When to use PDFs versus HTML webpages

It’s no secret that we in higher ed love PDFs. A quick look through the Millersville website, Wiki, or ‘Ville Daily will uncover hundreds of them, serving many different purposes, such as flyers, fillable forms, help guides, and more.

Speaking with people around campus, we’ve heard many different reasons for using PDFs as opposed to HTML webpages. In this post we’ll explain why it’s typically best to avoid PDFs on the web and provide some suggestions for alternatives.

What’s the big deal with PDFs on the web?

PDF versus website cartoon graphic

While PDFs have a time and a place, most content on our website would be better displayed on an HTML webpage. Let’s look at some of the disadvantages of using PDFs:

PDFs are not as accessible as web content

EPPIIC Value - Inclusion graphic
One of our EPPIIC Values at Millersville is inclusion.

Assistive technologies tend to work better with web content than with PDFs. While it’s true that some assistive technologies offer good support for PDFs, we have no guarantee that our web users are using one that does.

For those that do offer good PDF support, the PDFs must use the correct markup and formatting. Creating an accessible PDF requires knowledge of accessibility practices and how to apply them to your documents. If you’re using Cascade to create a new webpage on the other hand, many of these accessibility checks are already built-in.

Read more about web accessibility in our previous article that outlines some of the basic principles.

PDFs are not fully supported on all devices

While PDFs are fairly-well supported in comparison to other filetypes, not all devices offer the same quality of support.

Some require PDFs to be downloaded before a user can view them. This means:

  • Files taking up bandwidth on their device.
  • Extra steps and time taken to view content.
  • Some may be wary of security issues with downloading, versus viewing on the web.

Some features of PDFs are usable in some web browsers, but not others, as we found with some of our fillable forms.

PDFs remove the user from our website navigation and interface

By directing our web users away from our main website, we restrict their ability to quickly find other information throughout the navigation or search bar. Navigating away from the website unexpectedly can also be a disorienting experience for users.

If our PDFs end up getting ranked higher in search engine results, we may find visitors entering our website that way. This means missing out on a valuable opportunity to present them with our website navigation, which means less user-engagement with our website.

PDFs are not responsive

Our web content is responsive, meaning it shifts and adjusts depending on the screen-size it’s being viewed on. PDFs, on the other hand, are static, requiring users to pinch and scroll to read content on their phones and tablets.

PDFs encourage printing

An argument we often hear in favor of PDFs is that they print better, with formatting that’s tailored for print as opposed to web view. One of our goals at Millersville is to embrace sustainable principles and practices. As many people have web-accessible devices with them at all times, we’d like to encourage people to view things digitally, when possible, instead of printing.

PDFs are more work to maintain

Updating PDFs requires additional steps for maintenance that are not present with web content. For example, you must access the latest version of the document, update the document, save it, upload it, and then publish it. If the content was presented on a webpage, someone would simply need to open the page in Cascade, update it, and publish it.

Cascade also includes a version history if we need to roll content back. This may or may not be present with your PDF documents.

Alternatives to using PDFs

PDF alternatives ven diagram showing fillable forms, flyers and ads, and help guides and the words HTML webpage where they overlap

Fillable forms

Instead of using PDFs for fillable forms, consider using a web form. We have several form tools available, so please reach out to IT or Marketing for guidance on how to do this. Advantages of using web forms include:

  • Web forms are usable on most devices, as well as across all major web browsers
  • Downloading additional software is not required to view or fill web forms
  • They are easy to customize and change
  • Submitted data is stored in a filterable database

Flyers and Advertisements

Although design options are more limited, there are many things that can be done to visually enhance the look of your webpage, such as including images, using visual “components”, adding text formatting, and more. Best of all, safeguards are in place to ensure your content and design are accessible to all users.

Help Guides

Our Wiki is the perfect place for your help guides. In fact, it’s exactly what it was designed for. There are a lot of formatting options, and you can specify whether pages are open or locked down.

If you have questions about how to add web forms, format your webpages, or what tools are available to you, please contact the Help Desk and someone will point you in the right direction.

The content of this blog entry was accurate at the time of publication. You can find the most current Cascade and Millersville website-related information in our Cascade wiki documentation.

Virtual training sessions

Although we are currently advising against in-person training sessions, remote training is available upon request. To schedule, please fill out the training request form and we’ll be happy to arrange a time.