Mobile Phone Apps vs Mobile Optimized Websites – which is better?

Mobile Phone Apps vs Mobile Optimized Websites – which is better?

It is increasingly evident that companies are becoming more aware of the fact they need to embrace a mobile strategy. Not only has the constantly growing number of mobile devices and the number of mobile-only internet users overtaken desktop, but app usage has also surpassed desktop usage.

As a result of this shift, companies are re-thinking their mobile strategies.

The major question that most companies seem to be grappling with is whether a mobile app or a mobile website is the right way to go. Many will argue that you don’t need a mobile app, you just need a website that looks good and functions well on mobile devices. Others will argue that mobile apps have benefits that a responsive website cannot offer. However, when digging a little deeper, there are a myriad of factors that need to be considered before deciding.

When it comes to mobile app vs mobile website, it can be difficult to determine where to focus your efforts. Why? Because we are talking about two different mediums that allow customers to connected and interact with your company in very different ways and for very different purposes.

In this post, we are not going to tell you which one is better. Instead, we will make you understand the huge difference between these two and the final decision will be yours as to which one you want for your business.
Before going further into this discussion, you should understand that these two elements serve slightly different purposes. Now, let’s get started.

1. Mobile App Vs. Mobile Web: What’s the Difference?

Before you can evaluate the benefits of a mobile website vs. an app it’s important to understand the key differences between the two.

Both mobile apps and mobile websites are accessed via a handheld mobile device such as a phone or tablet. It is also important to know both mobile apps and mobile websites can be accessed on iOS and Android devices (Includes smartphone and tablet users).

A mobile website is similar to any other website in that it consists of browser-based HTML pages and can display text content, data, images, and video. They can also access mobile-specific features such as click-to-call or location-based mapping.

The obvious difference between a standard website and a mobile website is the latter is designed for the smaller handheld display and touch-screen interface. Increasingly, responsive websites are becoming the new standard for website design. A responsive website is not only mobile-friendly, but that can scale to any sized device – from desktop down to tablet and handheld smartphones.

Mobile apps, on the other hand, are applications that are downloaded and installed on a user’s mobile device, rather than being rendered within a browser. Users need to visit device-specific portals such as Apple’s App Store, Android Market, or Blackberry App World in order to find and download apps for a given operating system.

An app can pull content and data from the Internet, similar to a website, or it can download the content so that it can be accessed without an Internet connection. We’ll dive into the pros and cons for each, so you can make a more informed decision when establishing the smartest mobile strategy for your brand.

2. Which is better?

When it comes to deciding whether to build a native app or a mobile website, and which one is better the most appropriate option will all depend on your company or business goals. So, you are the deciding factor here.

If you are developing an interactive game for argument sake an app is probably going to be your best option. But if your goal is to offer mobile-friendly content to the widest audience possible then a mobile website would be the best option. However, in some scenarios, you may want to have both a mobile website and an application, but this will all depend on your business goals.
It is also extremely important to consider:

  • What industry are you working in?
  • What is your available time and resources?
Every industry has its own peculiarities, and it can be so, that only apps can afford to achieve success you need. In general, consumers tend to use mobile web for utility-directed tasks like searching, booking, and purchasing products. When entertainment and communications come into play, mobile apps are, for the most part, a far more favoured alternative.
In addition, it is also important to be clear on your answers to the below.
  • #1 Do you want to reach more users?
  • #2 How often do users interact with your brand a day?
  • #3 Do you need to access phone native features?
  • #4 Do you care about speed?
  • #5 Is your product complex? – E.g. You have data reports to show
  • #6 How often is your user going to use your product offline?
  • #7 What is the size of your budget?
  • #8 Does your product involve navigation or location-based elements? (GPS)
  • #9 Do you think you’ll be improving = updating your app very often?
  • #10 Does your competitor have an app?
Generally speaking, a mobile website should be considered your first step in developing a mobile web presence, whereas an app is useful for developing an application for a very specific purpose that cannot be effectively accomplished via a web browser. But before we move on to the differences between mobile websites and mobile apps, it’s important to point out a caveat: A responsive designed website is not the same as a mobile website.

