How can you tell when your website should actually be a webapp?
What's the difference between a website and a web application? What are the benefits and when should you consider migrating your website to a webapp? There are many questions to consider when making a choice for how your deliver your product or service.
When should your website be a webapp?
To the average user, the difference between a website and a web application is normally indistinguishable. In fact, many people don’t know that a difference even exists, as the visual pages, they browse online all look pretty much the same at face value.
It is only to the eye of a web developer, or someone building or managing a piece of ‘online real estate’ that the differences become apparent — and important — in decision-making, because different web build options offer different use cases which impact the end user experience.
This article will define two types of web formats that businesses generally choose from when building their online offering: websites and web applications (web apps).
Then, we’ll ask questions you need to answer to help decide whether you should keep your existing website or migrate your business to a web application.
Let’s get started.
What is a website?
We promise we aren’t trying to insult your intelligence — we know you know what a website is. You’re on one now. People use them all the time.
But please hear us out.
Explaining what they are will help you explain how a web app is different.
A website is a web page, or group of web pages, that are made up of a mix of visual (text, images) and sometimes audio (video, sound) content.
It is essentially a collection of linked, structured web pages that live under a single domain name.
The main goal of a website is to display information to visitors.
In January 2021, there were 1,197,982,359 websites in existence. You’ve got your:
- Search engines like Google
- Blogs like the PixelPixel blog
- News sites like news.com.au
- Business pages like PixelPixel.com.au
- Educational sites and so much more
Features of a website
- Easy layout to navigate
- Displays content
- Has a user friendly design
- Can be searched by a search engine
Reasons to use a website
- Showcase a product or service
- Help establish your brand’s online presence
- Create social proof
- Create awareness
A website hosts static content on each page, which needs to be manually changed. Visually, the hallmark features of websites include a homepage, landing pages, a navigation section, headers and footers.
The most common uses for websites include e-commerce websites, portfolios, company information sites, educational websites and forums.
An example is this blog page. It is part of the www.PIXELPIXEL.com.au domain, it offers static information and some basic features you can interact with like search boxes and subscription forms.
What is a web app?
A web app is software that users can access using a web browser. This software is linked to a database that enables the user to have an interactive, customisable experience.
The main goal of a web app is to engage users by responding to various user requests sent to a server.
Web apps can perform different user requests, resulting in actions like messaging, booking accommodation, shopping, ordering food, verifying accounts or making monetary transactions.
Common web apps used by people every day to perform these actions are Facebook & Twitter, Google Docs, YouTube, Booking.com and PayPal.
The key difference between a website and a web app is interactivity. Unlike a website, the user of a web application can not only view page content but also manipulate the page’s data.
Think of it this way:
A website allows monologue (a one-way conversation) while a web app allows dialogue (a two-way conversation).
In the dialogue between a web app and a user, when the user interacts with the app they will receive an answer. This answer could look like a placed order, an online chat or an e-payment for instance.
Different types of web apps
App developers have also made hybrid apps that are a middle-ground between a website and a web app. There are two main types, called Single Page Applications (SPAs) and Progressive Web Apps (PWAs), which we’ve outlined below.
It is called a ‘single page app’ because, once resources are loaded onto the web browser, the user stays on a single web page that displays and alters content as required.
There is no concept of having to refresh a page to retrieve new content, like you would a traditional website.
Progressive web apps
App developers created PWAs to serve as special web apps that people can access like a normal website that not only look like apps, but also offer additional feature extensions previously usually reserved for native mobile apps.
Often the behaviour of PWAs is even better than a native mobile app - offering speed, reliability and engaging functions. Things like push notifications, working offline, camera access and GPS are all possible with PWAs.
Ask yourself the right questions…
There are several questions you should think about will help decide whether to keep your existing website or migrate your business to a web application:
What product are you building for?
If you run a coffee shop, you will likely not require an interactive function online. Rather, the aim of your online presence will be to build brand awareness and a landing page with a subscription form will be enough to promote your business (alongside other marketing tools like social media and email marketing).
On the other hand, if you run a fashion e-commerce store you will likely require interactive elements like chat functions and sales tools that web applications offer.
What’s your budget?
Choosing a website or web app depends on the size of your operation, what percentage of your target audience resides online and how this impacts your overall budget.
Static websites are simpler to develop and therefore, cheaper. Web apps are usually developed in several stages and use more complex programming, which generally means hiring a professional app development company, and more allocated budget, to create a quality app.
What is the future of your product?
Planning for future use cases for your online product or service is critical to saving time and money in the long run.
Plan for upgrades: If you know that you would like to implement interactive elements online in the future, consider building a web app to begin with, rather than building a website now and then having to migrate later as well.
Prepare for growth: Likewise, if you have data that indicates huge sales growth or influx of customers in the future, consider building a web app so that user requests are processed quickly.
Read our article on why website speed matters.
Prioritise updates: While websites require manual updating by a web administrator or special software, web apps can automatically update web pages. Take this into account when factoring in site maintenance and frequency of content changes.
So, should you keep your current website or migrate to a web app?
Websites are an affordable, simple option if you want to:
- Advertise your product or service, like an online business card
- Host a finite amount of information
- Appear on search engines
- Improve brand identity
- Offer a channel to communicate with customers
- Launch a Minimum Viable Product (MVP)
Web apps are a more effective option if you want to:
- Offer a more interactive, advanced, fast-loading, engaging product or service
- Easily scale by using cloud storage
- Move from MVP to a more complex product
- Integrate a service or function like sales, booking, chat or CRM to your website
- Conduct easy testing and maintenance
- Have a web browser operating app that consumers don’t need to download or install.
- Have a native app experience while bypassing mobile app stores
- A cost-effective native app experience
Got a project in mind?
Need a hand deciding whether your online business should be a website or a web app? We’d like to help you make the right choice. Get in touch with us for a free consultation or simply to bounce ideas.