumed that every website visitor had the facility to view PDF documents, and putting these on the website became the standard practice for most companies.

The problem was, most companies forgot why they’d started to offer customers the file that had been designed originally just for them and their printers. They’d done it so that the customers could print out a document instead of having to be sent it in the post. They hadn’t done it as an alternative to viewing the information on a screen. And the consequence is that now, in 2015, a lot of material is being presented to customers only as “PDFs”, even if the customer might just really want the information on screen.

This is a mistake for at least three reasons. Firstly, well-designed web pages are much easier to read on screen than what is effectively a facsimile of a printed document. The information reflows to fit the window, and the user can change the size and shape of the content at will. I doubt that any of your customers are using upright A4 screens. A portrait-shaped A4 document just doesn’t work on a landscape format screen.

Secondly, an increasing number of customers will be using mobile devices, and a facsimile of an A4 printed document is a hopeless way to present information on these. We’ve all tried (and given up on) the zooming and panning around which is required.

Finally, although the search engines have made great strides in analysing and indexing PDF documents in recent years, very few companies are making any effort to ‘search engine optimise’ such documents. The information contained in them might appear in Google’s results, but it usually looks terrible.

A PDF document is not a substitute for a web page. It’s an alternative, for readers who want to print out a facsimile of the document containing the same information which has been designed to be presented on paper. Do not make the mistake of thinking: “it’s in a PDF document, so I don’t need the information on a web page”.

1 thought on “The great PDF mistake”

  1. I agree to a certain extent with this but I do think that it is missing something which is quite vital. In our industry a customer expects a technical datasheet which is packed full of information from weight and dimensions through to standards and electrical specifications. This would look awful and complicated on a full webpage, so each of our product pages has the basic summary of the details and then, should the customer need more information, they can click the datasheet.

    I think that datasheets in this way are enormously useful, especially to people looking for something specific and who know what they are talking about.

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