Quick overview of difference

Responsive Design Website Separate Mobile Website
Cost Easier/cheaper to maintain More maintenance; requires bi-directional annotation between desktop and mobile versions
Site speed Large pages are slow to load on mobile devices Quick page loads on mobile platforms
User experience Pleasing both mobile and desktop users with same interface means not focusing exclusively on the needs of either User experience customized to the benefits and limitations of mobile devices; content customized to mobile users
SEO Single website/URL; content is optimized across all platforms Multiple URLs; each will need its own SEO.

3. A quick overview

Before delving deeper into the benefits of each, below is a short comparison.

  Mobile Website Mobile App
Audience Reach Viewable by anyone with a mobile browser Viewable by individuals with the appropriate device
User Experience Limited by bandwidth, technologies and site performance but improving Capable of very robust user experiences
Graphics and effects Limited by bandwidth and technology, but improving Superior. Graphics may be stored locally. Effects and animations are limited only by device computing power and memory
Access to hardware functionality Limited. Device geo location can be utilized Unlimited access. Camera, accelerometer, microphone, GPS, etc
Ease of development Developed with standard web development tools and technologies When built for distinct operating systems and devices (native code), unique programming languages and software development kits are required. Cross-platform solutions are available for deploying to various app stores
Development resources Build once and deploy for all devices Built for individual devices and operating systems. May require multiple developers with different proficiencies
Development cost Typically, but not always, less expensive than app development Typically, but not always, more expensive especially when multiple devices or operating systems are targeted
Ease and speed of implementation Publish as a website. Immediate availability May require a submission process. Users must download and install prior to use
Distribution Viewable with any mobile browser. No distribution required Download and installation required
Installation No Installation required. Web based Downloaded and installed from website or marketplace
Updates and maintenance Easily updated and changes are immediate with a browser refresh iTunes requires a submission process. May require multiple development resources if updates are required for multiple devices and operating systems
Paid app vs free app Difficult. Plus, solutions lack purchasing ease and confidence associated with iTunes App Store and Android Marketplace Easy to charge for apps, using the available app marketplaces
Search optimization (SEO) Can be found through a standard search. Primary website can redirect to a mobile-optimized version when mobile is detected Typically found through an app store search or linked to from a website
Internet or data connectivity Required Can be used offline

4. Mobile App Pros

Despite the many inherent benefits of mobile websites, the use of apps is still soaring in popularity. Why so? Generally speaking if you want any of the following benefits, an app makes sense:

A. Mobile apps provide a superior user experience. 

A mobile app takes user experience to a whole new level by combining content, navigation, and integrated mobile device functionality (sound, video, images, location, etc) in a way that optimizes the user’s experience. A native app engages the user beyond the capabilities of a display-only mobile website and provide a more personal, efficient, and responsive overall experience through allowing the user to personalise their experience.

The superior user experience is one reason that mobile device users spend 86 percent of their time interacting with mobile apps compared to just 14 percent using mobile browsers.

B. Mobile apps give you a direct communication channel to your customers. 

Once a mobile app has been downloaded to as user’s device, it’s always there, reminding them of your brand even when they aren’t actively engaging with it.

With an app the information you most want your customers to have is right there at their fingertips a tap away. When paired with push notifications information about products, prices, sales, promotions—whatever you want, as a brand you are provided with a level of direct interaction most marketers dream about.

C. Personalisation & customer engagement. 

Personalization is about offering individualised communication to users based on their interests, location, usage behaviour, and more. With mobile apps, it’s easy to offer users a personalized experience.

Mobile apps can let users set up their preferences when they originally download the app, and customize it to suit their needs, providing them with more interactive ways to engage with your content.

Rather than looking at the exact same text and images as a website, by prompting users to allow geography-specific content such as special promotions or deals at a particular store location apps can integrate features which allow users to interact with certain components of the app thereby becoming more immersed in your brans.

D. Mobile apps have functionality even when they are offline. 

A major advantage of apps over mobile websites, is the fact: customers can access information on your app even if they aren’t connected to the Internet.

You can create maps, how to guides, videos, menus, maps, podcasts, games, and more —there’s no real limit to the offline information you can put into your app.

