PDFs and Downloads

Downloads – not so great for sharing information online!

Generally, for accessibility and usability, critical site content should not be “locked away” in a pdf or other document format that needs to be downloaded before viewing. Instead, include important information directly on the website as content on a page.

The use of pdfs or other document formats should generally be limited to supporting documents (checklists, minutes, letter templates), to notices or flyers meant for printing and posting, or for sharing lengthy academic/research papers.

Why is the use of PDFs or other document-type downloads discouraged?

  • Hard to read on mobile. They are formatted as paper document, not for web. As such they are not responsive to screen size and thus VERY difficult to read on a small device. Worldwide browsing statistics show that more than 50% of online traffic is from mobile devices (versus desktop)

  • Slow to load and inaccessible. They can be full of design-related files (images and graphics) that make them a large file size, slow to load, and hard to make accessible

  • Quickly outdated. Updating and correcting information can be cumbersome, and can result in broken links when a new version of the same document is uploaded to the server.

  • Low search rankings. Search Engines index pdfs, but HTML pages are better for search engine optimization (SEO)

  • Hard to track usage. We can't add tracking to a pdf document, we can only track pdf opens

Creating accessible PDFs:

In the cases where a document is included for downloading, it is best not to rely on proprietary software, i.e. a format that requires the user to have access to a particular application to view content. For this reason, PDF is the recommended format for document downloads.

Ensure that the PDF has been created accessibly. This means that someone who is not read the visual representation of content can still access the information and make sense of the content structure.

Basic elements of an accessible PDF include:

  • Language attribute is specified
  • Reading order is defined
  • Alt tags are applied to images
  • Content is tagged according to semantic structure (headings, paragraphs, lists, tables,etc.)
  • Link text is descriptive

To learn more, see the Creating Accessible PDFs tutorial on the Accessibility Hub

When publishing a PDF to a webpage:

  • Include an executive summary of the content being linked to, so that a reader can determine whether they need that information before opening/downloading the document. If the document is being made available as a courtesy for printing and the same content is also available directly in the website, be sure to let your reader know this.

  • Along with the descriptive link text, display the file size and file type, i.e. "Document Name (PDF 500 KB)"

  • Make use of Font Awesome "file" icons to decorate the download link, such as these "pdf" and "file-download" icons  

  • File names should be descriptive (see HTML and SEO basics for more details)

  • The text of the document should always include a publication and/or version date