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Best way to display PDF files on a website?

 3:45 pm on Aug 5, 2008 (gmt 0)

Hi guys ;)

According to you, what is the best way to display PDF files on a website?

Personnally, I thought it would be cool to use Stickmanlabs's Lightwindow, but I found out that it doesn't work on Firefox3 and I'm not sure I will be able to fix it myself.

Anyway, what are the other options that will display a PDF nicely enough on every browser?

Thanks! :)



 8:24 pm on Aug 5, 2008 (gmt 0)

A straight ahead PDF link works for me. I always advise that the link is for a PDF. I also advise file size if over a couple MB. I use PDFs primarily for 'print ready' purposes only; or technical documents not worthy of HTML coding (IMO). PDFs are a great way to control print presentation. If not intended for print, then PDF is usually not the best choice for me.

Print stylesheets work nicely for HTML pages that I want to be printable, but otherwise PDF is best for most anything that I want the user to print.


 9:25 pm on Aug 5, 2008 (gmt 0)

I usually take a screen-shot of one of the pages in the PDF and use that image as a thumbnail link that opens the PDF in a new window/tab.

If I am not using a screen-shot I always put (PDF) at the end of the link

so it looks like

<a>Click Here For More Info (PDF)</a>


 9:06 am on Aug 6, 2008 (gmt 0)

Thanks guys :)

Honestly, I'm not convinced by this KISS method.
Problem is : computer illiterate users don't necessarily know how to handle a PDF file.

And too many actions needed on the user side makes less chance for the content to be read.

To me, the FlashPaper tool is a good one. It just needs a better way to be integrated into a page so that it isn't displayed in a tiny space.

I thought someone would give a nifty method that I ignore ;)


 9:38 am on Aug 6, 2008 (gmt 0)

We do tend to assume more knowledge for users than they actually have but I would still stick with an ordinary link for a PDF. Once in a blue moon you will come across somebody who doesn't have a reader installed but this is very unusual as most kit comes with its documentation shipped in PDF format.


 10:02 am on Aug 6, 2008 (gmt 0)

Except that, in some case, the file gets downloaded instead of being displayed. And I've seen users who were unable to locate, on their hard drive, a file that they had just accepted to download seconds before.

The other drawback of this method is that they will lose focus on the website, which can be confusing to some users.

I would like the PDF content to be displayed in front of the users face with the least actions required from them and whatever system they are on.

I know that no system is perfect but something close to perfection would be great :)


 1:08 pm on Aug 6, 2008 (gmt 0)

I use Scribd when I really have no other option. It uses Flash Paper to convert the files, and you embed it like you would any other flash file, with whatever width and height you want.



 1:54 pm on Aug 6, 2008 (gmt 0)

Thanks Trace, but unfortunately, I can't ask my clients to store their documents on a server that isn't theirs.

Print2Flash converts PDF files to SWFs so I think I will use it although their interface isn't as good looking as scribd's one.

Now, I have to find the best way to display this "flashized" PDF on a site, with anough room for site navigation and content reading.


 2:39 pm on Aug 6, 2008 (gmt 0)

sleidia, while your desire to help the non-PDF savvy user is great. What you are going to do is ultimately annoy PDF savvy people, you are talking about rebuilding a PDF viewer with flash.

I would ask yourself if the trade off is worth it.

For example I have flash disabled by default and if I really want to see what ever 'zoomy' thing someone put on their site then I enable it and it loads.

I am of course the other extreme exception from the guy who doesn't know what to do with a PDF and I know those guys are out there, just remember others like me are out there too.

Maybe add an option for the user to open it with "a PDF Viewer of you choice" I don't even use Acrobat Reader, imo, you should leave some choice up to your users.


 3:06 pm on Aug 6, 2008 (gmt 0)

Hmmm, what's so annoying about having a PDF inside a Flash movie?
You have to admit that it depends on how the movie is consctructed, right? Personally, I too am a PDF savvy person and I don't mind viewing a PDF inside FlashPaper.

I think we mustn't confuse user friendliness with extremism.


 12:49 am on Aug 8, 2008 (gmt 0)

Been watching this thread. Here is what you're doing:

A PDF requires a reader or the plugin installed. As you seem to know, people are annoyed by having to install *ANYTHING* and if they can't do it, their impression is their inability is somehow OUR fault.

Let's add another plugin: the Flash Player. Same deal, you now have to install another plugin, so your not-so-savvy users are still just as annoyed.

So when you have a PDF inside a Flash plugin, the not-so-savvy users are annoyed either way. But there's a bonus . . .

Those that DO know how to install either and are familiar with them are also familiar with how they work. Anyone who knows about PDF's will now see your PDF-inside-Flash as an intentional barrier to their cause: accessing content. The big deal about it is these types of users are most likely to complain . . with vengeance!

I don't see how complicating the task - accessing content - is helping them in any way. From a user standpoint, there's a lot less to understand by training your users to use PDF's than Flash.

If you wish to make it easy, follow the standard approaches to the task - help them learn how to install the plugin and access a PDF.


 12:58 am on Aug 8, 2008 (gmt 0)

Best way to display PDF files on a website?

pdf2html. PDFs are not for on-screen display they are for printing. If you want a document for on-screen display, use a format which is designed for on-screen display.

Have links at the top or bottom of the HTML file to a PDF version (Download PDF for printing [>]).


