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Web Sites vs. Web Apps: What the experts think

The term “web app” has been around for the past years – we’ve all heard it and used it more times than we care to remember. Yet there remains a debate on where “web sites” end, and “web apps” begin. Guest author Ciprian Borodescu presents the opinions of several prominent figures in the web technology domain and discusses the ‘app-ification’ of the web.

Web sites vs. web apps

Definitions of web sites vs. apps

Web sites are so deeply embedded into our daily culture that it is impossible to imagine life without them. Even as a developer, I find it hard to remember the times from my childhood when my chubby little hands didn’t yet know how to type. In the last two decades, the Internet has grown, expanded, exploded and became impossible to ignore, making any keyboard without an Internet connection pretty much useless.

In the last few years, the web brought with it a new term that can be exciting and confusing at the same time: “web app”.

But what is a “web app”, how does it differentiate from a “web site” and why does it matter?

Understanding this difference ultimately makes us better users or developers? Is a business going to blossom just by marketing its online presence as a “web app” instead of a “web site”?

To figure out the boundaries between websites and web apps, I interviewed several prominent figures in the web technology domain who contributed with their experience and professionalism to help guide the debate: Dominique Hazael-Massieux (Mobile Web Initiative Activity Lead at World Wide Web Consortium), James Pearce (Head of Developer Advocacy at Facebook), Michael Mullany (CEO at Sencha), Christian Heilmann (Principal Developer Evangelist – HTML5/Open Web – at Mozilla Corporation) and Stephen Pinches (Head of Learning Technologies – ELT at Pearson plc and Group Product Manager – Mobile & Emerging Platforms at Financial Times). In this article I pieced together their expert input to help answer the web site vs web app debate.

The difference between Web sites and Web apps

In the pre app store era, the word “applications” had been applied to Web sites that provided advanced user interactions and capabilities previously available only through installable software. Early examples of web applications include Webmail, Google Maps and Google Docs. Compared to the classic web, i.e. blogs and news sites, web apps provided a richer user experience and access to advanced browser capabilities.

Today single-page web sites might still be referred to as web apps, but it’s more about the task focus than the technology itself. From this perspective, as Christian Heilmann explains, “The use case of an application is always to DO something with it”.

The task centricity of web apps is easier to understand if you think of smartphones or tablets: an app’s purpose is to achieve a specific task, like making a call, checking your email or finding a taxi nearby.

Some may argue that we can simply classify Web sites as being read-only and Web apps as being read-write. That certainly seems simple enough: Web sites are for consumption what Web apps are for creation. Does it sound right?

For developers, it is easier to draw the line between web sites and web apps if we think of the technical distinctions. Web apps have some defining attributes that bring them closer to their native counterparts:

  • self-contained
  • rich/interactive user interface, possibly mimicking the native UI of the device
  • using advanced device capabilities – like geolocation, camera integration, or other technologies that the W3C Device APIs and Policy Working Group is developing
  • action-oriented rather than information oriented
  • not relying heavily on (or hiding when possible) the browser chrome (back button, reload button, address bar)
  • working off-line, for example using HTML5 ApplicationCache, localStorage, or indexed database

Mozilla’s Christian Heilmann argues that the offline attribute is not a technical necessity in terms of definition, but rather a crucial usability distinction:

Seeing how flaky our connections are – I am writing this on a plane – our apps should make people as effective as possible and this means we shouldn’t be dependent on a connection. The interface should be usable whilst we are off the grid and sync as soon as we go online”.

But how can we explain the difference to non-technical users? And, do we need to?

According to Dominique Hazael-Massieux, a Web site can be presented as a Web app as long as users consume it in a similar way they do a native app. If it’s exposed as an iconified app and used for a specific task, it shouldn’t matter whether it’s contained in the browser or installed via an app store. Facebook’s James Pearce outlined a few possible vectors that need to be considered when differentiating between Web sites and Web apps. I‘ve summed up his arguments:

Creation versus Consumption. Pearce asserts that read-only interaction should be classified as a site, but this criteria is not sufficient to distinguish between web sites and web apps. We still have cases like Flipboard (clearly oriented towards consumption) or Twitter and Facebook (with entirely user-generated content) that do not fit in any box.

Linkability. Since both web sites and web apps can be launched by entering a URL into a browser or from a home-screen icon, this is clearly “not a reliable way to distinguish between web apps and web sites” according to Pearce.

