Words Matter: Understanding the Difference Between a “Website” and “Web Application”

There is a common misconception that every URL typed into an address box belongs to a website, but some lead users to websites while others lead to web applications. To the untrained eye, there are very few differences between the two, but it is important to understand the different uses and functionalities of each, especially for individuals and companies interested in hiring a web development company to develop their own.

For those of you who are embarking on a web development project, having the knowledge about websites and web applications can help you to define the requirements and scope of the project and subsequently decide which tool will provide the most value based on your needs. While technologists will see areas where the lines blur, for the purposes of this article, I am making the distinction based on the end-user experience and intended use.

What is a Website?

Simply put, the main purpose of a website is to inform. On a well-designed website, information is intuitively assembled in order for users to easily navigate and extract the knowledge that meets their needs. Business sites, blogs, and news sites are a few examples of classic websites. They appeal to a large audience with little to no restrictions, offering information in the form of text, videos or even documents.

The main elements of a website are HTML, CSS, Java and JavaScript, and they typically don’t require advanced programming languages or custom databases. Instead, websites are usually created within a content management system (CMS) such as WordPress, Squarespace, Drupal, Wix, etc. This allows website administrators to push out content in real time, as there are no technical barriers between the author of the content and the publishing system.

What is a Web Application?

Web applications are similar to websites in that they live on the internet and are accessed via a browser, but their functionality and features are completely different. Think about tools you use on a daily basis, such as Gmail, Trello, Basecamp, Facebook etc. What makes these tools different than a blog or a news site? Utility.

Web applications are made to solve an issue or provide utility in the form of communication, reporting, or even entertainment. These types of systems typically require authenticated users, and the platform can be customized and catered to specific users’ needs.

Unlike websites, web applications are more than just a few pages of HTML; they are quite complex and feature rich. They require programming languages such as Java, Python, Ruby, .NET or PHP, and therefore require more experienced developers to add or update features and functionality. As a result, any updates to the backend must go through QA testing and validation before being pushed to production.

Websites and Web Apps are Not Mutually Exclusive

Websites and web apps complement each other and are often used simultaneously. Architecturally, a CMS is used to create an informational website, and custom code can be used to create an area within the site that functions as a web app. To the end user, it should be difficult to identify any differences – tools like this typically have a unified look and feel in order to provide a seamless user experience.

Final Thoughts

While your unique business goals and functionality may not require both a website and a web app, it is important to understand the uses and benefits of each in order to help engage users at the highest level possible. Ask yourself – is our goal to deliver content or provide utility? If your needs are primarily informative, choose to create a website that requires very little input from the end user. If your needs are more complex and you require added functionalities and features, then a web application will provide the highest value.

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About the author / Jody Haneke

Jody Haneke is President and Founder of Haneke Design, a full stack, custom software development agency in Tampa, Florida. Mr. Haneke was part of the emerging field of user experience design from the day he graduated Ringling College of Art and Design with a degree in Graphic Design in 1995. Haneke Design has become the go-to resource for companies such as NYSE, Paramount Pictures, Target, and the One World Observatory to launch digital products that amaze and delight end-users.

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