One reason that businesses and organizations have websites is to provide current and future customers and clients with information they will find valuable. Therefore, it is crucial that the information be in a universally-accessible format. Posting documents as downloadable content, rather than as text on a page, should be used sparingly.
With that said, it is easy to understand why posting downloadable documents is ubiquitous. From the perspective of the person maintaining the website, it’s often simpler to just attach a document to a page than it is to transfer the content from the original document to the web page. However, we assert that it will be well worth your time to take that extra step and provide the information on the page as text whenever possible.
Why it’s worth your while to provide as much information as possible in plain text
The simplest way for site visitors and search engines to consume your content is as text on a page. Therefore, it’s more likely to be read and indexed than something that needs to be downloaded first.
Visitors will come to your site on all sorts of devices, large and small, handheld and desktop. You know how important it is for a website to be responsive. However, just because your site is responsive, doesn’t mean everything you have added to the site is responsive. Text on a web page is responsive. A downloadable document is not.
When and why to post documents for download
In most cases, it is preferable to present all information on a web page as text. However, there are certainly times when that option is not suitable. For example, if you want to include historical documents that someone can download, this is a viable alternative. Additionally, if a form needs to be filled out manually and mailed in, the document will need to be downloadable.
Finally, if the user will want to have the option to download the document for reference offline later, this would be a good use of the download option. But don’t offer it only as a download. Present the information on the page as text, but also offer it as a downloadable document.
Why PDF is the appropriate file format
The PDF file format provides an electronic image of text and/or graphics that looks like a printed document and can be viewed, printed, and electronically transmitted. It is the most universal way to communicate documents and is the appropriate file format for posting documents.
- Everything that is required to render the document the exact same way, every time, is contained in the file. This include fonts, color profiles, and images.
- PDFs are viewable on any display and are printable on any modern printer.
- If created properly, they can be searchable, editable and accessible for disabled people.
- Any text-heavy downloadable document you provide on your website should be a PDF.
Why a Word document is not an appropriate file format for the web
Microsoft Word documents display differently across systems. Therefore, the way the document looks to you may not be how it will look to someone on a different device. This difference is due to two primary reasons. The first has to do with printer characteristics. The second has to do with with fonts.
The Printer: When displaying a document in a print layout or page view, Word uses the currently-selected printer to determine what the printout will look like. Default margins and paper size can make a document appear differently on different systems.
Fonts: When you create a document, the software uses fonts installed on your computer. When viewed on another system, things may look different. The layout can change even if the font you use is a common one. Worst case, if the user doesn’t have the font you used, Word will substitute something “close.” The result can be very different from what you expect.
The final reason we do not recommend posting Word documents is because you can’t assume everyone uses or has access to Microsoft Word, or to expect them to buy it in order to read your document.
A common misconception
There is one big misconception inexperienced developers often have that causes them to post a downloadable document in lieu of providing information on the page. I’ve heard it said, “My customers will want to print the information on the page, but I tried that and the printout looks terrible. It prints on multiple pages, with inappropriate page breaks, and the colors are all wrong.”
If your page does not look as you intended when it is printed, this can be solved by an experienced web developer using a print stylesheet. A print stylesheet adjusts the page layout specifically for printing, without affecting how it looks on other devices. Print stylesheets improve usability, especially for pages with a lot of content.