Good practices when linking to PDFs

On occasion a situation may arise where it would seem like a viable solution to link directly to a PDF file in your documents folder versus creating a web page and linking to the PDF. In order to maximize the accessibility, the better option is to create a web page and link to a PDF from that page.

Consider these options when thinking about adding a document (PDF or otherwise) to your webpage

  1. Create a CMS page in the appropriate portion of your site. Make sure that you use descriptive link names when linking to the document. If you need a refresher on creating and editing content in the CMS, please see our article "How do I create a new web page in the CMS?" and we provide information on making great links in our article "Best practices of links."
  2. Make sure to either include all informational content on the web page or create an accessible PDF in Acrobat or another editor. Making Documents Accessible provides direction for creating an accessible PDF.
  3. Section the page with relevant content to make it easier for people to find and understand the PDF information. Go through the content and look for natural divisions to separate the content into different pages otherwise, consider making it one page.
  4. Limiting access to the PDF is also a good idea if the content doesn't need to be directly viewed on the web. You can use our form builder tool to create a request form. We've got a training video on using the form builder and how to access form data in KaratEmail. If the PDF or other document isn't directly accessible on the web site then, WCAG accessibility standards aren't an issue.

This is two-fold, by creating a web page you are summarizing the content of the PDF in a web first format, which makes the content more accessible, adds clarity to your site content, and allows it to be read on mobile devices. Second, the web page will have priority and will be returned higher in the search results. If a page's content changes or a PDF is removed, you will still be directed to a page with viable content. Linking directly to a PDF can cause a search engine to return a dead link once the PDF is removed.

If you would like an in-depth explanation of how this affects web design and content management, continue reading!

Digging deeper into the accessible document discussion

Web accessibility has brought some long overdue changes in the web structure at MSU and has created some new challenges to overcome. This article addresses the best practices and relates those practices to web accessibility and how organic search results affect the design and implementation decisions regarding PDF files. Creating web pages that are meaningful and communicate relevant information is the first step in planning and creating accessible content. This includes how you think about PDF files and the overall effect that the design decisions possess, including how search engines find the information.

W3C is the governing authority that we strive to uphold and the standards defined in WCAG 2.0; MSU is in the process of conforming to those standards and specific requirements. The way PDF files are presented and structured is affected by the WCAG standards. When dealing with these design issues, understanding how Google and other search engines will find and index the information is important.

Reasoning for using a webpage instead of a PDF or other document

Creating a web page to convey relevant information regarding the PDF files you need to present is the best way to think about design. Linking to raw PDF files can cause some issues with accessibility and how the PDF is indexed with Google. When you create a web page that contains PDF files, you are presenting keywords and link information that will be considered higher priority to search engines. When you remove a PDF from the page, the web page itself is still intact and doesn't have a dramatic affect on the search results sure, the PDF file will still be returned by Google but, it won't be the first result, the web page will be. The other option is (and is not the best practice) linking directly to PDF files on your site. When no other content in the domain matches the query, the PDF file itself will be indexed first and returned in a higher order within the results. In this case, when the PDF is no longer needed and removed from the site, Google will be returning a link to a document that is no longer available.

Below are some additional links for further reading including the W3C standards. There are also support articles for creating accessible content that may be helpful.

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