Web App vs Website: an Experienced Developer Explains
Everyone reading this is already familiar with the concept of websites. They’re essentially treasure troves of information, easily accessible if you’re online and using a browser. According to datareportal.com, there are 5.03 billion Internet users today and nearly as many Web Development Companies to match!
However, some may need clarification about the differences between websites and web apps. While websites are essentially digital reference books, web apps are more like interactive choose-your-own-adventure novels. They’re highly responsive and versatile, remaining accessible irrespective of the platform (though they require a consistent Internet connection).
Naturally, websites and web apps function entirely differently from one another. There are three main points that I’d like you to take away from this article, where I’ll discuss the “web app vs website” debate. Before that, however, let’s refine our definitions of websites and web apps.
Web App vs Website: What is a Website?
After stripping away all the pretty colors, captivating images, and dreadful pop-ups, a website is - at its core - a simple collection of webpages, globally accessible and interlinked with a single domain name to unify them. Websites serve many different purposes, and each page will typically feature text, images, documents, or other files, all accessed through the Internet or a private local area network via an IP address.
Of course, there are many different types of websites, all of which typically consist of multiple pages. To access a website, however, users will need a URL (or Uniform Resource Locator), the mechanism browsers use to locate any published resources on the Web.
What is a URL?
URLs have their structure and composition consisting of a scheme or protocol (for example, “HTTPS”) followed by the authority (for example, “www.statista.com”). Other URL elements include paths, parameters, and anchors, though these do not necessarily feature in every URL.
Despite the complexity of URLs, their function is relatively simple: they provide a unique address for websites to be located in the same way a physical address functions.
Types of Websites
As mentioned, there are many different types of websites. The Internet is a vast place, after all, filled with various resources for almost every topic you can think of. However, each website you visit can be sorted into two broad categories or types: dynamic and static.
Static websites are so-called because they have no “moving parts” to consider. That is to say, their content and presentation are not dependent on many factors. Instead, static websites consist of a uniform series of HTML files, each representing the site’s physical page. Think of static websites like books: they consist of a cover and table of contents (a homepage) which lets you jump to specific sections (the individual pages), but the content of these sections is otherwise immutable, defined solely by the author or web designer.
Unlike dynamic websites, whose pages can be formatted all at once, the pages on a static website must be updated individually, meaning that even if a specific block of text appears on every page, it must have been added manually.
Unsurprisingly, most web designers have moved away from static websites, but all sites were designed this way during the early years of the Internet.
As the name implies, dynamic websites use various technologies, such as PHP, to dynamically generate web pages whenever a user visits them rather than rely on a static interface and content. When a user enters a specific web address, the server locates and collects different pieces of information, which is then used to curate a single web page.
If static websites are like books in how they are designed and presented, then dynamic websites are more akin to mosaics. Dynamic websites are generated “on the fly” and in real-time to create a cohesive whole.
Additionally, dynamic websites can be separated into two categories: client-side scripted and server-side scripted. Client-side scripted websites and pages change based on the user’s input within the site or page itself. On the other hand, server-side scripted sites change when they are visited or when a user submits something (such as log-in information).
Dynamic websites have many advantages over static sites, including:
- High scalability
- Easier maintenance
- Flexible data
- User interactivity
- Improved presentation
However, dynamic websites are also much more challenging to build. To this end, many web developers use a CMS (or Content Management System) to help lay out their site’s infrastructure. This allows plenty of web developers to get away with a lack of technical understanding and knowledge of coding.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Websites
Before we move on and dig into web apps, we must recognize the advantages and disadvantages of websites. This is, of course, a complex topic, and there are many other factors to consider, but these are the pros and cons that you should be aware of.
- Websites are a simple and effective method of showcasing your company’s products/services.
- Additionally, websites are an excellent way to expand and improve your brand.
- They expand your reach far more than “traditional” means ever could, thereby increasing your brand’s visibility.
- They’re a great way to build trust between you and your customers/supporters and remain accessible to them every hour of every day.
- Lastly, websites are also a great way to accelerate your growth based on all of the previous benefits they offer.
- Websites are - unfortunately - prone to crashing. This usually occurs because of a technical glitch or excessive traffic, and the site will be completely inaccessible until the problem has been manually addressed.
