Using Appropriate File Formats

What It Is

Using appropriate file formats is a best practice in managing your agency’s website. You should provide access to information using open, industry standard web formats or use common alternative formats.

Base your choice of file formats on the needs of your intended audience(s) and your organization's business needs.

Why It’s Important

  • Presenting documents in open, industry standard formats allows every person with a browser to read the documents.
  • Using these formats makes the documents easily retrievable using web search engines.
  • Usability studies have shown that visitors can become frustrated and are less likely to access information that requires downloading with additional software or plug-ins. This is true even if that software is freely available because it involves extra time and effort to view the material.
  • Many proprietary files are so large, compared to industry standard formats, that visitors with slow connection speeds can't download them.
  • Certain software and plug-ins pose difficulties for people with (primarily) visual impairments.

Specific Requirements

OMB Policies for Federal Public Websites require agencies to (#1A) "disseminate information to the public in a timely, equitable, efficient and appropriate manner" and (#2A) "maximize the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information and services provided to the public. This includes making information and services available on a timely and equitable basis." By providing documents in formats that most of the audience can use, you promote equitable access to the information and services.

How to Implement

  • Appropriate Format: When choosing file format(s), organizations should consider:
    • intended use of the material by the website's visitors;
    • frequency of use by the website's visitors;
    • accessibility of the format to the website's visitors; and
    • level of effort and time required by the organization to convert the material to the format.
  • Preferred Format: In general, industry standard formats (HTML and XML are current examples) provide the greatest flexibility for visitors and should be the primary formats for documents on federal public websites, especially those that are most frequently accessed by the public.
  • PDFs: Use Portable Document Formats (PDF), such as Adobe Acrobat, only as an alternate format to industry standard formats and when there is a clear business need to use this format. For example, PDF format is an appropriate format when it is important to retain the original formatting of a document, such as forms or brochures, or if the document is very long (more than 5–10 print pages) and it is likely that readers prefer to print out the document for later reading rather than read the text on the screen.

    When using PDF files, provide a link to the downloadable free viewer. To ensure maximum accessibility, also provide a version of the document in an industry standard format, such as HTML, whenever feasible.

  • Proprietary Formats: Avoid making documents available only in proprietary formats that require purchase or licensing of commercial software (for example, MS Word, MS PowerPoint). If you must use these formats, ensure that the intended audience is known to have ready access to the appropriate software or provide a link to download the appropriate viewer or plug-in.
  • Text Descriptions: When linking to a document in an alternative format (such as PDF or MS Word), include a text description of the document, including the name, file type, file size, and effective date (using one of the recommended date options). This will ensure that visitors have a reasonable understanding of what to expect when they view the material and that search engines can easily find it.
  • Long Documents: In most cases, large or complex documents (generally, more than 5–10 print pages), whether in an industry standard format or alternative format, are best organized in sections or chapters and linked together. One option is to provide a summary of each chapter in HTML and then provide the full chapter text in PDF. That way, readers will know what the content is about before they commit to downloading the PDF file. It is still important to provide a link to download the entire document since some readers may prefer to print the entire document for later reading.



Accessible Digital Office Document (ADOD) Project provides guides to help you create accessible documents from commonly used software applications.



Content Lead: Angela Hooker
Page Reviewed/Updated: March 19, 2013

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