PDF vs HTML: What’s the Difference?
While browsing sites, you’ll frequently find PDF pages. This is an old trick that is used to avoid the hassle of writing a whole new page: just take the flyer, poster, report or piece of content that you already have and drop it into the site folder.
A PDF and HTML file can both contain the same text but there are some major differences between the two.
A PDF shows you what an original document looks like (almost like a photocopy of it) and will not have any of the normal formatting you would associate with a website.
HTML is the language of the Web. HTML documents are thus designed for on-screen viewing and interactivity. They are intended to be accessed via computer whenever needed rather than to be printed to simulate a traditional reprint.
Making HTML versions of traditionally printed articles is more expensive than making PDF versions and managing the files that are involved is more complex.
Unfortunately, in most cases, using PDFs on the web is an outdated technique that can seriously harm your site’s ability to rank in searches, attract and maintain visitors and to achieve conversions.
Why Convert PDFs to HTML on Your Website?
The ease of creating a PDF is nothing compared to the benefits of hard coding a web page.
What are the benefits of HTML over PDF? HTML code is easily readable and indexable by search engines, HTML code allows you to develop a web experience that is going to be much friendlier to visitors and HTML content allows you to track how people interact with your website.
Let’s look at these in detail:
PDFs Are Bad for User Experience
A PDF will only appear in a format typically designed for an 8.5×11″ piece of paper. This means that site formatting disappears. When a user is navigated to a PDF from a link on your site without warning it can be a very disorienting experience, especially if the PDF opens in the same window.
Additionally, since PDFs open via popup or instant download, there is the risk of PDFs being blocked by the user’s pop-up blocker. This can be interpreted as a malfunctioning link on your website.
PDFs Lack Important HTML Markups
A PDF often lacks any of the important elements for UX and SEO. Look at the image of this PDF and note all of the important elements that are missing.
- Branding elements like logos
- SEO-friendly page formatting. PDFs are missing important elements like headers (H1, etc.), alt text for images and schema.
- Social share elements. Content is made to be shared. PDFs lack social share icons and social media formatting markups like Open Graph tags and Twitter Cards.
- Google analytics tags. Often PDFs lack analytics tagging and event tagging that will let you understand how users are engaging with your content. Content is useless if you can’t determine performance.
- Navigation elements. If someone enters this PDF via search, how can they explore the site? There is no header or footer navigation. What if a user wants to learn more about your brand? A PDF is a one-stop destination within your site.
PDFs Provide Poor Mobile User Experience
Here’s an example of content that was uploaded as a PDF instead of converting to web content. Since this was added as a PowerPoint, the content is displayed in 17 small slides. And, since it’s not mobile friendly, PDF users will need to pinch and zoom to read the content.
PDFs Make Conversions More Difficult
All content on a business website must be created with a goal in mind. What is the goal of the content that is in PDF format?
- Social shares? PDFs don’t have properly-functioning social share elements or markups like Open Graph tags and Twitter Cards.
- Backlinks? Do you want someone linking to a PDF on your site that doesn’t have proper navigation or analytics code? This is probably not the best place for someone coming into your website.
- Form fill? While you can embed a form into a PDF, it will lack the functionality of other forms on your site, and will be the equivalent of a paper form.
- Engagement? PDFs lack proper analytics code, so it is impossible to know how users are interacting with or responding to your content.
PDFs make almost any website goal more difficult to achieve.
SEO Issues with PDFs
- The content within the PDF is generally readable and indexable by search engines. However, not all PDFs have readable content. To ensure that the text is readable, it should be created as text, not as an image.
- Meta content can also be added to PDFs, but will likely originate in a different place from your standard meta content. This can result in missed meta content optimization.
- One of the benefits of HTML pages is the flexibility that HTML authors have to edit the website code. For instance, images can be optimized for search through tags and other options in HTML, but images cannot be optimized as well in a PDF.
- Structured data markup (schema) and the rich snippets they can generate have been shown through various studies to improve SERP visibility and click-through rate in organic search. But PDFs don’t work the same way that HTML does.
PDFs Cannot Be Easily Edited
HTML webpages can be updated over time to keep content fresh, to correct errors and to revise content as data becomes outdated (statistics, prices, etc.), to add links to new content or to add new keywords that may better reflect the way audiences search.
PDFs must continually be regenerated and uploaded for even the most minor changes.
Benefits of Changing PDFs into HTML Content
There are many benefits to providing content online properly in web/HTML format:
- Better optimized for search engines
- User friendly on all devices including mobile (mobile traffic is increasing every month)
- Users can share content via social media
- Can track visits and page views with Google Analytics
- Much easier and faster to edit the content if necessary
- Content is part of website, rather than a separate file, which will provide seamless navigation, consistent branding, and opportunities for the user to explore other related content
- Content is accessible to users with disabilities
- More customizable forms and CTAs
How PDFs Can Co-Exist on a Website
While PDFs in general are not preferable, they can still be integrated into a site. PDFs should be reserved for lengthy items that would be difficult for someone to read in a brief sitting, like lengthy reports or whitepapers. As much as possible, all content should be HTML.
If a PDF is necessary, create an HTML “gateway” page. This page should function as a “lite” version of the PDF, which will provide sufficient summary to users. This page should contain:
- All of the major keywords related to the PDF’s topic
- A list of the major items covered in the PDF content
- Notice that clicking on the link will open a PDF
- Open Graph and Twitter card markups for social sharing
- Social sharing links
The HTML page should be the page of record, even to the point of de-indexing the PDF. You don’t want people entering your site on a PDF, nor do you want the PDF being shared on social media or linked to. The gateway page should be receiving the links and shares. When citing the content of the PDF on other website content, links should direct to the gateway page, not to the PDF.
Time to Let Go of PDFs
PDFs should be a rare occurrence on your site. Unless you regularly publish lengthy reports or scientific articles. For your annual financial report, PDFs are fine, but not for necessary content like case studies, articles and thought leadership.
Make an audit of all of your PDF content today and start creating a strategy to convert as much of it to HTML as possible or to institute gateway pages for content that has to remain in PDF format.