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Publishing PDFs on HSE websites

Content on HSE websites must be published as HTML web pages and not in PDF format, where possible. This will mean our content can be used by as many people as possible, including people with disabilities. HTML provides a better user experience for everyone.

PDFs are designed for printing, not for digital experiences. Standard PDFs do not meet the accessibility standards we need to meet by law. 

Publishing content as HTML also makes it easier to maintain and optimise the content.

Why we do not use PDFs

We do not use PDFs for online content because they: 

  • create a bad user experience, especially for people using a mobile phone, which is the majority
  • are optimised for paper sizes, not browser windows
  • are difficult to navigate through
  • do not rank well in search results - this means people may not find the content they’re looking for or get information without any supporting material
  • take people away from the website by opening in a new tab, window or software
  • are difficult to track using analytics - we cannot see how people are using them or if people are having problems with them
  • are more difficult to edit and keep up to date than HTML web pages - people may get out of date or unreliable content
  • are bad for accessibility 

Why PDFs are bad for accessibility

Making our content accessible means making it in a way that most people can use it, without needing to adapt it. We need to make content as accessible as possible for everyone, including people with disabilities. 

For people with disabilities, PDFs:

  • Do not work well with assistive technologies, such as screen readers. A screen reader is a piece of software for a blind or visually impaired person. Most screen readers work by using a synthetic voice to read the text aloud. 
  • Do not meet the range of accessibility needs, for example, not being able to change colours or font size.
  • Do not work with many browsers, tools and extensions, for example, people often have problems with zoom, scroll, audio, image and keyboard navigation.

Accessibility and the law

Public sector bodies must make their websites and apps accessible to people with disabilities. This is enforceable in Ireland, by law, through the European Union (Accessibility of Websites and Mobile Applications of Public Sector Bodies) Regulations 2020. 

Under this law, all content published on our websites has to meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2.1 AA standard as a minimum.

Our accessibility guidelines for digital content are based on these standards.

This means our online content will meet:

  • the needs of our users
  • accessibility standards
  • our legal obligations

When it is OK to publish a PDF

We will publish a PDF if there is a clear, evidenced user need for it. But as far as possible, we also make the same content available as HTML. 

We will publish a PDF:

  • if there's a legal or regulatory requirement to have a formal, signed document
  • for niche audiences where there is a clear need for special formats (such as ‘Easy Read’ or foreign language leaflets designed to be printed out)
  • for downloads designed for printing, such as posters, booklets or a form

If we publish a PDF, it must be created as an accessible PDF. This means it can be used by people with disabilities. 

PDF creators must supply us with an accessible PDF. Accessible PDFs are created with specific software, for example, Adobe Acrobat DC. This software can make a PDF accessible to screen readers and other types of assistive technology. 

If you do not create the PDF in-house, you will need to ask your designer to create it as an accessible PDF. There is more information on how to do this in Adobe’s guide on how to create an accessible PDF. 

The difference between a standard PDF and an accessible PDF

Image-based PDFs that contain a scan of text information are the least accessible. This is because screen readers cannot read the text in images. 

The main things that make a PDF accessible

  • Document language is specified.
  • Document is a tagged PDF.
  • Document structure has a logical reading order.
  • Security settings do not interfere with screen readers.
  • Large documents have bookmarks.
  • Document title appears in the title bar and document subject (description) is included.
  • Form fields are tagged.
  • Colour contrast is appropriate.
  • Images have alternative text.
  • Text is in plain English.

This is not an exhaustive checklist.

Checking a PDF for accessibility issues 

When we receive a PDF for publishing, we run a full accessibility check in Adobe Acrobat DC on the document. This checks for 32 accessibility-related items. You or your designer can use this tool to guide you, before you send us your PDF. If one of these items fails our check, we will send the PDF back to you to be fixed.  

Include a PDF title and description

If we publish a PDF, the title and description must be included and in the correct format. 

This is because the title and description appear in search engine results. If the title and description are not correctly formatted, people may not be able to find the PDF if they search for it online. 

PDF search result
Image 1: How a PDF appears in search results - title at the top and description at the bottom

Adding or editing a PDF title and description

The PDF ‘title’ is different to the ‘file name’. File names are what you see when you view files in a folder on your computer. File names can be changed without specialist software. The title, subject and author of a PDF can be added or edited using Adobe Acrobat. 

Adobe Acrobat properties image
Image 2: Where to edit the title and subject (description) with Adobe Acrobat


To add or change the title and description with Adobe Acrobat:

  1. Select ‘File’ in the menu bar in the top left corner.
  2. Select ‘Properties’ from the drop-down menu - this opens the document properties box.
  3. Add or change the title information in the ‘Title’ field and the description in the ‘Subject’ field.
  4. Click OK.

Use a descriptive title

If the document has a generic title it will not be easy to find using HSE search, Google and other search engines. The title must be specific and descriptive.

  • Good example: GP visit card for carers - registration form
  • Bad example: Registration form GPC18

Title length 

The title must be no more than 60 characters; this is because Google typically displays the first 50 to 60 characters of a document name. If the title is under 60 characters, it will display properly in Google search results.

Do not include version numbers or dates in the title

Version numbers and full dates should not be included in the title. Years can be included, if needed.

If a document is published every month, the name of the month can be included, for example, 'Maternity Patient Safety Statement - Dec 2018'. Abbreviations of month names can be used.

  • Good example: HSE Annual Report and Financial Statements 2018
  • Bad example: HSE Annual Report & Financial Statements V6 20.11.18

Do not use acronyms in the title

Document titles should not contain acronyms unless they have meaning to users. For example, HSE and WHO.

Do not include the file format in the title

It is not necessary to include the name of the document format, such as ‘PDF’.

  • Good example: Medical card application form
  • Bad example: Medical card application form PDF

Do not include illegal characters in the title

Use only letters, numbers and hyphens.

Examples of illegal characters are: % ~ < >, & : / \ ^ * ( ) ? [] _

Translated document titles

Translated document titles must be written in the language of the translation.

  • Good example: O seu serviço o seu comentário - folheto informativo
  • Bad example: Your service your say - information leaflet (Portuguese version)

Add a description 

PDFs that contain descriptions are more likely to be opened by users. A description is a short explanation of the document that will appear under the main title and URL link on a search page.

The HSE website uses a PDF’s ‘subject’ field as its description, see image 2. The subject (description) should be between 70 and 160 characters.

Document size

The maximum document size we can publish is 7 MB. If your document is too big, it will need to be compressed before you send it to us.