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What is the difference between a web application and website?

Ben Obear
November 2, 2015

You've probably been using the terms 'web application' and 'website' so many times that when asked to define each of them individually or to explain the difference, you're at a loss for words. It happens when anything becomes a substantial part of our lives. In addition to the fact that it is important to know the difference between a website and a web application, you should also know the most important characteristics of both of them.


Websites are basically collections of web pages. You access them using a browser. You're basically just supposed to read and look at everything that's on a website, and that's the majority of your experience as a user. When you read the content on a website, your goal is to learn something and to absorb the information. Technically, you could have just as easily read that same information in a book. You just happened to find it on a website, probably due to personal convenience.

One of the main things that separates a website from a web application is that websites aren't interactive for the users. Websites provide and present content for readers. When people go to, they're reading the articles and looking at the images, and that is the main way they interact with the web presence.

Really, if the content of a website changes in any way or you can alter it somehow as a user, something's wrong with it. Websites have become our records banks in the twenty-first century. The archives of websites are there to be maintained, much like the physical archives that people have tried to maintain for centuries. Altering their content in the manner of a web application would technically be degrading the material in many cases.

In practice, websites are a lot simpler than web applications. Thanks to free blogging software today, you can make a website in fifteen minutes if that's what you really want. If you want to code your own website, you're going to have to learn HTML. However, there are still lots of people who can do that today, and you can learn HTML in a relatively brief period of time. Creating a website today just doesn't require a high degree of technical skill compared to creating a web application.

Web Applications

Web applications are defined by being interactive. You're supposed to use a web application in order to perform a function and use some of the web applications features. Lots of web applications don't even have real informative content or data exactly. People are just supposed to use them in order to perform additional tasks, using their features to accomplish something. You use a web application to check your incoming messages, for instance, or play a game.

The browser capabilities involved with web applications are significantly more high-tech, which is one reason why it's usually harder for people to design a web application than a website. Websites are all about getting more data, and web applications are all about doing things. One of your actions is probably going to be getting more information or learning more information, but the web application helped you perform that action. You got the information from a website.

The user interface of a web application is also usually much more complicated than the user interface of a website. Websites might have tags and categories that you need to understand, but you don't have to go through and learn any potentially complicated tasks in order to use websites. Web applications often require step-by-step guides, or you're not going to be able to complete them.

The setup of websites are completely different from web applications in most cases. The rhythm of typing in the address, loading websites, and going back and forth between websites is often absent with web applications.

Web applications, unsurprisingly, are usually harder to design and create than websites. Lots of people have their own websites today, and this was the case even ten years ago. The people who are able to create their own web applications can more easily make money off of them because it takes more work to learn how to code and create a web application.

The Line Between Web Applications and Websites

You might notice that web applications and websites can blur together in some cases. The New York Times website and most other websites have comment sections, and you do interact with those. Of course, the comment section itself could be considered a web application, but it is a web application on a website like the New York Times.

Websites are becoming more interactive today in many cases. Web applications often involve information retrieval of some kind. However, websites are still showcases of content at the end of the day, and web applications are tools that people can use in the Information Age, which characterizes their separation even today.

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Ben Obear
San Francisco