Monday, April 02, 2012

Remove PDFs from your site to save money and increase traffic by 160x - the experience of the Vic Department of Primary Industries

While there may now be accessibility techniques for PDFs, this doesn't mean that the format is necessarily the most appropriate for displaying information on the web and attracting usage, as the Victorian Department of Primary Industries discovered when they removed all PDFs from their website and converted them to web pages.

As reported in thw case study, Unlock valuable content trapped in PDFs from BriarBird (as brought to my attention by Gian Wild's blog), the Department of Primary Industries Systems and Technical Manager Mark Bryant found that, 

“As we converted more and more PDFs to HTML/web format, the stats just kept going up and up until we reached around 1.6 million extra page views per year – it was fantastic.”

Mark also said in the case study that,
“Our users were telling us they wanted to do things in a different way, and when we converted a few PDFs to web pages we found the web pages outperformed PDF by as much as 160 to one.

“Initially we tried to create a web page to match each PDF, but in the end we introduced a blanket rule – no PDFs as it was far too difficult to manage both formats,” Mark said.

“There was some resistance, but the business case is pretty simple when you can show that a web page is being read around 160 times more often than a PDF.

“If you are spending money preparing content for the web, then that money is essentially being wasted if that content is locked up in a format people are unwilling to use.”
Over the last ten years I've also consistently noticed a ratio of 100:1 or more for views to webpages vs PDFs in the websites I've managed.

While PDFs often suit content creators (who are used to MS Word), they are rarely the best format for online content recipients - your audience.

If your organisation is focused on having the customer at the centre it is worth reviewing your content creation and distribution approach to ensure it aligns with customer needs.

For example, where a printable version is required, it is possible to achieve this with a print template for web pages using style sheets (CSS) rather than with a PDF. In effect when people click 'print' the web page is automatically reformated for A4 printing. This makes updating much faster and easier as you only have to maintain one version of the content.

So why not save PDFs for when they are most needed and wanted and ensure that the majority of your content is 'native' using web pages. Your audiences will love you for it.


  1. This is a fantastic case study, thanks for sharing Craig. I have long advocated a shift from PDF to HTML — it is the lingua franca of the web and online content is almost always better suited to HTML than PDF.

    I’d be interested to know the ongoing resourcing needed to support this shift in policy from a web services perspective. Presumably there’d be an increased workload for the web team.

  2. Yes thanks Craig. However, the use of PDF is still relevant depending upon the content, audience and technologies being deployed. I prefer to use PDF as a reading tool. I think PDFs are over used by poorly informed and impatient publishers and lazy web teams.

    I think your statement,"So why not save PDFs for when they are most needed and wanted and ensure that the majority of your content is 'native' using web pages." is right on the money.

    1. Agreed, use where appropriate is the key. A lack of suitable print ability in the replacement of PDFs causes significant user fallout....

  3. Hello i am Glenn Verdult

    I enjoy reading your articles

    I am looking forward to read more..

  4. I can't think of a single business case for placing PDFs on a website in 2012. Believe me, I've tried.

    Instead of PDFs, delivers guides in HTML in a way that provides for both narrative or more task-based single page interaction, e.g.

    Visitors can also print the whole 'guide' out in one go, rather than opening each individual page, via the 'Print this page' link at the bottom of each page. This negates the already flawed argument I often hear that "people need a PDF because they want to print everything at once".

    That's not to say that couldn't be improved. Firstly, they should provide a 'Print this page' link as well as the 'Print this guide' link. Secondly, the hovering right-hand 'Related topics' navigation menu is a distraction. The aim of information such as the courts guide is to educate and inform, so distracting the reader with non-essential-to-the-task-at-hand hyperlinks increases cognitive load and decreases comprehension and recall. This menu would be better placed at the foot of the page once read/skimmed.

  5. Whilst I strive to avoid PDF where possible fir technical documents relying on strict layout with mathematics etc, then HTML formatting tools are not up to the job to allow easy creation. This is why many academic journals use PDF in preference.