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PDFs, good or bad?
When is PDF usage good and how can I prove it?

 7:17 pm on May 8, 2006 (gmt 0)

I recently took a job as a webmaster for a mid-size city government.

If you've ever worked with government entities, you'll know that they often have a lot of content that needs to get out very, very quickly. In my case, basic things like style, usability and even navigation were thrown out the window to save time (before me, of course).

There are some items, like the annual budget, which are so huge they need to be (in my opinion) left in PDF format ONLY. Other items which are in PDF format but are much smaller, I believe, should be changed to HTML when time permits.

And here's the kicker: the current way they do things is put them both out: PDF and HTML. But, the HTML is nothing more than Word saved as an HTML document because it saves precious time. Funny thing though, theat method produces much larger than PDFs (one this morning was 12,000 times larger!).

Some agree with me, some don't.

What do you think? Is there any kind of documentation on best practices for using PDFs on web sites and not using them? I need some hard evidence and/or documentation to back my ideas up, or they won't be taken as seriously.

Thanks in advance.



 9:31 pm on May 8, 2006 (gmt 0)

Normally I would use PDF only if there was a need to preserve the printed format. For example when providing a downloadable copy of a printed document.

Longhaired Genius

 10:17 pm on May 8, 2006 (gmt 0)

Your approach to PDF sound right to me. Jakob Nielsen [google.co.uk] has plenty to say about PDF, some of which might be grist for your mill.


 12:14 am on May 9, 2006 (gmt 0)

We use PDF for most anything that we want to serve 'print ready'. Catalogs, color charts, and articles that are mostly designed for web presentation,but available to be printed. (When time allows, we might look at serving the articles with a print stylesheet.)

Let people know that the link is a PDF. I hate opening a link that I don't know is a PDF.

The method of creating the PDF can make a huge difference in the file size. For example, many office printer/document printers will scan a document and create a PDF. But the PDF created may be many times larger than it needs to be. Beware the document server.


 12:53 am on May 9, 2006 (gmt 0)

Similar to what D_Blackwell mentioned.... I only use PDF's to serve print-ready documents.

Everything else is HTML.

Are you trying to figure out a way to convert these PDF documents?


 1:09 pm on May 9, 2006 (gmt 0)

I've been considering giving Jacob Neilson's book a look, although, and I hate to admit this, but I've been dismayed from doing so because of his web site.

I don't think I'm looking to change all of these items to HTML. For instance, the budget comes out, and then there's about a five-day window to get it online. Someone gives it to me in PDF form along with the original Word and Excel documents, and then I'm supposed to put it in HTML in that timeframe ... while doing my other duties as well.

And I'm not talking about a small document either: literally between 150 to 200 pages.

Really, it doesn't make much sense to me to have both versions. Thoughts?

I think I'm looking for some written documentation that says PDFs are OK for use, even as a best practice, in certain situations. But if it doesn't exist, then I'll just have to keep going down this road, even if it seems we're duplicating work.


 1:52 pm on May 9, 2006 (gmt 0)

I find the HTML versions of large documents useful because I do not have to wait for a large PDF to download to read one page of it.

Even if you do not like Neilson's website, he is influential and respected - you can quote him as an authority.

The best solution would be to stop people from writing documents in MS Word and instead using something that is good at producing both PDFs and HTML (MS Word is terrible at both). Of course, unless you have a LOT of clout in your organisation that is simply not going to happen.

Start rant
It constantly irritates me that people cause a huge range of problems by insisting on using MS Word and Excel for things that they are not really designed to do. It causes everything from problems like yours to security problems to high network traffic to workflow issues.

In your case the right tools would produce small PDFs (not that much larger than text files) and small, clean HTML files.
End rant

There are tools to clean up HTML documents exported from MS Word (Google for "clean word html"), if you can find something similar for producing PDF's from word that may be a solution.


 2:14 pm on May 9, 2006 (gmt 0)

"It constantly irritates me that people cause a huge range of problems by insisting on using MS Word and Excel for things that they are not really designed to do. It causes everything from problems like yours to security problems to high network traffic to workflow issues."

Oh, I know the feeling (note that I mentioned the HTML version is much larger than the PDF). The problem I'm dealing with, and I think a lot of organizations will deal with for the next few years, is getting over the problems the birth/boom of the web started.

My position was created to fill a need of too many people doing little bits and pieces of a job designer for a webmaster (or web team). Fortunately, the site using CSS at least for layout. I can't even imagine what it would be like to traipse through lines and lines of table rows in addition to this PDF/HTML issue.

Probably for another thread, but I'd love to hear about webmasters turning their web site through a transition from older methods of delivering content to newer (and hopefully better) ones.


 2:37 pm on May 9, 2006 (gmt 0)

Run Word's HTML through a cleaning-up filter, to take out all Word's unnecessary crap, and it'll get a whole lot smaller.

There's a Perl module to do this I think, or I believe Word 2000 has a 'Export to compact HTML...' function.

hth, a.


 4:22 pm on May 9, 2006 (gmt 0)

Let people know that the link is a PDF. I hate opening a link that I don't know is a PDF.

I just wanted to second that. Even with a fast computer and connection speed, I like to know what I'm getting myself into before I click the link.


 4:37 pm on May 9, 2006 (gmt 0)

There are people out there with OLD versions of Word that just cannot open any newer Word document.

I would look at the new version of Office to see if old versions of Word will open documents created with the new version.

In my thinking, PDF are viewed as a "final" version of a document. If I download a word document, I know I can change it.


 5:20 pm on May 9, 2006 (gmt 0)

Personally I loathe browsing PDF files. How can the computer I own in 2006 STILL crawl when paging through a PDF? I can't use the page up/down buttons to scroll, for obscure reasons. It takes forever to download and render a document. The initial magnification is usually way off. The "find" doesn't work the same as in my web browser. Adobe frequently try to force me to upgrade their software before viewing a document. Etc.

Also if your HTML documents are that enormous then you need a better way to create them. Word must be putting in vast amounts of wasted code.


 5:20 am on May 10, 2006 (gmt 0)

jomaxx, this is getting a little off topic but there are a number of things you can do to make PDFs work better.

1. Remove the browser plugin and open PDFs externally.
2. Tweak Acrobat Reader to reduce its start-up time.
3. Use another PDF reader. I use KPDF: I know there are similar decent PDF readers for Windows although I can not remember their names.

Of course none of this helps from the point of view of a webmaster because most of your visitors will be using Acrobat Reader and will not even have heard of the alternatives.

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