What’s the difference between a Mobile Website and a Mobile App?

A good marketing strategy ensures your business is represented on the media your customers use. Since people are increasingly interacting with mobile devices such as smartphones, you should consider if a mobile website or a mobile app would be an asset to your business.
So why do mobile users need special treatment? Smaller monitors and touch screens mean that presentation and data entry for traditional computers may seem awkward and cumbersome to a mobile user. Furthermore, mobile devices have hardware such as a camera, GPS, and compass that offer more opportunities if software can effectively use them. There are two approaches for designing content for mobile devices: creating a mobile website and creating a mobile app.

Mobile Website

A mobile website is generally cheaper to build since you can use the content management system (CMS) of your main website. You can develop a mobile theme for your site to re-style the content you have already created to look good on a tiny screen. Of course, you could also build a completely separate mobile site with its own CMS (or no CMS if you prefer). Updating content with a CMS can be very easy. If your web programmer has the knowledge and experience to design for mobile devices, the costs for setting up a mobile website should be comparable to a regular website since the software and technical skills required are comparable.
Once you have set up your mobile website, visitors to your web address can be diverted automatically to the correct version of the site based on the device being used. So a visitor on a PC sees the normal website whereas the visitor from a smart phone or tablet sees the mobile website. Of importance for search engine optimization (SEO) is that visitors will be able to find your mobile website using search engines. This is not the case with mobile apps.

Mobile App

An app, short for application, is a piece of software than runs on a device. Applications for mobile devices often need to be written for each of the popular mobile operating systems (iPhone/iPad, Blackberry, Android, Windows Mobile, Nokia/Symbian).  Not only can it be harder to find a programmer experienced with writing mobile apps, but also business owners may need to pay for the development of more than one app. This is different from a website which provides content to any device with a web browser.
There are several reasons why developing mobile apps may be worth the investment. An app can better tap into the device’s unique hardware such as a compass, GPS, camera and microphone. For example, an app could generate directions based on the user’s current location. Apps can also be better customized for the device’s processor and memory capacity.
Unlike mobile websites which must be accessed over an Internet connection, people can use an app offline if there is no need to send or receive data over the Internet. Reception on mobile devices can be spotty and many people minimize Internet use to reduce fees, making the offline option of apps attractive. Apps can also improve usability since people do not have to wait for content to be downloaded over a slow connection.
While the contents of a mobile app will not be found via search engines, mobile apps have a marketing benefit of being featured in app stores for providers such as Apple and Android. Once installed on a device, an icon will appear in the phone menu, making an app more prominent for a user than a website, regularly reminding them of its presence. Finally, mobile apps have the potential to be sold as paid versions. Since not all businesses can afford to build mobile apps, this investment is an approach to distinguish your business from your competitors.

Hybrid Mobile Website / App

If you want an app but want to keep your costs down, you may be interested in a hybrid option. This involves developing an app that simply loads a mobile website possibly with some extra menu options and a welcome screen. This gets your mobile website featured in the app stores, and gets you the shiny icon on people’s phones, but for much less expense than a full blown app.


Both a mobile website and a mobile app have advantages and disadvantages: what is better for your business depends on your objectives and resources. Consider a mobile website if you are on a tight budget, if you need a content management system or if you want your material to appear in search engine results. Consider a mobile app if you want to take advantage of mobile hardware such as GPS, if you want users to access content offline or if you want something that will distinguish your business from your competitors. Of course, if you have the resources, you do not need to choose: you can build both a mobile website and a mobile app.

About the author: Jen Adamson is a technology expert with the London web design agency Wholegrain Digital, who specialise in the world’s #1 CMS WordPress and love to build mobile friendly content.