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Make content web-friendly

One of the simplest ways to present accessible, maintainable information online is to use HTML.

It can be tempting to choose file formats that are more convenient for the author, such as PDF or Word. However, presenting content in PDF, Word, or similar formats can make content much harder to use.

Therefore, we strongly recommend using HTML for all web content. Here are some of the benefits:

  • It’s much easier to link to specific pages or sections of HTML pages.
  • It’s much easier to update and maintain HTML content.
  • HTML content avoids breaking the user out of their browsing flow, and maintains the context of the site’s navigation and structure. Conversely, this often means that HTML pages are easier to re-find and less likely to be “orphaned” or left online beyond their usefulness.
  • All web content should be accessible, and this is much easier to accomplish and enforce with HTML content. It is possible to create accessible PDFs, but requires significant specialized training and effort for each document.
  • HTML content is generally more accessible to search engines, and even within a page, HTML content is often more searchable and scannable for users seeking specific information.
  • HTML content is much more responsive-friendly (especially on responsive websites), and some systems don’t display PDFs within the browser. This makes for a confusing user experience, and may cause some users to be unable to view or find the PDF at all.

Here are some alternate approaches for situations in which people often choose PDFs:

  • When the content includes images, tables, or other graphics that you aren’t sure how to display in existing page templates: Instead, work with a designer or your web publishing team to explore how you can translate the information you need into native web content.
  • Formal or policy documents that are infrequently or never updated: Instead of using PDF to convey permanence, use document structure, clear timestamps, and design cues to help users understand the context they need to interpret the document.
  • Manuals or other long documents: These are especially crucial to make available as HTML content, especially because they often need to be kept up-to-date as technology or processes change. If you expect users to need offline access, support PDF as an alternate format or ensure clean, useful print stylesheets so that users can generate their own PDF.

PDF-first may be the appropriate choice for content that’s primarily and only intended for print use. This might include brochures, business cards, or forms that must submitted as paper copies. (Though a better long-term approach is to change forms and processes so people can submit soft copies or complete the form online.)

If you do choose to present content in PDF, remember to ensure the information is also available on your website in an accessible, linkable, and responsive HTML format.

Avoid using formats for which users need specific, proprietary software (for instance, Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Pages).

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18F Content Guide is a product of GSA’s Technology Transformation Services, and is managed by 18F.

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