Content Delivery Standards: PDF Guidance

ACF’s Office of Communications, Digital Communications Division is responsible for ensuring that all digital content is accurate, timely, easily findable, usable, and accessible to people with disabilities. We are charged to make our sites not only more cost-effective, but more mobile-friendly, and customer-centric.

To meet that goal, the standard for sharing any content on the web is HTML or via web page(s).

The Portable Document Format, or PDF file does have uses. It is compact, prints exactly as formatted, allows for multi-platform sharing, and is easy to download and access offline.

PDF documents should be used only in the following situations:

  • The document is static, will not change after being published, and is longer than 10 pages (example: reports).
  • The document’s primary purpose is to be printed, with formatting preserved, for distribution (example: brochure, meeting handouts).

In this mobile-friendly era, PDFs are - to quote Mark Urban, CDC 508 Coordinator - “the old ‘U.S. Route’ on the Digital Interstate”.  Let's ensure we don't get left behind. If documents don't meet the above criteria, avoid locking content into PDF format.

How to use PDFs well

Avoid scanning documents that make PDF image files. If you need to post a PDF,always provide context for the document. Include a summary of the file on a description page or in a resource library item instead of simply linking to the file. Include:

  • What the PDF is about
  • How large the file is
  • Who might find the information helpful

Reasons to avoid PDF overload

PDFs can discourage users

  • Locking content into PDF can undermine our ability to retain users. The Nielsen Norman Group has done multiple studies on PDFs Visit disclaimer page and has consistently found that most people dislike them and avoid reading them.
  • People use dozens of different devices, and want to be able to move quickly through your content without switching platforms and applications.
  • Our stakeholders, the media, and researchers need and want searchable documents that can be shared and quoted quickly, and are not going to spend the time scanning through a 20-page PDF to find the information they want.
  • Information updates constantly, PDFs are snapshots and must be manually updated and remade accessible to address changes.
  • Intra-document and inter-document linking is often needed, but linking within PDF content is not easy and not necessarily usable. (Not to mention that active links in some Acrobat versions are security risks.)

PDFs pose accessibility issues

  • It’s much more difficult to make a complex PDF document Section 508-compliant than a web page(s), especially when remediating for multiple disabilities. Not only does it require use of special software to ensure minimal conformance, it usually takes more effort than simply making the document an accessible web page.

PDFs are harder to find on search engines

  • Search is the primary way people find the ACF website and its content. Ensuring our content is available across search engines is very critical. PDFs have search engine optimization limitations web pages simply don’t.
  • For overall search engine site ranking, links to a PDF are not as useful as links to a web page.
  • Mobile internet usage has increased significantly, allowing people to access and share information on the go. More than a 1/3 of the visits to ACF.gov last year were via mobile browsers. Reading a PDF on a phone can be challenging and not user-friendly. Mobile PDF readers exist, but they’re clunky, and require moving out of the browser to a completely different interface.

PDFs can cost more

  • Making PDF and other types of proprietary documents 508 compliant is time consuming and costly, especially for those offices with limited technical resources, as it requires know-how and the use of special software

Common PDF myths

“People can’t edit PDFs.”

Actually, they can. Many people have the tools and ability to edit PDF documents, and no, locking it for edits will not help.

“We need to display signed documents.”

There are few reasons outside of FOIA requests for posting a picture of a document as a PDF so the signature can be rendered. For security reasons, it’s best not to include “wet signatures” because they can be lifted from the document.You can place a “/s” in the signature or block or after the person’s name.

"Scanning a paper document is the only way to create a PDF."

Before, one of the easiest ways to create a PDF was to print and scan documents or print and scan to combine multiple files into a single PDF file.  However, in 2007 Microsoft introduced its conversion feature making it easier to turn just about any digital Word, Excel, or PowerPoint file and convert it by saving as a PDF.  These file formats can be saved as PDFs but the PDF files aren’t always 508 compliant. Using Adobe Acrobat Professional 7.0 or higher is necessary to create properly tagged compliant files.