Heal Your Church WebSite

Teaching, rebuking, correcting & training in righteous web design.

PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption

Jakob Nielsen really hit the nail on the head this time. Don’t use PDF files to present your sermons or church newsletters online. Or at least offer an alternative. I think summary from Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, July 14, 2003 pretty much says it all:

Users get lost inside PDF files, which are typically big, linear text blobs that are optimized for print and unpleasant to read and navigate online. PDF is good for printing, but that’s it. Don’t use it for online presentation.

Can I hear an Amen?!

So here’s my suggestion, if you are going to offer your sermons and newsletters as PDF files, go ahead, but also make sure there is an accompanying HTML version they can easily read on-screen. In other words, don’t assume the user always wants to print the whole shebang.

Granted, it is a pain, but by doing this, you help your own site’s internal search engine — as well as improve your ranking on external search engines. Yes, I know Google does PDF, but it has been my personal observation that HTML versions of similar text get ranked higher.

And yes, I know, there have been times I’ve felt some of Nielsen’s alerts were a bit forced, but this isn’t one of them. He is entirely correct when he asserts that throwing a PDF file at your user tends to confuse them, it breaks the flow, it interrupts the naviga..a… oh, just go read his bullet points under the header “PDF Usability Crimes.”

And when you’re done there, go see a few real life examples of what we’re talking about at:

One other thing to consider is timeliness. The nice thing about using a custom plug-in and MovabeType was that I was able to publish and list yesterday’s sermons in under 2 minutes merely by cutting-pasting the email from my pastor into a form and pressing the save button.


  1. Is it just me, or has the content of Alertbox been slipping from “research-based” to “What Jake says”? Not that I entirely disagree with him on this one (I *really dislike* PDF’s), but generalizing a position on the comments of 7 people from 4 different usability studies? I’d sure like better data….

  2. No PDF newsletters?!!! Woe is me! What will we now do with all our spiffy little PowerPoint clipart humanoids, if we can’t use them to illustrate “Upcoming Ministry Opportunities”?! And what about those other 14,000 fonts that we were just getting around to trying out?!

    Hey…great blog! I’m glad I found you; I’ll be back (he said with a thick Austrian accent).

  3. For some reason, my browser tends to hang when accessing PDF files. I hate ’em with a passion. *grr*

  4. I disagree with both Dr. Nielsen and yourself about PDF being used online. Several people agree: http://www.iampariah.com/blog/archives/000187.html