- You may receive excessive junk mail if your website features any contact forms.
- Additionally, data scrapers may steal your data.
- Finally, all the information on your website (such as contact details) must be manually updated.
Characteristics of Websites
Finally, to close this section off, let’s have a quick look at the primary characteristics of websites.
- Websites are typically very user-friendly, with easy-to-navigate layouts and appealing visual elements.
- Websites usually contain quality content unique to that company or brand.
- They also load quickly (relative to the user’s Internet connection).
- Finally, websites can be quickly located through a search engine.
Web App vs Website: What is a Web App?
This enables users to interact with the brand or company through online forms, shopping carts, and more. In this sense, web apps are similar to dynamic web pages in the sense that they heavily feature interactivity and reactivity. However, web apps take it a few steps further by adding even more options and interactivity, such as creating, reading, and updating data within the app itself. The high level of complexity of web apps means that only a team of experienced designers can make them.
Web apps are highly versatile and come in several different forms, each with its own set of functions. Examples of web apps include email programs like Gmail and Yahoo, photo editing apps, shopping carts, and file conversion tools.
How Web Apps Work
As mentioned, web apps can become quite complex due to the variety of different functions they perform. As such, their construction can become equally complicated, but all web apps have a few underlying principles and methods in common.
In any case, web apps also require a server to manage and control client requests, an application server to carry out those requests, and (usually) a database to store all relevant information.
The exact mechanics of individual web apps may vary, but most of them adhere to a simple “flow,” which can be broken down as follows:
- Users trigger requests which are transmitted to the web server via the Internet. The requests are entered through a browser or web app’s interface.
- The web server then forwards the client’s request(s) to the relevant web app server.
- The web app server completes the request and generates the desired results.
- These results are then sent back to the web server.
- The web server then sends the results back to the user. The results are displayed on-screen via the browser or web app interface.
Of course, all of this is done in real-time, and the results are typically delivered instantaneously. Most web developers will use ReactJS or VueJS to build their UI components, which users can freely interact with.
Web App vs Website: Is Facebook a Web App?
Based on everything I’ve told you about web apps thus far, you may still be unsure whether specific platforms and services classify as websites or web apps. Take Facebook, for example. While it has all the makings of a traditional website, it functions more like a web app.
To this end, while Facebook features elements of traditional website design, it is built for user engagement and interactivity. Everyone who uses Facebook will have their own unique experience, which isn’t possible for websites to accomplish, even dynamic ones.
Web App vs Website: Is Netflix a Web App?
Unlike Facebook, which offers a completely unique experience for all its users, Netflix’s content is immutable. You may think that this immediately makes it a dynamic website, but it’s actually a lot closer to a web app.
This is due to another key difference between websites and web apps. Websites - even dynamic websites - can be efficiently coded as long as you have web design knowledge. Developing web apps, on the other hand, requires not only knowledge of web design but also knowledge of application programming. In short, creating a web app is a far more intricate process.
Hundreds of developers are working on Netflix to ensure it functions properly. A dynamic website would not require as big a team to manage. Additionally, despite not being as interactive as Facebook, Netflix still relies heavily on user engagement and reactivity.
Web Apps vs. Other Apps
Within computer technology circles, web apps are usually compared to native (or installable) apps. These are the programs that are developed for specific devices or platforms. Native apps can make use of hardware and resources particular to that platform. For example, some mobile apps will use the device’s built-in camera for specific functions.
On the other hand, web apps are generally accessible regardless of platform or device, but they can take advantage of far less as a result. This, of course, increases their accessibility while significantly reducing their capabilities.
However, there is some crossover between the two types of applications, and some apps take advantage of both. These are referred to as “hybrid apps.” They are installed directly onto the device like native apps and are thus able to take advantage of that device’s unique capabilities. However, they also have the online elements featured in web apps, such as interacting with web servers to process specific requests.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Web Apps
Despite their complexity, web applications provide several benefits and a few downsides.
- Web apps - unlike native apps - are typically built for multiple platforms and devices, irrespective of the operating system. The only consideration is the specific browser, which is generally available across all platforms anyway.
- Because of this, web apps are virtually identical across each platform, providing every user with the same experience (for good or for ill).
- They typically have many different features and can process more data than the average website.
