Best Practices for Linking To and Opening PDFs on your Website

Every now and then I get a request to change the behavior of the links to PDFs on our website. Currently we follow Jakob Nielsen’s recommendation on the issue:

… prevent the browser from opening the document in the first place. Instead, offer users the choice to save the file on their harddisk or to open it in its native application (Adobe Reader for PDF, PowerPoint for slides, etc.).

It’s good advice, but some people find it more convenient when PDFs open within a new browser window.

I explain that this can be problematic for a handful of reasons.

  • It only works if the user has a PDF reader installed and plugged into their browser.
  • Opening a new window when clicking a link is contrary to best practices and accessibility.
  • Navigating back to the webpage is difficult as there is no navigation in the PDF.
  • Many users actually want to download the PDF (and we’ve gotten this specific complaint multiple times in the past).
  • Opening a downloaded PDF is very easy. IE and Firefox both give you an “Open” option, and Chrome puts the download a convenient click away.

Then I offer some links for further reading.

When I dig a little deeper, it turns out that the stakeholder just wants their content to be as accessible as possible. I share that goal, and suggest the best way to do that is to convert the content into a web page. It makes the content more accessible, reusable, responsive, and more easily indexed by search engines.

Of course, converting it takes some additional effort. If the content is valuable enough to change the way links are handled across the site, then it’s valuable enough to put into HTML. And if there’s no time to do it by hand, Google offers a free document viewer that displays the PDF as HTML. Or if it’s an infographic, export it as an image file and put that on a web page.