User Experience. Visual pizzazz is an important argument, one that users might particularly relate to, but is also a fuzzy boundary. What if my site displays a fixed toolbar, but no back button? What if my list appears as hyperlinks instead of ‘tappable’ items? What if I use plain scrolling instead of smooth fancy bars?

Architecture. In the case of single page webapps, is SEO the price to pay when choosing to give the browser far more autonomy and responsibility and take advantage of its HTML5 APIs like storage? Do Web sites have SEO capabilities while Web apps don’t? We are back to explaining the differences between the two by using technical terms.

Should you be building web apps or web sites?

This question might be regarded as a technicality with a pinch of marketing to spice it up. This reminds me of the “HTML5 is ready” contest by Sencha that was announced a few months back, encouraging developers to draw inspiration from native apps and create similar web apps that show off the capabilities of HTML5.

The creators of the competition correctly argued that “the mobile web is the most fertile ground for leading edge web development because it doesn’t have the legacy of the older internet explorers that the desktop does. You can start your development with the assumption that your app or your content will be used in a fairly recent browser, so you can take advantage of a whole host of features like Canvas, inline SVG, HTML5 video, CSS3 styling etc. that bring the experience alive for the user”, as Sencha’s Michael Mullany explains.

Would it be safe to argue in favor of building web apps instead of web sites especially on mobile? Mobile users perform specific tasks on their devices, so a web app that offers the same experience as a specialized native app might gain more interest compared to a regular website.

Long term the distinction should not matter. According to FT’s Stephen Pinches, it really doesn’t make any sense, on the long term, to speak about the future of the mobile web: “there shouldn’t be “mobile” and “desktop” but simply good, user-centered design, which adapts and responds to the screen size and features of the device upon which it is displayed. However, on short to medium term, there is a need to differentiate and ensure the user experience is as good as possible on a given device.

The ‘app-ification’ of the Web

Whatever your preference may be, there is an increasing number of mobile developers targeting web apps. Based on VisionMobile’s latest Developer Economics survey of 6,000+ developers, already 23% of HTML5 mobile developers develop web apps, compared to 38% who develop mobile websites.

With browsers increasing support for device APIs, and with a growing number of developers going direct to native with PhoneGap, Icenium or Appcelerator, or even with the recently launched Firefox OS, the web world is clearly moving in the direction of apps.

As Sir Tim Berners-Lee said in 2012, “the solution is in your hands: develop web apps!”

  • roger grice

    Nice article Ciprian, One comment I would make tho' I prefer that my people never ask the question "Are we building a web app or a web site", but ask, "what do I do to may users love the experience?" They can leave other people to categorize the experience when it's finished 🙂


  • This is a great line: "In the case of single page webapps, is SEO the price to pay .."

    Simply in terms of content marketing, yes, you lose the edge by building a web app as is described. The lack of content and the high dynamic nature of a web app would fair terribly against an authority site with pages and pages of keyword based content. But, content marketing can still be used to supplement the web app – offer a blog or other supplementary pages that link back to the web app. And then, of course, there are sites devoted to listing web apps (Google Web Store) that can certainly be used to drive traffic.

    Anyway, interesting thoughts in this article. Thanks!

    • Not accurate.
      Using AngularJS you can create an SPA (single page web app) with SEO related content.
      Our own site is an example.

  • One big issue to consider is the price. Cutting edge mobile web applications (SPA) cost, certainly if you compare the price to developing a web site. But it's like comparing apples to pears.
    I think there is no general guideline. Consider what you need – is it a good and dynamic user experience? Consider how much are you willing to pay for it.
    And the SEO issue can be solved, automatically.

    • How do you see the SEO problem being solved automatically? All the meta tegs are written automatically? Or what do you mean?

      • patrickbaek

        Meta tags are not as important as there are hundreds of other ranking factors that can override the merits of, say, keywords, that determines the quality score of the content, which in this case, a particular landing page that should be prioritized only in order of importance for users as well as to meet the business objective, e.g., optimizing the various stages in the marketing strategy whether it is about optimizing the volume metrics such as unique visits to increase the level of awareness at the top of the search funnel, or the lead conversion metrics such as CTR (visits) in the middle of users's search funnel, or ultimately, the lead-to-sales conversion at the last stage.

        Speaking of content, it means everything there is to know about WHO, WHAT, WHY, and HOW about your business whether the primary objective of creating a single page web (app) caters to mobile users (E.g. in the early case of Instagram, Twitter) in mind, or desktop (including laptop) users or both, i.e., #RWD.

