Is your business right for developing an app, or should you stick with optimizing a mobile site? Here's our breakdown of apps vs mobile web.

How do you engage with content on your mobile device, and where does one interaction end, and another begin? Think about what you’ve used your phone for today.

ThScreen Shot 2016-02-26 at 3.55.22 PMis is how most people use the mobile internet – They often use the web for quick, miscellaneous tasks on a widely distributed variety of sites, but spend most of their time in a few apps. In fact, the vast majority of app-usage is from just a few of the most popular apps available. Mobile websites, on the other hand, see much higher unique traffic. Each month, the average smartphone owner uses about 24 apps, but visits between roughly 250 and 700 websites.

Many businesses struggle to determine whether to invest time and money in a mobile app or a mobile web presence. The line exists between the two platforms, but it changes and updates frequently, as the mobile landscape has been in flux for several years as smartphone technology and usage increase. Here’s our look at the specific strengths, differences and convergences of web and apps in 2016.

What’s the difference?

The web doesn’t mean “the internet” – it’s the abstract, open, interconnected space for sites through which we access the internet. Mobile apps also allow us to interact with information on the internet, but they have custom UX and curated content based around the developer’s brand.

Similarly to the example above, your audience might use a handful of popular apps for the bulk of their online time, but dig deeper into the longtail of the internet with a greater number of quick, one-time-only interactions on the mobile web.

Thinking of designing an app? Here are the pros & cons

Your app needs to offer features and values that would otherwise be unavailable on a mobile website. While mobile web technology is increasingly updating its range of abilities, there are still many things only an app can do.

Most popular apps are able to integrate with, and access, core parts of your phone including contacts, other apps, notifications, the microphone and speakers. Mobile apps are also ideal for continuing to supply value and content to users when they are offline. At 35,000 feet, you can use apps to listen to synced music, play games, read, create, and save your work locally on your device.

The top apps on the market get an added bonus of second-to-none visibility because they are likely to live right on the front page of your phone, removing the option of choosing a competitor’s service on the web. If IMDb sits snugly on page one of my iPhone, I’ll use it every time I need to find out who did that guest voice on The Simpsons. If I were to open up Safari and search for the answer, I may be tempted to explore everything on my results, spend more time searching, and possibly end up on a competitor’s mobile site.

Apps allow for seamless delivery of a brand’s content exactly as they design it. A well-made app is guaranteed to be optimized for your audience’s device size and capabilities. Apps are made to rigorous standards, and get approval from iTunes, Google Play and other major stores, requiring a large investment of time and money for development. The UX must cater to the specifications of each model of the device the app is available on.

Apps have an extremely high barrier of entry. According to Moz, the top 25-50 apps (and some studies even say the top five apps) are responsible for 85-90 percent of the time that people spend using apps. Because of the rigorous submission and approval processes from app stores, not all business are suited to the development costs and time for publishing an app.

To make a successful app

While many users agree that the app is the most elegant and seamless way for customers to engage with a business, most marketers recognize that in order to be successful in creating one:

  • You need to either have a top app in your industry and corner the market (think Weather Channel, NPR, Google Maps, Venmo or IMDb).


  • You only need a niche, dedicated group to install your app. These are users who will use your app to achieve a very specific goal, and one that can only be done with an app, but not a website (for example Ikea Catalogue, JetBlue, Bandcamp, or Catanerator).

Retention is a huge issue for most app designers. According to Moz’s Rand Fishkin, the majority of apps are never opened again after 90 days. How often do you hear about a cool app, get it, tinker with it once, give it a home inside a folder on page three of your home screen, and forget to ever use it again (or delete it to make room for another app)?

You’ll need a stellar team of developers and engineers dedicated to your app. Remember that just because you have an app, doesn’t mean you don’t need a mobile site as well. You will need to keep up an optimized mobile website in addition to the app to serve people who don’t want the app experience, or are simply searching for you on a search engine.

And a mobile site? You might want one

You already have a website. The task now is to evaluate how well it works on mobile, and then design an optimized version. Your content is already online, and the process of creating a great mobile web presence is far easier than developing the next big app. The barrier to entry is acquiring a domain and hosting, which you already have if you’ve got a website, and assembling a good mobile UX team.

While mobile sites lack push notifications, and don’t allow offline access, they are indexed in ways that are fairly familiar to marketers. Good UX and SEO, coupled with compelling, relevant, high-quality content will make or break your mobile web presence. Though these three criteria are converging, it is best to address and tweak each individually.

Optimizing & designing for the mobile web

No matter what your online strategy is, you must optimize your site with responsive design and mobile friendly tags. You’ll need a modern UX, and a great content experience that gives the answers people need and satisfies their search intent. Make sure your page loads as fast as possible, as Google takes load time into consideration when ranking sites.

Trust your brand to reach users in the longtail of search terms and questions. You might not become a top-100 website, but that isn’t necessarily the goal – that’s what an app might be for. Your website is for to people who are searching for a quick recipe, a movie showtime, a score, an article or an answer. Of course you have more to offer, but the majority of the mobile web is designed to provide solutions as fast as possible, and reach new audiences with those solutions.

  • Tip: Don’t design your site in the style of an app, or you might end up on one of these blogs.

Changes in app integration & convergence in platforms

You might have read about developments in mobile app integration and mobile web technology. Most are led by – who else? – Google. Changes to the app-web balance could influence how you plan to proceed with your mobile strategies. Here are some of the prominent stir-ups in the mobile marketing world to keep an eye on:

  • Google has begun app-indexing and hosting. We’ve written recently about how Google is showing signs of increasingly favoring in-browser content when we reported about Google removing right-hand ads on search results. They are experimenting with hosting Android apps, providing the virtual full-app experience by including an “open in app” button on a search result.
  • The physical web has the potential to bring extra power to the web by connecting objects, products and more with local users’ smartphones via simple URLs.
  • According to Moz, there’s a chance (albeit small) that Google gives an SEO preference to apps – especially in the era of listing and indexing apps.
  • AMP is sweetening the deal for mobile web. Accelerated Mobile pages (which launched this week) boost the functionality and appeal of mobile website.
Ben Silverman is Brafton's Marketing Writer. His writing experience dates back to his time reviewing music for The UMass Daily Collegian at UMass Amherst. Ben joined Brafton with a background in marketing in the classical and jazz industries. When he's not writing, he's playing drums, guitar, or basketball.