As people who do this kind of work every day, it becomes easy to take knowledge for granted, including the differences between two things we build for almost every client: websites and web applications.
And although websites and web applications are all but indistinguishable in practice for most end users, there are some distinctions between them that are important to understand, especially if you’re considering hiring someone to build one for you.
What, exactly, IS a website?
(Funny how things change: When the internet was in its infancy, the original spelling of what we now call a “website” was “Web site,” since “Web” was a proper noun that referred to the “World Wide Web.”)
At its most fundamental, a website is a collection of webpages containing content (written, images, audio, files, and/or other documents) that share a common domain name (like “yourbusinessname.com”) and are published on one or more servers (the computers that send your websites to you). They usually share a common topic, purpose, or theme, like “retail” or “books,” but it’s not a requirement.
Dynamic websites are usually built using more advanced databases and programming languages, like Perl, PHP, Ruby, and Python, and they are characterized by being able to change or customize themselves programmatically in response to new input/information. Retail websites that show you related items based on a search term and news sites that pull in stories from outside sources are everyday examples of dynamic websites, bordering on web applications.
From websites to web applications: A spectrum of interactivity
Let’s back up just a minute in time: Long, long ago, “application software” came on a disk that had to be installed on your computer in order to run that program or application 👴. Thanks to the internet, today we can run applications anywhere (no disk or installation required), and “application software” that runs on the World Wide Web has evolved to be called a “web application.”
If you want to get a bit technical, all websites and web applications (or “web apps” or “application software” or even just “software”) are programmatically the same thing. The practical differences lie in the additional layers of interactivity, function, and where/how the source of information (the database) is accessed within a web application. Another difference is that web apps not only store data but can also manipulate it according to a user’s needs/requests: Web app users are not strictly observers but participants in its execution.
The differences between websites and web applications may be best understood as a spectrum at this point in their evolution, as very few modern websites contain strictly scrollable content without any interactivity. If you ask developers (and we asked a few), you’re likely to get plenty of different answers regarding the finer differences between the two. As you might imagine, the line between what’s considered to be a “dynamic website” and what’s considered to be a “web application” can get pretty blurry, even among programming experts 🤓.
Why would I need one or the other - a website and/or a web application?
You almost certainly need a website
It almost goes without saying that your company definitely needs a website if you don’t already have one. As our lives have continued to shift online, more business is also being conducted there, so no matter what industry you’re in, you’ll benefit from a thoughtfully designed website.
The primary purpose of a business website is to convey information about your business. With very few bells and whistles, you can showcase what you offer, create social proof that grows your industry credibility, provide contact information, and generate advertising income, all from a relatively static brochure website.
In general, websites with fewer functions and features are quicker and less expensive to build and host, as they use more basic web technologies, require fewer authentications/permissions, and are less complicated from a design and development standpoint. For the same reasons, they also tend to load faster, which improves user experience (to an extent) and accessibility.
…And you might need a web application
However, as it’s become easier than ever to share dynamic content and perform complex functions online, many (if not most) companies are shifting toward web applications in place of or in addition to their traditional websites.
Remember how we said that the line between a dynamic website and a web application becomes blurry, even for those in the industry? As you add more features, integrations, and functions to your website, it gathers more layers of interactivity, transforming it into something that more closely resembles a web application. By nature, all of these enhancements can make a website behave more web application-like:
- Sometimes we use your existing website as a database while layering application logic over it, effectively giving your website a virtual makeover without disrupting its underlying function or data.
- Some business websites need to operate as virtual storefronts, so we use or create an application programming interface (API) that allows them to integrate with eCommerce or payment solutions like Shopify or Square, which adds layers of interactivity.
- Some businesses need functions that can pull data from multiple sources to assemble into usable, digestible information. You can’t necessarily see this activity in your browser, but its existence adds to the complexity and interactivity that are characteristic of web applications.
In short, the possibilities are endless when it comes to web applications, limited only by our imaginations…and maaaybe our wallets 🤑. Because this type of software is cloud-hosted, secure, scalable, and highly customizable, it’s a great investment, but it would be disingenuous to not mention the higher upfront cost.
It’s also easy to run up the tab on interactivity, hosting, and other features when building web applications - an aspect that some less-scrupulous agencies certainly take advantage of. That’s one of the many reasons why it’s so important to choose the right technology partner, no matter what you hope to build or accomplish.
It honestly comes down to what you need.
So there are things that are great about websites and web applications across the spectrum of dynamism, and there are certainly limitations no matter what you choose. Like many things in business and life, this one’s not as clear-cut as it first seems, and deciding how to proceed almost always means carefully prioritizing your needs and weighing your options alongside trusted experts.
Here at By the Pixel, we’re pretty good at working with our clients to figure out exactly what they need, and we aren’t into upselling solutions that they don’t need. We love helping businesses of all sizes identify their pain points and offering them the most logical, cost-effective solutions we know how to build, whether it’s a relatively static brochure website, a multi-tiered enterprise-level web application, something in between, or something else entirely.
Want to talk about how a new website or web application can further help your business? Contact us! We 💕love💕 talking about this stuff.