Web App vs Website: What’s the Difference?

Take a minute to imagine an online tool that not only communicates the value and brand ethnicity of your business but also delivers an advantage over the competition? That’s right, we’re referring to websites and web apps. The average user however rarely recognizes the distinction between the two – and this is not surprising as websites and web apps are very similar to one another and the line between them can get blurry. They both require internet access, are accessible via a browser, and have responsive designs.

This is why it’s fairly common to get confused when hearing the terms “website” and “web app”. However, for website owners, knowing the difference is vital when choosing one to conduct their business online, and when communicating with web developers on business requirements.  Do you wish to simply spread the word about your business? Or would you benefit from users interacting with the webpage by sending requests, commenting, or clicking on buttons?

In a nutshell, web apps deliver interactive content, while websites are somewhat static in nature and are built to provide information. When defining your choice, you’ll need to understand your target market, the intended purpose of the webpage, resource allocation, and budget.

In this article, we’ll compare web apps against websites, highlight the key differences, and then help you understand which is the best fit for your business.

What is a Website?

As the formal definition goes, a website is a collection of interlinked webpages collaborating under a single domain. It is a collection of text, audio, video, documents, or other internet-accessible content that share the same web address. Websites usually boast a visually impactful homepage, menu bar, and informational footer. They may take the form of landing pages, blogs, or portfolios.

Traditionally, websites were merely informative and static, they displayed the same content for all users. However, modern web technologies have helped web developers create dynamic websites that are more app-like, essentially displaying different content to users based on varying factors such as location, date, time, etc. Regardless of what type of website your build, remember, content is king – ensure it’s unique, high-quality, interesting, and relevant.

What is a Web App?

A web app is computer software that works through a web browser, it includes more interactive elements aimed at user engagement. Almost all web apps require server-side processing, they are stored on a remote server, and linked to a database to provide an interactive user-customizable experience, essentially helping users complete a task. Web apps are scalable, mobile app store approval is not a requirement, they are supported on all modern browsers, and are cross-platform compatible.

Web apps don’t have to be downloaded, and typically need authentication, which means you’ll need to create an account and log in to use it. Unlike websites, web apps leverage the web server to process complex user requests and perform specific functions instead of merely displaying content or delivering information, here are some examples:

  • Account verification
  • Online buying
  • Instant messaging
  • Payment gateways
  • Scheduling bookings 
  • Order placement
  • Content management

The Differences Between Websites and Web Applications

It’s easy to say that there are several similarities between websites and web apps, in fact, it can be argued that web apps are the next stage of evolution for websites. Nonetheless, there are critical differences between these two technologies, and these include:

Function: Websites exist to inform, allowing the user to consume content and understand the services or products offered, whilst web apps serve to help users perform an activity. The content on a website cannot be manipulated, it can be viewed, read, or listened to. Whereas, in addition to providing content, a web app also encourages interaction with the user, such as downloading files, creating user accounts, publishing owned content, chatbots, or purchasing a product.              

Complexity: Building web applications are far more complex than websites. They require backend services, data processing capabilities, and varying user levels. Moreover, web apps require advanced security solutions. Websites on the other hand are simply a collection of static web pages and are relatively simple to build.

Web technologies such as JavaScript, HTML, and CSS remain a common factor in the development process of both web solutions, additionally, if a very simple website is what you’re going for, you can even use ready-made templates, which means you won't even need HTML and CSS knowledge. However, web apps require a complex backend that can be built using various technologies, requiring more advanced programming languages, such as PHP, frameworks, and server-side scripts, you will also need the help of qualified specialists if you want the software to have extended functionality.

 Access: Unlike a website, almost all web apps require registration and authentication as they provide services customized to the user’s requirements. Web app users constantly interact with the content, transmit sensitive information, and send private messages. Without the security measures of user authorization, users could easily access personal information with malicious intent. For example, a banking app offers all account holders similar services online, but based on their personal banking information, each user will have a unique experience. Authentication can take place via user login and password, fingerprint, SMS, face scan, social networks, etc.

How do you make the choice?

Ultimately the only criteria for choosing between a web app and a website are the nature and purposes of the business you conduct online. What kind of products or services do you offer? What is the long-term perspective? What kind of solutions or functionalities does it include? The answers to these questions will define your choice between the two.

Many small to medium brick-and-mortar businesses start out by creating a simple website, and as they start experiencing growth they may find the need for more functionality to meet customer requirements and generate leads. Customers may prefer to purchase products or book a table directly from the business website, they even may prefer customer portals to track orders as opposed to the traditional phone call.

On the other hand, some businesses may opt to keep their website simple. The features that complement web apps may cause reasons for complications or challenges, for example, an online store that accepts credit cards is also held responsible for the safety of its customers’ personal information. Likewise, there are always trade-offs to consider.

At first glance, web apps vs websites may not appear to be a big deal. How can it, especially when as a user you hardly ever notice it, however, understanding their differences can help you future-proof your operations, accurately assess resource allocation, and plan development budgets, enabling better communication with your team.

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