- Web applications are easily customized and scalable.
- Lastly, they’re accessible pretty much anywhere, provided users are online.
- Despite being accessible across most platforms and devices, it isn’t uncommon for web app developers to favor one platform over another.
- Web apps are also less secure than some websites, meaning data leaks are an unfortunately common occurrence, and unauthorized access is easy.
- Lastly, web apps can also not take advantage of each device’s unique features or hardware, which limits their potential and functionality.
Web App Characteristics
Before closing this section off, let’s examine the defining features of web apps.
- Web apps are usually developed with cross-platform functionality in mind; any platform or device can access them.
- They can also be tested easily through automated processes.
- These apps can be easily customized and are highly scalable.
- Finally, web apps also feature interactive interfaces.
Web App vs Website: Differences Between Websites and Web Apps
With an understanding of both websites and web apps in mind, you already have some idea as to what their differences are. While the discrepancies between them vary in size, three primary discerning characteristics stand above the rest: interactivity, integration, and authentication.
Web App vs Website: Interaction
The most significant difference between websites and web apps is how much users are able to interact with them. Websites - even their dynamic variations - allow users to access content but not manipulate it. In contrast, web apps allow content manipulation depending on the app’s specific function.
Interactions are usually performed through dialogs. Users tick a box, click a button, or submit a form and then receive a response from the page. The exact answer they receive will depend upon the precise function of the app.
Social media networks make for excellent examples of web apps. Not only do they connect users through chats and blogs, but they also curate each user’s feed based on user preferences. Additionally, they permit limitless content sharing and usually also provide additional forms of entertainment for users, such as games.
The line between dynamic websites and web apps has become increasingly blurred - some websites aren’t uncommon to feature various interactive elements. However, the distinction lies in the balance between interactivity and information - web apps favor the former, while websites favor the latter.
Web App vs Website: Integration
Integration refers to how different software and hardware pieces interact to form one cohesive system. The complex functionality of web apps often demands that they be integrated with other programs or systems, unlike websites.
An exemplary display of integration in action involves CRMs. CRMs store data in a single secure location, allowing said data to be readily available. Online stores - usually web apps - integrate with CRMs to enable a seamless transition for buyers and employees.
Of course, websites can also be integrated with CRMs, allowing individualized content for each user. However, this practice isn’t widespread, and most websites forgo integration.
Web App vs Website: Authentication
Authentication is the process users follow to access a system. Usually, this involves entering one’s log-in details and is necessary for any web technology that needs viewing personal information.
Web apps usually require authentication in order to be accessed. Take social networks: creating an account forces you to create a password to prevent others from accessing your personal information. Most of these systems also call your attention to weak passwords in an effort to improve your security.
On the other hand, authentication is not a crucial element for most informational websites. Some sites (wikis, for example) may prompt you to create an account to access additional features, but the site remains almost entirely accessible either way. Take YouTube, for example; anyone can watch videos, but users must first create an account to leave comments.
Again, both websites and web apps may feature authentication, but the former can be accessed irrespective of a user’s personal information.
Web App vs Website: Do you need a website or a web app?
With everything you’ve learned from this article still fresh in your mind, I’d like to try and answer one last important question: do you need a website or a web app?
As an experienced Ruby on Rails web developer, I believe I’m uniquely qualified to answer this question. And the answer is quite simple: every company needs at least a dynamic website. Nowadays, there’s no getting around the fact that for your business to grow, you need a comprehensive online footprint and maintaining a website is the easiest way to accomplish that.
Depending on your business’s needs, a website may be just what you’re looking for. But a web app is crucial for companies looking to develop an interactive platform for their users to engage with. It will allow you to automate specific processes and provide your customers with a new layer of engagement.
Although developing a web app is difficult, it’s not impossible, especially after looking at these top web development companies.
Web App vs Website: Conclusion
As mentioned, the line between websites and web apps is becoming increasingly blurred, with many modern websites featuring various interactive elements. However, there are still a handful of key differences between the two, and both have their fair share of positives and negatives to consider. As a web designer, this allows you to hone your skills in several different areas; as a user, these differences shouldn’t matter much so long as they’re presented well.
We hope you’ve gleaned plenty of insight from this article and that this knowledge has proven useful.