What’s the Difference Between a Website and a Web App?

3 months ago

In the tech scene, you hear terms like “website”, “web app” thrown around all the time and it appears that a lot of people (especially developers) use these words interchangeably. But what is the main difference between a web app and a website, and why is it important (or is it?). Let’s find out!


Website vs. Web App — the main difference

Websites and web apps are both technically web applications — but the terms website and web app are used among techies to draw a distinction between:

  • a product which is mainly built for displaying content/information (website)
  • a product which is mainly built for interaction (web app).

Note: when I say techies, I don’t necessarily mean developers. I mean people who are experienced in working with modern technologies, like developers, designers or marketers — but not the average person who uses the web.

Website/Web App — technical similarities

As stated in the previous section, websites and web apps have a lot more commonalities than differences from a technical point of view.

Both web apps and websites follow the so-called Client-Server Model and follow the same basic structure and have essentially the same requirements:

  • a client (your web browser)
  • a server (for handling requests/permissions)
  • a database (for storing and managing data)
  • They both require access to the Internet.
  • They both require a domain name.
  • They both require at the very least HTML (to describe and structure content), and typically use both CSS (for styling) and often JavaScript (to respond to interaction, such as clicking or scrolling).

It sounds like web apps and websites are pretty much identical, huh? Yes and no. The line between web app and website is pretty grey. It’s highly subjective, and in my opinion, it’s more about marketing than anything else.

The term you should use should depend on the context, as I’ll discuss next.

Tech speak vs. Normal Speak

Since to 99% of people don’t “speak tech” and those people will usually be your customers, it’s important to understand their perspective first and foremost.

The way tech-savvy and non-tech-savvy people communicate is vastly different.

  • Normal people don’t call things that exist on a domain/URL a “web app”. They call it a website, webpage, or homepage.
  • Normal people will often use the term “app” to describe a product installed on their smartphone. Tech people will often use the term “native app”.

The term “web app” might sound fancier and more important, but if you talk to regular people, you’ll confuse them more than you’ll enlighten them.

When it comes to communication, the most important thing is that you recognize who you are talking to. Normal (non-techies) people don’t know terms like “web app” or “native app” nor do they care.

To Conclude

Websites and Web Apps are technically both applications — what separates them conceptually is how they’re used. A website’s main purpose is to display information. A web app’s main purpose is providing interactivity and largely depend on user input, like as a social platform (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram).

This website is a platform for consuming information, but it also has interactive features like a web app. You can sign up, you can write comments. So is it a website or a web app? I guess you can call it both.

Does it really matter?

Not really — but remember who you are talking to, never make assumptions about other people’s existing knowledge when it comes to technology. If you want to avoid juggling with terminology, just call it a platform. It sounds kind of cool, you’ll cover all bases and people won’t look at you weirdly.

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