Will Google Docs replace PDFs for formatted electronic documents?

Published July 7, 2012

If I create a fancy-looking document (such as my “Legal Rights of Photographers“) and want to share it, PDF is the go-to format. It retains my formatting, but it’s a standard filetype that anyone can view.

Unlike HTML, it’s printable as I designed it, and unlike a Word document (.doc), it’s also easily viewable online; Word docs need to be downloaded first.

So PDFs are pretty much the standard for that sort of thing.

But lately I’ve been running into more and documents online in Google Docs. This is fine from a reader’s perspective — I can view or download them the same way — but I didn’t quite understand why someone would choose this over simply uploading a PDF. After all, PDF-creation software is free and easy to use.

Then I got it. One document I was reading had a note from the author to the effect of “I will be editing this from time to time.” Ah! I realized. With Google Docs it’s much easier to edit something once you’ve posted it.

For example, with my Legal Rights of Photographers, I have a list of typos I need to correct. I’ll do that in Word, create a new PDF, and upload that.

“So,” you say, “What’s the diff? It’s one extra step.”

The difference is in how people share it. With the PDF, they might download it and post a copy on their own site; that’s what a bunch of photography clubs have apparently done. But if I update it, they’ll still be hosting the old one.

In contrast, if they embed the Google Docs version on their sites instead, every time I fix a typo, they’re getting the same — correct — version. I don’t have to think, Gosh, I wish I could contact all those clubs and tell them to grab the new version.

There are some notable downsides, of course. As with any cloud-based service, you lose some control over your stuff because a third party is holding and serving it for you. And if you have a document that you know won’t change often (if at all), a PDF will probably work better.

But for documents that will be updated, even occasionally, I can certainly see Google Docs being a more efficient means of sharing that simply uploading a PDF.

* * *

The Scribd document-sharing service requires a mention. It also allows you to upload a document and have it made easily viewable and printable on/from the Web. But it’s still a separate process — you have to create your document in one tool (e.g., Word), then upload it for sharing.

It’s a great system, but the difference is that Google Docs lets the document’s owner edit it directly. (Non-owners can view/download/print, but only the owner can change it.)

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