It came to my attention in the past three days, while at the NSPRA Annual Conference in Chicago, that this is actually a conversation that needs to happen.
Independent schools and districts: you need to stop using PDFs as website content.
During the conference, I answered so many questions, and was a part of so many "PDF best practice" conversations, that I felt compelled to share these four little words: web first, print second.
The letters P, D, and F — which translates to portable document format — were (according to Adobe) the three little letters that changes the world back in 1991. They allowed people to collaborate and share idea across devices without ruining the formatting. But for whatever reason, they've become a source of content on school websites. Rather than creating a page with content, someone uploads a PDF.
This poses a whole slew of issues. From ADA-compliancy to mobile-friendliness, your PDFs are really, really hurting your school's website.
Here are five major reasons why you really need to start thinking web first, print second.
PDFs are non-ADA Compliant.
Here's the biggie! PDFs are not automatically screen-reader friendly, and do not offer the option of ALT text, meaning that by nature, they are non-ADA compliant. While numerous websites offer some best practices on converting PDFs to make them ADA-compliant, taking this extra step seems like a lot of work for something that could have been done more elegantly on the web.
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You're duplicating your efforts.
While at first glance, it may appear easier to upload a PDF — due to limited staff or training — this process is creating a lot more work for you or your web team.
When you create a PDF first, and then upload it to your website, you're essentially duplicating your efforts. Whether it is for a lunch menu, upcoming play or event, or announcement — in most cases, you already have website tools (and in some cases, content) available to you on your website to make the exact same thing.
Similarly to crafting an inquiry landing page, think of how you can build a template page for each event or resource you would otherwise create a PDF for. Include a header, some photos, and a form that allows them to register, sign up, or learn more about the event. A similar process can be done for submitting information as well, as The Country Day School does here:
Because at the end of the day, that PDF most likely pointed them to a page on your website to do so, right?
Aside from events, many schools want to use PDFs to upload documents like lunch menus, calendars, and summer reading lists to the public-facing website and private Portals. Rather than creating a PDF version first, and then distributing it online, think about how you can use your website tools to display this information dynamically. Therefore, if there is a change, you don't need to edit the original document, re-export, and re-upload.
For example, on the Finalsite Platform, many schools use Calendar Manager to share the school calendar and lunch menus. So, if there is a change, they can edit it in one location online, and publish it everywhere — rather than spending time editing a document elsewhere and re-distributing.
This same theory and strategy can be applied to virtually any PDF you wish to post on your website, or share in an email newsletter.
They hinder your performance in search.
Google can't crawl the contents of your PDF. So, if you're using it to share important information on your public site — like tuition costs, athletic schedules, or your mission statement — you're not appearing at the top of search. And we all know how important that is.
They're not mobile-friendly.
While a PDF will, of course, scale to fit the size of your device — it's not actually responsive. This means users need to pinch and zoom around to find the information that they are looking for. In addition, unless you've added dynamic links to the document, viewers cannot click to call or visit links you've provided in the PDF itself, thus, hindering that seamless online experience we all strive for.
You're making it impossible for people to act immediately.
While this may not apply to every PDF you wish to create, in many cases, PDFs are intended to promote an event. When you upload a PDF, or use a PDF as your primary source of content, you instead make it hard for your website visitors to act immediately on something — such as purchasing a ticket or RSVP-ing to an open house.
When you choose to create this content on the web, rather than print, you can incorporate content you want them to view or engage with, such as:
- Online forms
- Images and videos
PDFs: There is a time and a place.
Of course, PDFs can be of value in the web space — don't get me wrong. They're great for emailing, hanging in coffee shops and around campus, and of course, sharing large documents in a simple, condensed formats in a password-protected portal or to be distributed across campus. Many districts use them to post school board minutes and student handbooks, while private schools may want to use a PDF to share an annual report, curriculum guide, etc.
However, it is strongly advised that you re-consider them as a way to share content on your public-facing site.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As Finalsite's Content Marketing Manager, Mia plans and executes a variety of inbound marketing and digital content strategies. As a former TV and news reporter, freelance cinematographer and certified inbound marketer, Mia specializes in helping schools find new ways to share their stories online through web design, social media, copywriting, photography and videography. She is the author of numerous blogs, and Finalsite's popular eBook, The Website Redesign Playbook.