Can I Create My Entire Website in PDF?

Is it okay to use PDFs instead of HTML for my whole website?


Can I Create My Entire Website in PDF?

by Christopher Heng, thesitewizard.com

I was asked by a visitor whether it was okay for him to create his entire website in PDF, instead of using HTML. He found that PDFs preserved his design exactly as he intended, whereas he had trouble ensuring the same on an HTML-based web page.

Side Effects of a Website that Uses PDFs Instead of Standard Web Pages

While nobody will stop you from doing that, and it is something that is technically doable, it is not really a good idea to design a website that is entirely made up of PDF files.

  1. Your visitors may experience the site differently from you

    You may have thought that making the whole site in PDF means that every visitor will see the site the same way as you. It's actually the opposite. You didn't realise ("realize" if you use a different variant of English) this because you only tested the result on your own computer. You'll only notice the problem if you tried it on a variety of computers owned by others, including non-individuals (eg businesses, etc).

    The native format supported by web browsers is the (HTML-and-CSS-based) web page. This should not surprise anyone. It's the browser's raison d'étre. All browsers can display such pages out of the box. If it doesn't, it is not a web browser.

    When it encounters a foreign (as in non-native) format like PDF, browsers will behave according to how the user has configured it.

    • Many modern browsers provide a plugin that gets invoked by default (ie, unless configured otherwise) on PDF files. Firefox's plugin works by converting your PDF into HTML/CSS internally so that the browser can actually display it; the built-in facilities in the other borwsers may work similarly, but not necessarily so. As implied by my previous sentence, these plugins are developed independently by the individual browser vendors, and they all implement a subset of the PDF format. The actual subset supported may differ, depending on what the browser developers feel is necessary to support. After all, a browser's primary job isn't really the display of PDF files. It's only provided as a convenience.

    • Users can also install their own plugins, should they find the built-in facility in web browsers to be inferior to the PDF viewers they are accustomed to, or having too many features that it poses a security hazard. There are many free PDF viewers around, and many (if not all) of them either have a plugin that you can install into your browser or provide a way to customize the browser to invoke their viewers when a PDF is encountered.

      For such visitors, when they click a link that leads to a PDF file, the web browser will automatically launch that particular PDF viewer. As such, they will not be looking at your site in their browser at all, but in a PDF viewer. And these PDF viewers have features and user interfaces that vary according to the software used.

    • Users can also configure their browser not to display PDF files at all, but to download them. For these visitors, the moment they arrive at your site, the browser will pop up a dialog box asking them whether they want to download a file.

    What I'm saying is that, in using PDFs, far from giving your visitors a standard experience, you are actually creating confusion and a website that doesn't work like a normal one.

  2. Your visitors will hate your site: reduced usability and user-friendliness

    Since your visitors will be seeing your site in the PDF viewer (whether the built-in browser one or a separate software), they will not be able to enjoy the usual facilities and conveniences that they can have in a web browser. I can't even list what features they will miss, since those vary from software to software. And in certain places (eg, corporate environments), where the JavaScript facilities in PDF viewers are disabled and locked down (due to security incidents that have occurred in the past where such files are concerned, eg, due to employees succumbing to phishing attacks and whatnot), some of your website features may not even work. And this is assuming they do not end up with a download prompt. In the latter case, they will wonder if they have arrived at a disreputable site that is trying to download malware onto their computer. After all, a download prompt that appears out of the blue isn't normal behaviour. Everyone knows (or should know) that you will only encounter it when you're deliberately clicking on a link to download something.

  3. It doesn't work on different screen sizes

    The reason you feel that PDF files preserve your formatting and design perfectly is that the pages are designed for a fixed width and height. As such, if you place, say, a picture at a particular position on the page, it's always at that position in the output. It is ideal for things you want to print out on paper, since pieces of paper have dimensions that don't change as it passes through the printer (unless you have a really lousy printer).

    But this property which attracts visual designers is the very reason it is inappropriate for a website. Websites are viewed on screens of various sizes. Some computers have monitors that are 1366 pixels in width, others 1280 and still others 1920. And then there are the 1024, 2048, 2560 monitors. And so on; there are lots more. The possibilities will undoubtedly keep increasing as technology and tastes change. And this is just the screen width. Not everybody surfs with their browser window open to the maximum width like you do. Many people, especially those with large screens, open it to some non-standard width, so that they can work with a browser on one side of the screen and something else on the other. Or they may open a left or right side panel within the browser, leaving the remaining space for the website. And so on. In other words, screen widths are not even the whole story. The width of the browser window that is allocated for the website is the important thing. And that can be any number.

    Even worse. Have you forgotten that in this day and age, a lot of people surf the web using mobile phones? We're talking about a huge variety of miniscule resolutions, extending from 240 pixels to 800+ pixels when the phone is held vertically (portrait mode) and 480 (or so) pixels upwards when it is held horizontally (landscape mode).

    The fixed width format of PDF files, which permits the exact placement of elements onto your page, is only really suitable for people who happen to be using the same screen size as you, with their web browser window open to the exact size you have on yours. On all other computers, tablets and phones, it will be a nightmare to view and use. On small screens, they can only see a fraction of your horizontal width, and will have to scroll left and right and up and down just to get an idea of what's on your page. As such, they may just think that your site is broken and unusable, and just move on to other places.

  4. It is unprofessional and suspicious

    Let's face it. Nobody is going to take a website made up of PDFs seriously. It's amateur city.

    And you'll also run into the problem that some people are going to find your site deeply suspicious, even if they don't get a download prompt. "Wait a minute. Why is this a PDF file? Is there something underhand going on here? Is there a security hole in some PDF implementation that they are trying to exploit? Are they attempting to foist malware onto my computer?"

A Different Paradigm is Needed

I think that when people ask this question, they view web design in a particular way. Consciously or subconsciously, they see their task as the computer equivalent of that done by an artist seated at an easel and painting on a canvas. The artist places elements on a canvas, and where it is placed, there it remains. The final product is an indivisible whole, a replica of the picture in his/her mind's eye.

But web pages are not like the static medium of the canvas. You do not have a guaranteed width or height. Being married to the above paradigm is going to hinder you in creating a usable website. No matter how you force things, the final product on your visitor's system will rarely be exactly as you see it on your own computer. As such, I think this (subconscious) mental model of web design is not helpful.

Instead of a fixed-size canvas, on which the design is indelibly etched, look at your web page as a loose collection of elements that can be slightly shifted around the page with no loss in meaning. What these "elements" are depends on your content and design. They may be pictures, paragraphs or combinations of both or something else. That is, don't aim at a design where your page has to be a single indivisible whole for it to look right, but at one where it is a collection of smaller blocks that can be flexibly placed near each other with a variable amount of space between them, depending on the visitor's browser width. That way, it will still look okay and be functional in the different conditions a website finds itself.

In addition, any design in today's world must also take into account mobile phones. This is automatically done if you are following my Expression Web or BlueGriffon tutorials, but if you are designing your web page using some other software or tutorial, you may have to manually make your site mobile-friendly.

Use the Right Format for the Job

PDFs aren't really the appropriate format for a website. It only appears to solve one of the problems (that of getting your web page to look the way you want it to), but in doing so, it introduces a whole host of others. And then when you visit your site from a different machine, you will realise that it doesn't even solve the problem you thought it did.

Just as you should always use the right tool for a job in the brick and mortar world, you should also use the right format for the job on the Internet. For a website, this is HTML. There is no other.

Copyright © 2018 Christopher Heng. All rights reserved.
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Can I Create My Entire Website in PDF?





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