There have been a few times when clients have approached our team asking to build a website that would allow payments, let members log in, create tasks, set reminders, and some other interesting features. We don't usually correct them by saying "oh, you mean a web app, not a website"... but we're thinking it!
The fact that software operates on the web doesn't automatically make it a website, but it's a bit of an academic argument because websites and web apps are developed using pretty much the same techniques, the same languages, and a lot of the same architecture. So what makes a web application different from a website?
Before we clarify the differences, if you are doing some research for a project and don't feel confident explaining what you need, please reach out to our team. We'll guide you through a judgement-free process to understand what you need so you can get a detailed, transparent and obligation-free quote! The worse that can happen is you get some free experience-backed advice.
Web development - the umbrella term
Let's start at the top; web development. This is the umbrella term that describes any kind of software development involving web technologies. This includes:
- Frontend development (usually involved with web apps)
- Backend development
- Building services
- Creating utilities
Utilities and services can almost be identified as web applications, but they lack a few of the main traits of web apps. An example of a service may be a backend worker that executes a pre-written script every hour to perform a maintenance job on the server. The service could be completely separate from the application it's working on, it might not have a graphical UI, and users may never see it, so it falls into its own category.
However, this raises the question of how to define a web application.
What is a web application?
This is no Oxford dictionary definition, but we would classify a web application as:
A digital product built using web technology, accessible by HTTP, that provides interactive functionality that manipulates a user's data in some way.
Let's break this down.
A digital product built using web technology.
Not every coding language was created to build web products. Certain languages and frameworks are specifically created for making web products. The resulting technology is designed to operate on the internet, following particular protocols.
accessible by HTTP
Gone are the days of saying a web application has to live on a server. It's possible to create a static application that is hosted on a content distribution network rather than a server, and which operates entirely in the user's browser. The main point is to access the web application, you need to the hypertext transfer protocol through a browser.
that provides interactive functionality that manipulates a user's data in some way.
This point is really what separates websites from web applications. Most websites have interactive functionality like filters, internal search engines and contact forms. However, they don't manipulate a user's data. A web app, on the other hand, will often accept data from a user, perform some kind of calculation or mutation on the data and return it in a different form.
There's a big grey area here with edge cases like membership sites and plugins that offer functionality usually associated with web applications.
What is a website?
A website is a collection of interlinked pages and posts, accessible by HTTP.
This definition is pretty close to how we would define a web application, and that's because there's not really a clear line between the two. It's easy to argue that an eCommerce website is actually a web application because it provides user accounts, manipulates users' data, and often has a range of complicated functionality.
Websites are defined by their intention. They're a set of pages used to inform a visitor. Sometimes the information is of commercial intent and provides mechanisms for purchasing.
Website and web application - the major differences
Here are a few examples of websites that could be considered web applications:
- eCommerce sites
- Headless websites
- Membership sites
These sites don't follow the typical pattern of a website, but their intention is aimed at informing users and convincing them to take particular actions.
Web applications don't follow this pattern, which is a big part of what defines them. Web applications like Google's search engine appear like a website, but help users to find other websites. Something like Facebook is a social media platform, and even though it's accessible through HTTP, there's a ton of other complicated functionality that make it clear it's in a league of its own. Even a more subtle example like realestate.com.au isn't a website, despite having a series of interconnected pages. It has a whole suite of functionality that helps people buy and sell property, which defines it as a web application.
When does website development become web application development?
When a website starts to demonstrate functionality that isn't typically associated with normal websites or isn't easily possible to achieve with a website, it starts to venture into the classification of being a web app.
A good example of this is a headless eCommerce store. Technically it follows a website pattern, but the implementation of cutting-edge technology, rendering techniques and ability to extend the functionality places it in the web application category.
You could argue that anything built with WordPress is a website, but some pretty complex WordPress implementations do things it was never intended to do. They no longer serve the purpose of a typical website.
TechCrunch is a great example of this principle in action. Even though it's built with WordPress, it serves as a hub for user-generated news stories and the latest news affecting the tech community.
On the other hand, if any web product is built with a framework like Ruby on Rails, Laravel, Express, Vue.js or Angular, it's likely to be a web application because these technologies are excessive for building a typical website.
Drawing a clear line in the sand between what a website and a web application are is surprisingly difficult. The line blurs as websites get more complicated. Hopefully, we've given you some perspective on figuring out if you're dealing with a website or web application.
If you've got questions, please leave them below, and someone on our team will get back to you in a day or two!
Tim is the face of the company. When you want to kick off a new project, or an update on your existing project, Tim is your man!