The downsides of using PDFs on your website

What is a PDF?

PDF is an abbreviation for ‘portable document format’ and it was introduced by Adobe in 1993. Their strength is that they work with any operating system. If you’re trying to share documents between Mac and Windows devices, PDFs are a great way to do so.

PDF formats were intended for a standard sheet of paper and to be printed, not to be read in a browser window. Therefore, a general rule of thumb is anything that’s intended to be read on the screen should be a web page. Anything that’s intended to be printed should be a PDF.

What are the drawbacks?

They are fixed layout documents

This means that a PDF always renders the same, no matter what size screen, operating system, or device the user is viewing it on. This means that PDFs created for desktops require a lot of zooming and panning to view the content in its entirety when viewed on a smaller device.

As the large majority of users now view content on their mobile phones, this makes their experience on your website a much less enjoyable one.


If you’re using analytics to monitor the activity on your website, PDFs can produce gaps in the reports. It’s difficult to track how PDFs are being used, apart from standard downloads. You’re not able to measure specific actions, such as click-rates and reading time.

It’s essential for you to know how your users interact with your content for if you don’t, you won’t be able to tailor your content for them.

Embedding external content

With PDFs, you’re not able to embed external content, such as videos and social media posts. You can add hyperlinks, however, these aren’t as appealing or engaging. Providing them with videos already displayed on the screen and infographics appearing on the same page is a lot more appealing and will produce higher levels of interaction.

Embedding external content also boosts SEO, increasing the traffic to your page.


On a typical web page, a user can easily navigate to other sections, search through the content and have an enjoyable user-experience.

When the user lands on a PDF, this becomes extremely difficult, especially for visitors who reach the PDF from a search engine. They’ll read the PDF in question, then have to figure out how to reach the remaining content on your website. Sometimes, all they can do is click their back button, return to the search engine and continue their journey elsewhere.


PDFs can’t include sharing tools for social media channels. Browsers can include sharing options and users can copy and paste links to PDFs, however, making the user’s life more difficult isn’t going to win you brownie points. Making your content easily sharable will pay off dividends in the long-term.

Additionally, the large majority of users don’t share PDFs on social media in the same way they’d share web-content, such as blog posts and articles. PDF based content isn’t as easily discovered on social media.


Sometimes, when a PDF is opened, you’ll see a warning message informing you that your PDF viewer may not be able to display this type of document. You’re then advised to download Adobe Acrobat.

Whereas PDFs can be used across various operating systems, there are many different formats and they don’t work as universally as intended. Stopping your user from viewing the material they’re looking for is the last thing you want, as it will negatively impact the perception the user has of your business, decreasing its credibility.

Accessibility standards

Visually impaired users often use tools to help them read content. Screen readers can’t audibly extract text inside a PDF. Therefore, you are stopping those with visual impairments from being able to view your content.

They’re aren’t SEO friendly

Content in a PDF often isn’t searchable. The PDF file itself might show in search engine results, but the content within it won’t.

What you should do instead

Using responsive web-based documents is a much better option for your audience. Content can be created that will be legible on any device of any size. This will improve your user’s experience dramatically.

You’re able to create media-rich documents that enhance your content with video, sound and buttons to share etc. You won’t have to rely solely on text and images with no other options.

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