 9:57 am on Aug 8, 2008 (gmt 0)

Rocknbil: when you want to use Flash to display PDF content, you can simply export your PDF into a SWF file (Illustrator does that) and then have the Flash movie read the SWF files. So, no PDF plugin is needed at all. Plus, I believe that there are far more users who already have the Flash plugin installed than those who have the PDF plugin ... simply because Flash is used on so many sites. Even the ads are made with Flash.


 5:37 pm on Aug 8, 2008 (gmt 0)

sleidia, I would wager that more have PDF plugins then Flash. But that is me

.... Even the ads are made with Flash.

Which is why I and many others like me browse websites with Flash off by default, to avoid those ads and to increase performance. Don't make me turn it on.

I use a PDF viewer of my choice. One that I am familiar with already, not from Adobe. By putting the PDF in Flash you are taking away my choice to view in it the way I normally view one. You also introduce a learning curve, for me to view your PDF. I now have to learn to use your tool. You should at least present the user with a choice. View in Flash or View as PDF

Regardless of what you decide, there are two things I would check before going ahead with this.

1) See how much memory the .swf file uses once the PDF is loaded into it. I would bet that there is way more processing overhead involved.

2) See how this effects the indexing of your PDFs in search engines. You want to make sure that PDF content first gets indexed in Google, and then make sure it links back to the page with Flash and not the PDF itself.

In my opinion you are on the right track but you are going the wrong way. No need to re-invent the wheel here.

[edited by: Demaestro at 5:40 pm (utc) on Aug. 8, 2008]


 12:39 pm on Aug 9, 2008 (gmt 0)

Hmmm ... one thing that made me favor Flash over PDF is the fact that a 4mb PDF files becomes a 1mb SWF file. So, it gets downloaded four times faster than a PDF. People's concerns are more download speed than memory usage. One more point to Flash.

As for the indexing, Google can now read the content of Flash files as well. I know it because I recently had the surprise to see the content of one of my Flash movie ranked well above the main page of my site! The link description was exactly the content of the SWF file. So, one more point to Flash.

Also, if you absolutely want to open a PDF with your own PDF reader (which is far from being the norm), I could add a button inside the SWF file so that you can download the PDF.


 3:09 pm on Aug 9, 2008 (gmt 0)

sleidia, you have almost convinced me to switch some of mine.

If the file size is really 25% less to view in flash then that would be reason enough.

Are you sure that is right? Seriously if so I will be switching some of the bigger ones I have over.


 9:13 pm on Aug 9, 2008 (gmt 0)

Since so much of this decision seems to be based on:

1) does the user have Adobe Reader installed?


2) Does the user have Flash installed?

Can you sniff for either of these and feed accordingly?

Does anybody have any source for analytics which clue us in to the probability of either of those being the case?

Messing up 20% of your visitors using A-Grade browsers is a lot different from messing up .01% of your visitors with an out-of-date browser.

Anyway, just link to the pdf, I say.


 7:04 am on Aug 10, 2008 (gmt 0)


I made a mistake and the numbers were wrong. Sorry for that :(

Still, the SWF files are more than twice smaller.

I just did another test : 1641kb PDF file becomes 664kb SWF file.
You simply have to check "compress file" in the export options.

Do it yourself, open Illustrator and export a PDF page into SWF.
You can also do it on multiple pages with print2flash's trial version.

[edited by: sleidia at 7:29 am (utc) on Aug. 10, 2008]


 7:10 am on Aug 10, 2008 (gmt 0)

Poppyrich, reread the whole thread and you'll see that there is more than an issue about plugins installed or not.


 11:56 am on Aug 10, 2008 (gmt 0)

Another thing to keep in mind is that using the Flash option allow to display specificly targeted information while the content is loading. Thus, you keep the user really focused on your site and its content/offers.


 1:45 pm on Aug 11, 2008 (gmt 0)


read the whole thread to begin with.

if the plugins are not installed, there's a major probem that must be addressed, eh? It shapes the entire decision whether you choose to see it that way or not.


 3:11 pm on Aug 11, 2008 (gmt 0)

I think the target market makes a big difference. I know from experience that in technical markets Adobe Acrobat Reader is seen as a must-have for productivity whereas Flash is just bells and buzzers which can be safely not installed.

I suspect the opposite is true if you target the youth leisure market.


 6:58 pm on Aug 11, 2008 (gmt 0)

Well well well, mr Poppy : the plugin issue is a non-issue just because it's very easy to simply add a link to the PDF just above/below the Flash movie. It takes a single line of HTML.

So yeah, I think I've answered my own question ;)
The best way is to use a link to the PDF file IN ADDITION OF Flash which has the ability to load content much faster and keep the visitor focused on the site.

Agree or not? :)


 7:43 pm on Aug 11, 2008 (gmt 0)

I think like Vince touched on it really depends on the nature of the site and the audience it attracts.

I see Flash as bells and whistles. But I run sites where the audience doesn't think that way.

I am still skeptical about what happens once you get large PDFs into the flash reader but that can be tested.


 5:59 am on Aug 12, 2008 (gmt 0)


There are lots of sites that use the Flash technic with huge PDF files. I've seen enough of them to make my opinion.

As for the audience, I do think it's also a non issue because, as I wrote above, you can propose both options : Flash + simple HTML link.


 4:01 pm on Aug 16, 2008 (gmt 0)


Sorry for my delayed response.
And, since you are the originator of this thread and have taken issue with my approach to it, I quite apologize if I missed the mark and was unhelpful to you and the others who posted.
'Twas not intentional.


 4:35 pm on Aug 16, 2008 (gmt 0)

If you want search engines to index the document's content, then I'd still stick with a straight pdf.

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