Mobile apps can run without internet connection. Although many apps require an active internet connection to perform most of their tasks, they can still offer content and functionality to users while not connected to the web.

E. Branding Opportunities

The major advantage mobile apps have over mobile websites is free prime real estate on your customer’s device. Even when users are not actively using a mobile app, they are still reminded of your brand daily, simply because your app icon acts as an advertisement for your brand.

Even though a mobile app exists as an entirely separate entity from a company’s website, it can offer new branding opportunities to users. This means that companies can experiment with new branding tactics and styles with a mobile app.

F. Complex Calculations or Reporting with Visualization

If you need something that will take data and allow you to manipulate it with complex calculations, charts or reports (think financial or scientific tools) an app will help you do that very effectively.

g. Leverage Device Capabilities

Mobile web browsers are getting increasingly good at accessing certain mobile-specific functions such as click-to-call, SMS, device libraries and GPS functions. However, if you need to access a user’s camera or processing power only a native app can interface with the device’s features and hardware, such as the camera, GPS location, and so on.

Having access to the device’s capabilities is particularly important for retail apps as they significantly enhance the customer experience. If there’s a single truth to shopping, it’s that the customer experience matters. Here are just a few of the possibilities only apps offer:

  • Push notifications
  • Tap-to-call/email
  • Device vibration/ alerts
  • Camera
  • Instant and automatic updates

5. Mobile Website Pros

If your goals are primarily related to marketing or public communications, a mobile/responsive website is almost always going to make sense as a practical first step in your mobile marketing strategy.

This is because a mobile website has a number of distinct advantages which are more aligned with top of the funnel activities, such as growing and nurturing a steady stream of new leads, in addition to benefits such as broader accessibility, compatibility and cost-effectiveness.

Let’s take a look at what makes a mobile website a good investment for small business owners:

A. Broader Audience Reach

Because a mobile website is accessible across most platforms and mobile devices it can be easily shared. It’s easy for users to share a URL for your mobile site in an email or text, and it is easy for publishers to direct customers to a mobile website in the same way. It is not as easy to share an app or content within an app.

Unlike a mobile app, which must be downloaded and installed on a mobile device, any customer can access your mobile website whenever they want from whatever device they are using at the time.

B. You only need one version. 

Because mobile websites are accessible across all device, you only need to create one version for Android and iOS. With mobile apps, you need to decide which operating system you’ll use, or else develop two versions, one for iOS and one for Android. In this regard, mobile websites are much simpler to develop and maintain.

C. Cost-Effective

Complexity aside, a responsive mobile site is generally more cost-effective to develop than a mobile app. This holds true if you want your app to have a presence on more than one platform.

D. Support and Maintenance

It is usually also less expensive and less labour-intensive to update and maintain a mobile website. Properly supporting and maintaining an app (upgrades, testing, compatibility issues and ongoing development) is more much more expensive and involved than supporting a website over time.

E. You can instantly update your mobile website. 

Unlike apps it’s very simple to update the content, appearance, and functionality of a mobile website. Once you make the changes and hit “publish,” the changes are instantly available to anyone who visits the site. Mobile apps, on the other hand, require users to download and install updates once you push them out.

F. SEO & Brand Visibility

Although Google is now indexing app content and including apps in some search results, it is generally much more common for mobile websites to show up in search results than for a query to return a mobile app.

Having a mobile-friendly site means you are more likely to rank better, which results in greater brand visibility and higher website traffic.

6. How to make the Final Call

The final call should solely depend on your business goals.

If your mobile goals are primarily marketing-driven, or if your aim is to deliver content and establish a broad mobile presence that can be easily maintained, shared between users, and found on search then a mobile website is your best bet.

On the other hand, if your goal is to provide a user experience that feels more like a gaming interface or a computer program than a website, or if you need access to a user’s phone storage and native functions, then an app is probably going to be required.

It’s also important to remember that a mobile/responsive website and a native app are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Plenty of organizations have both a mobile-friendly public website for their general web presence, as well as a downloadable native app to accommodate more specific requirements. In the end, it’s all about choosing the right tool for the job.