PDF Documents


A PDF document is not inherently accessible to all audiences. Additional work is required to make a PDF document compliant and able to be used online. According to the Nielsen Norman Group, a world leader in research-based user experience,

"Forcing users to browse PDF files causes frustration and slow task completion, compared to standard webpages. Use PDF only for documents that users will print.

PDFs are meant for distributing documents that users will print. They’re optimized for paper sizes, not browser windows or modern device viewports. We often see users get lost in PDFs because the print-oriented view provides only a small glimpse of the content. Users can’t scan and scroll around in a PDF like on a web page.

PDFs also use lots of heavy, dense text and elaborate graphics which increase their file size and, subsequently, the time they take to download. They lack navigation and other interface elements that help users maintain context and move through digital content with speed and ease. The inability to navigate takes a toll on users as finding information becomes challenging and time-consuming."

Essentially, when adding a PDF to your site, you are making it more challenging for a user to access, understand, and share your content. This reduces the overall quality and usability of your page.

At Grand Valley, nearly half (47%) of all users visiting our websites are doing so on a mobile device.



The same expectations and requirements apply to a PDF document as those would to a web page. However, the GVSU CMS was built with web accessibility in mind so the majority of potential issues have already been resolved. A PDF program (like Adobe) includes very little to no built-in web accessibility features. The responsibility to do the additional work to make a PDF document accessible falls on the individual, office, or team that uploads it.

Not inherently accessible
When creating or converting a document into a PDF most of the accessibility features will not be automatically applied to your document. Creating an accessible PDF document will take additional work (often in a specific PDF program) beyond simply creating the document content.

Must be properly tagged
An accessible PDF document often refers to a "tagged" PDF document. PDF tags provide the instruction to the screen reading program as to how to correctly progress through the document. The tags are invisible and exist for accessibility purposes only. There may be more steps involved in creating an accessible PDF document than tagging along, but adding appropriate and helpful tags to a PDF is a critical step in ensuring that the PDF document is accessible. Untagged PDF documents are not accessible.

Not Mobile-Friendly
PDF documents are considered a fixed-layout design. This means that the information and design will not respond to the screen size of the user's device as a web page would. It is extremely difficult to view a full-page PDF document on a mobile device and often requires pinching, zooming, and panning to consume the information. This is a major usability and accessibility issue for individuals who may not have full use of their hands and/or fingers.


PDF documents are typically quite large and could take an excessive amount of time to download. Because of this PDF documents may not download properly or completely, may be too large for the device to display, and often causes an abrupt change in focus pulling the user away from their intended goals. All of these items can cause a user to become distracted and end up wasting time.

Difficult to share
There is likely great content in your PDF document and your users may want to share that information with their friends and colleagues. Unfortunately, PDF documents do not generally include any type of social sharing feature. Social sharing features make it easier for a user to post on social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or email an intriguing piece of information out to their networks. When adding a PDF document to your site, you greatly reduce the likelihood that the content of your PDF will be shared. It is easier and faster to share a URL to a web page than it is to share a large, inaccessible PDF document.

Lack searchability
When creating or converting a document into a PDF most of the searchability features will not be automatically applied to your document. A search can typically find your PDF documents online, but in most cases, the documents do not include the needed information to help search engines understand the content of the document. This negatively impacts the SEO of your PDF and search engine rankings.


Can’t track engagement
A PDF document lacks the ability to capture any data about the user and the interaction. Website analytics can pull the data on how many times the PDF document has been download but there is no data available to gauge the interaction. With a PDF document, you can tell how long a user was reading it, what content they found interesting, if they clicked on any links, if they even opened the document, or what they did after consuming your PDF. In many cases, important decisions are made based on the data provided by website analytics. By using a PDF document to convey your message instead of a webpage you are excluding this important analytical user engagement data.

Can't control the distribution
Once a PDF is downloaded, you no longer have control over how or when that information is disseminated. If you need to add new data, correct an error, update information, or make any other changes, the downloaded PDF will never be updated with the new content. The information may be out of date or incorrect which reflects poorly upon your team and the goal of the PDF.

How To

The recommended approach to distributing the information is on a CMS web page, and not as a PDF document linked online. The CMS 101 and CMS 201 tutorial pages can guide you through all of the features available to help you reproduce the PDF content as a CMS web page.

If the PDF document is intended to be printed by a user, you will still want to reproduce the content as a web page, but also, include a link to pdf for printing purposes. The PDF document would still need to be fully compliant to be offered online.

There are instances, however, where the information on a PDF document cannot be reproduced on a CMS page. In those instances, a PDF document may be used but it must be made fully compliant with the WCAG 2.0 AA standards. That doesn't mean that a PDF document is the only format in which the information is made available. It's critical to note though, this should only be done in those instances where it is impossible to reproduce the information in a PDF document as a CMS web page. It should not be the case for instances where it seems too challenging, confusing, or time-consuming.

The GVSU eLearning Technologies team offers resources on how to make a PDF document fully compliant.

“In any case, PDF should never be used for on-screen reading”

Nielsen Norman Group

** This page references PDF documents, however, Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and other print-based documents would have the same expectations and requirements. **

Page last modified April 1, 2022