Publishing PDFs on the University website

Updated on 11 January 2024

Guidance for web editors on publishing content in PDF format on the University website

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When possible, you should avoid publishing PDFs and instead publish content as HTML. 

PDFs are problematic because:

  • they are difficult to use if someone has accessibility needs, for example you cannot change the background colour or text sizes easily
  • browser shortcuts for tasks like zooming and scrolling don’t always work
  • they are harder to find, maintain, and update than HTML content which can lead to users engaging with inaccurate and out of date content
  • search engines do not rank PDF content as highly as HTML content
  • they take users out of the website and into a software application, resulting in a poor user experience (particularly on mobile)
  • it’s difficult to get analytics information from PDFs and understand how users are interacting with the content

When content can be published as a PDF

There are exceptional circumstances when you can publish content as a PDF. These include:

  • Downloadable forms to be printed and completed offline
  • Detailed multi-page legal documents and reports
  • Leaflets or brochures to be printed and used offline
  • Where there is a legal requirement to publish a formal, signed document 

You should not publish content in PDF format if it replicates existing content on the University website that performs a similar function.

You should also avoid publishing PDFs if the content needs to be reviewed regularly to remain accurate. An example of this would be immigration content that is impacted by changes in UK government policy or guidance. 

PDFs should always be added to the website using the corporate information or guide content types. This allows these pages to act as a gateway to the PDF and provides helpful information to the user such a summary, last updated and file size information.

Accessible PDFs

A PDF is accessible if:

  • the document contains text and is searchable
  • the language and title of the document are defined
  • the document is created using tags which provide a logical reading order
  • all links, images, and forms have descriptive text
  • it contains navigational aids such as bookmarks
  • tables, if used, are properly tagged 
  • security settings are configured correctly
  • form fields are accessible
  • the colour contrast between the background and the text in the foreground meets legal requirements (a ratio of 4.5:1)
  • it's possible to use the keyboard to navigate through the content

Images in PDFs

You should:

  • provide descriptive alt text for all images 
  • indicate all decorative images using the accessibility checker

For accessibility, if text is embedded within complex images such as flowcharts and process diagrams then it should enhance the existing text rather than be a substitute for this information. 

A data table should be provided with the equivalent information when chart and graph images with embedded text are used.

Links in PDFs

You should not add links in PDF content as these can be broken if the destination web page is updated or deleted.

Web Services reserve the right to remove links in PDFs published on the University website which are broken.

Use an accessibility checker

If you create a PDF you should ensure that the source document is accessible before you convert it to PDF.  Find out how to improve PDF accessibility 

When you have converted a document to PDF you should run it through an accessibility checker to check for any issues. You can do this using Adobe Acrobat Professional (go to Tools > Accessibility > Accessibility Check).

Create accessible file names

Provide meaningful file names for PDFs that are easy to read and understand. For example, 'Staff_Handbook _2022' is descriptive but 'Untitled Doc 1' is not. Do not use blank spaces in file names as this causes problems for screen reading software.

It’s always easier to make content accessible as HTML rather than as a PDF. Please contact Web Services if you need help to do this.

Remember, if you do not provide accessible content then you could be breaking the Equality Act 2010