What's the difference between a web site and a web application? RRS feed

  • Question

  • I'm stumped trying to come up to a difference between a web site and a web application for myself. As I see it, a web site points to a specific page and a web application is more of some sort of 'portal' to content and information.

    But where I'm stuck is that a web application is still viewed through a browser (is it not?) and a web site can still view content dynamically, making the line between web site and application prety gray.

    For instance, does a web site using ASP.NET or AJAX (I assume ASP.NET is AJAX's proprietary sibling, if not, ignore ASP.NET AND concentrate on the AJAX), becomes a web application because it can retrieve data dynamically and asynchronously or would a website using PHP and a CMS be more of a web application because it forms the pages on request, based on the request of the client and its content in its databse?

    Or maybe I'm totally wrong here - what differenciates between a web application and a website?


    This is totally personal and subjective, but I'd say that a website is defined by its content, while a webapplication is defined by its interaction with the user. That is, a website can plausibly consist of a static content repository that's dealt out to all visitors, while a web application depends on interaction and requires programmatic user input and data processing.

    For example, a news site would be a "website", but a spreadsheet or a collaborative calendar would be web "applications". The news site shows essentially the same information to all visitors, while the calendar processes individual data.

    Practically, most websites with quickly changing content will also rely on a sophisticated programmatic (and/or database) backend, but at least in principle they're only defined by their output. The web application on the other hand is essentially a program that runs remotely, and it depends fundamentally on a processing and a data storage backend.


    There is no real "difference". Web site is a more anachronistic term that exists from the early days of the internet where the notion of a dynamic application that can respond to user input was much more limited and much less common. Commercial websites started out largely as interactive brochures (with the notable exception of hotel/airline reservation sites). Over time their functionality (and the supporting technologies) became more and more responsive and the line between an application that you install on your computer and one that exists in the cloud became more and more blurred.

    If you're just looking to express yourself clearly when speaking about what you're building, I would continue to describe something that is an interactive brochure or business card as a "web site" and something that actually *does something that feels more like an application as a web app.

    The most basic distinction would be if a website has a supporting database that stores user data and modifies what the user sees based on some user specified criteria, then it's probably an app of some sort (although I would be reluctant to describe Amazon.com as a web app, even though it has a lot of very user-specific functionality). If, on the other hand, it is mostly static .html files that link to one another, I would call that a web site.

    Most often, these days, a web app will have a large portion of its functionality written in something that runs on the client (doing much of the processing in either javascript or actionscript, depending on how its implemented) and reaches back through some http process to the server for supporting data. The user doesn't move from page to page as much and experiences whatever they're going to experience on a single "page" that creates the app experience for them.

    Sunday, May 25, 2014 6:22 PM