Which is better, PDF or HTML?

I was working with St Neots Rowing Club recently on material for their annual regatta. In the past schedules for races have been stored as PDFs on their site. I recommended that instead they could list out the content as HTML pages. It occurred to me that some clients might not understand the difference between the two and the benefits (and drawbacks).

To start with I’d recommend using a PDF when it is appropriate and this may help answer your needs:

  • PDFs are excellent when the file is for print, and the page formatting and resolution of images is important
  • PDFs are good for taking newsletters which are designed for the printed page, and making them available online, although their are many websites that offer a free service for newsletters such as MailChimp
  • PDFs are also useful as you can utilise the full character set of a typeface including math and special symbols.

Beyond these examples though, HTML is generally much better for providing information online, for example:

  • reading HTML online is generally a better experience than reading PDFs as most documents which are A4 in size wont match the computer screen ratio
  • although PDFs are viewable on most handheld platforms, the user experience is drastically improved with HTML as the smaller the device gets the more scrolling is needed with PDFs
  • for those with visual impairments HTML is more accessibile than PDFs
  • cut and paste from HTML is much more consistent. PDFs are designed for printing, not browsing or spreading information. When a user wants to cut and paste information from a PDF the formatting will often be jumbled up when it is pasted elsewhere
  • images are embedded and so are easy to reuse
  • hyperlinks in PDFs can often fail if they have been incorrectly added at the design stage
  • HTML pages are often a lot smaller the PDFs
  • HTML pages are easier to reuse, PDFs inherently are not since they are not an editable source format and the formatting instructions are gone
  • HTML pages have no security whereas PDFs can have restrictions against copying and printing
  • finally and most importantly HTML pages are much easier for search engines to index as they exist within the page. Externally hosted PDFs may be hidden from some search engines.