How relevant are PDFs in 2024?

PDF Document formats

PDF documents date back to 1993! That is an eternity for digital technology, but why are we still using them and are they still relevant in 2024?

The PDF file format was first created as a way to share documents across different computer systems without losing formatting or layout, this feature is in its name “Portable Document Format”. In the early days of the internet, this was a revolutionary concept and PDFs quickly became the standard for sharing important documents such as contracts, legal forms, and manuals.

Knowing that everyone would (usually) see the exact same thing without needing the same software was a game changer. It allowed designers to use specialist design tools, like InDesign or Illustrator, to create complex documents without having to worry about how the end users would view them. The same is true for a wide range of sectors, from specialist services like architects building plans to general business use for contracts, proposals or presentations.

As PDFs became more popular over the years, the support for them expanded, these days they are natively supported by all platforms in one way or another. You no longer need to download Acrobat Reader, for example, as your device will read PDFs out of the box.

The Evolution of PDFs

Over time, PDFs have evolved to become more than just static documents. With advancements in technology, we now have interactive PDFs that can include hyperlinks, multimedia elements, and even form fields for data input.

Interactive PDFs are especially useful for educational materials, such as textbooks or training manuals. They allow readers to engage with the content in a more dynamic way, enhancing the learning experience.

Furthermore, PDFs have also become more secure with features like password protection and digital signatures.

This continuous development of PDFs and their features has helped them to stay relevant over the years by keeping updated with users’ changing needs.

The issues with PDFs

Document size

PDFs have their roots in print, a typical document will be A4 with its layout being optimised for printing. This worked to its advantage for many years but with focus moving towards mobile devices and away from printing, this is now a hindrance. The fixed layout can’t reflow to adapt to smaller screens or different aspect ratios, this means that users have a bad mobile experience compared to the same content being available as a responsive website. There are devices such as the Kindle Scribe that have been developed with PDF’s sizes in mind, but the fact they exist only further highlights the issue.

File size

A PDF document is a wrapper for its content, which means it’s self-contained, and brilliant for ensuring it’s all available for the end user. However, as the PDF file size starts to grow, it becomes an issue. If the user has to download the full file before being able to view it, they will have to wait longer before starting to view the information. In comparison, a website will allow the information to be split across multiple pages and at the same time will allow the visitor to start seeing the content before it is fully downloaded.


Another major issue with PDFs is accessibility. Screen readers struggle to read them, making it difficult for visually impaired individuals to access the content. Additionally, the lack of reflowable text makes it challenging for users who need to enlarge the document’s font size or use different reading devices. While there are ways to make PDFs more accessible, it requires additional effort and knowledge on the part of the document creator.

‘Law of the instrument’

The age-old saying “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail” sums up the use of PDFs, because they are so widely used and available, it’s common to see people defaulting to them even when they are not the best solution for a given task. The abuse of the file format can be seen in the form of long unstructured documents, instead of using a more appropriate format such as HTML or a word processor, or in datasets being distributed in PDF rather than a spreadsheet which allows much greater flexibility of the data.


While the SEO state of PDFs is improving, it’s not the ideal format for online content, all too often we see clients simply link to an existing PDF document from their website or distribute PDFs by email, without ever thinking about how they can use the content within those documents to improve their search engine ranking. As most of us know, optimising webpages for search engines is a crucial part of digital marketing and not considering this when creating or distributing PDFs is a missed opportunity.

Fixed point in time

PDF documents represent a fixed point in time when the PDF was generated. For some use cases, this is a powerful feature, but for others, it’s a huge drawback! For things like reports or contacts, having it fixed is ideal but for other uses like property availability or product features it leads to clients having out-of-date information the moment they have the PDF. Changes require a new PDF to be generated and then made available or sent out to clients, something that is not as quick or easy to do compared to updating a webpage.


A key factor to modern marketing is the analysis of how content is being received by users, knowing what the pain points are or which areas work best for user conversion means you can continually improve things. PDF documents do not provide analytics in the same way webpages do, there is no way to track how many people have viewed or downloaded the document and no insights into how they interacted with it. This lack of data can hinder businesses from fully understanding their audience’s behaviour and making informed decisions.

The Future of PDFs in 2024

PDF documents are here to stay and will continue to be widely used, as other formats and technologies such as HTML and EPUB continue to develop, it is likely we will see more hybrid formats emerge that combine the best of both worlds. PDF documents will become more interactive and dynamic, with features like animations and embedded forms becoming even more prevalent. We may also see advancements in accessibility options for PDFs, making them more inclusive for all users.

In addition, improved file compression techniques and faster internet speeds will make downloading large PDF files less of an issue. However, it is also possible that the use of PDFs for online content may decline as more people turn to responsive websites and other digital formats for a better user experience.

The alternative to PDFs

With PDF documents having so many uses, there is not a single alternative that will work best. Instead, it will be a case of choosing a format that works best for each use case. For example, what works best for simple text documents won’t be the same for video or interactive content.

Other file formats

The first option is to look at other available file formats and assess if the content should be using another format altogether. The classic example of this is large datasets that should be in a spreadsheet to allow users to search, sort and filter the data. Other examples include long reports that may operate better in a word processor or books and magazines that could use EPUB formats.

Responsive websites

Websites are the most versatile way to present information, with the ability to serve content in various formats for different devices. With responsive design techniques, they can provide an optimal viewing experience on any screen size. Websites also offer analytics, search engine optimisation, and accessibility options, making them a more practical and future-proof option for online content.

Digital publications

For those looking to create visually appealing documents with interactive features, digital publishing with InDesign gives you a good middle ground between the fixed nature of a PDF, but with a more modern take. These publications let you add features such as:

  • Interactive elements
  • Animation
  • Video
  • Online sharing links
  • Embed into existing website
  • Link to external websites or resources
  • Link to product pages for more information
  • Interactive forms
  • Analytics and tracking
  • Fully undateable

These additional features have seen this format explode in popularity, especially when combined with other formats. For example, we have seen property marketing make use of this format for property brochures and with a bit of planning, we have been creating them in such a way that we can generate a PDF document alongside them so you get the best of both worlds! The user can then decide to view the document online or simply download the PDF, this makes the content more accessible to users.


While PDFs have been around for decades and continue to be widely used, they do have limitations that can hinder accessibility, search engine optimisation, analytics, and the ability to update content easily. As technologies continue to evolve, it’s important to assess whether PDFs are the best format for your content and consider alternatives that may provide a better user experience and more functionality. However, PDFs will still have their place in certain use cases and will continue to be a valuable tool for sharing and archiving documents. As with any technology, it’s important to stay updated on advancements and adapt accordingly to ensure your content remains relevant and effective. So, while the future of PDFs is uncertain, it is clear that they will continue to play a role in digital content for years to come.

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