        In other words, the content marketing of SEO is not always about creating the text driven, keyword focused page, but more about creating the whole branding experience as to, in this particular case, optimize UX/UI – hence being a single page web that leads visitors to take the desire of choice of KPI that is simply, easy-to-understand, and actionable, thus optimizing the main business objective, but not just ranking, which is very irrelevant term as the higher ranking doesn't equally mean higher conversion, not to mention you don't see much of any organic search results on the first page especially on mobile browsers: Because people don't read but only scan for information, wherein for example, if you visit a site such as NYtimes, every headline and banner ads are all placed "above-the-fold", but in reality, the content "below-the-fold" is just as important, especially when everything is being crammped into a particular viewing area within any landing page such as Homepage.

  • I suggest to build website rather than just app. If you have the site ready, you will then have more reason to develop more of the apps that you are contemplating to have.

  • Tom Martin

    In web apps, users always have the most up-to-date version of the app without having to install new updates. Here's an article that states the atrenghts and weaknesses of web apps…

  • As app users demand a friendlier interface and web users demand higher levels of dynamic rendering and power, the two are quickly becoming one.

  • Very Interesting – as someone who is interested in the SEO side of thing, there is a real argument for web pages at this stage , I am sure that this will change as Google Develops better tech for this. Their recent hummingbird update was a step in the right direction

  • Jon

    Ciprian, I have always thought about creating an Android app at some point. I might learn how to code them soon. Good article!

  • There are websites like web2apk.com that allow you to create an android app from your website automatically and easily

  • An0nym0usC0ward

    The SEO problem doesn’t exist if your APIs are RESTful – in the initially meant way, which is nowadays called HATEOAS. OTOH, when you build a real SPA, you oftentimes do not want your app’s data to be indexed by search engines. I think this distinction is more relevant to making the decision for SPAs or web sites.

  • tom rose

    There are millions of web sites. You can go to any of them with the same software – a browser. If every one of them was, instead accessed via an App then you’d need a different App for each one – obviously an impossibility.

    The use of Apps to replace regular web sites, places that you go to mainly for information, or to buy, is in many ways a BACKWARD step for users. But I can see why big businesses like them … it locks you in to them, and makes you less likely to explore smaller competition.

    So far as I can see most of the advantages of Apps could be coded into web sites. Some interactivity can be retained with Javascript, Flash and other technologies, even if you lose your data connection. Features of Apps that cannot be emulated in a browser are going to become less and less important as it becomes ever easier and cheaper to stay on-line anywhere on the planet.

    I like and appreciate Apps that turn your phone or tablet into a useful specialist device, like a flashlight, a metronome, a notepad, a spreadsheet, a video player, an alarm clock, a camera, a book reader, a pinball machine, a calculator, or whatever you might need to make work easier or just for fun.

    That is a sensible way to make use of a small general purpose computer running a powerful operating system such as LInux (Android) or iOS (Apple) but replacing web access with site-specific Apps is NOT being done for the end-user’s benefit.

    • Roberta Keeth

      I agree!!!!!!!!

  • I’ve always thought that the CMS was the epitome of where the web site and the web app jostled together in synchronous harmony. This commingling actually contributes to SEO as far as the CMS being a content-centric app, “Content” being the first word of the acronymic phrase. The content management system will only take on more app-like characteristics in the next decade with the inescapable ubiquity and hyper-propagation of “smart” mobile, tablet, and advanced notebook technologies. In fact, the only conceivable thing holding back the web app as the singular dominant of connected reality is the stronghold of the web server. Were this blockade removed, the appification of the Web would be a present certitude.

  • Marc

    I rely on website and not apps. Now this isn’t true for mobile where mobile apps I believe are better than mobile websites but that’s because mobile websites are horrible.

    Apps like weather channel, facebook, gmail that need the internet to work just don’t have all the functionalities you might be used to on the web. I’ve found that in those 3 cases and many more, I delete the app and just use my browser.

    Game apps are good (better than site games) and single-purpose apps like calculators, to-do’s, contacts are discrete enough to be good apps.

    So I really draw the line at web apps that need the internet and yet provide a slimmer set of functionality than their full website counterpart.

  • See this only late, but the distinction has only become more important. What is most relevant for us as developers is that the ideals and best practices have diverged significantly—one develops sites differently than apps (and we want that, for it allows us to retain more manageable simplicity with sites).

    (More thoughts, but also a few months old 😉 http://meiert.com/en/blog/20140722/docs-and-apps/ )

  • Roberta Keeth

    With apps they track your data and phone constantly. Going to a web site they see yiu but dont constantlg track your every mo e.


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