But we do build web applications

One of the most commonly misunderstood terms in our business is “website.”

If you ask us to build a website, we’ll nod our heads politely and smile. But beneath the surface we’re screaming, “You mean a web application?!”

If we accidentally verbalize that, your next question to us might be, “What’s the difference between a web site and a web application?”

There is a big difference, though it is somewhat subjective, depending on who you ask. But in this case, you asked us, so we’re giving you our definition. In our view, a website is defined by its content, and an application is defined by interaction.

A website simply displays content — text, images, video — that’s basically the same for every user. Almost every company website is simply a website.

Web applications, on the other hand, are interactive, with the best ones being completely user-driven. People think of applications as websites because they access them through a browser, but the functions and features they offer make them partially, or even completely personalized. Applications like Lynda.com or Domino’s Pizza Tracker are good examples of web applications.

Another example we like to reference is healthcare.gov. President Obama, and almost everyone in the media referred to it as a website. To be fair, “website” has become a catch-all term and it served as a simple description of a very complicated tool.

The Healthcare Marketplace replaces much of the healthcare-buying process that would be done with an agent over the phone, placing it online. Users enter their information, and are given their options for coverage (including cost) based on that information. They can manage their coverage, make changes, and set up payment all in one place.

That’s a web application if ever we’ve seen one.

To explain further, let us offer a bit of history. The first websites were actually closer to what we think of as applications. They were completely custom-built and offered whatever functionality the company or organization wanted and that the technology of the time permitted.

Then came the advent of content management systems, like WordPress and others, which make it easy for anyone to create a website with little or no coding. But the sites they help create are largely static, though some interactive plugins are available. Companies found these CMS-generated sites to be attractive because they allowed them to create sites simply and inexpensively.

Today, we’ve come full circle, as companies are realizing the importance of providing a unique customer experience via a web application. A good example is our client Gables Residential, who had an extensive, static website with floorplans, property information, and contact information. Their new web application allows users to see up-to-the minute unit availability, dynamic pricing, and set up appointments with sales agents. All in an intuitive, user-friendly way.

They were basically digital brochures. Sure, some functionality was added as the technology grew, making interacting with the sites a little more engaging. But they were basically the same.

Today, so much more is possible in the digital space that the term “website” almost doesn’t apply. Online, users can do things. They can create, search, connect, communicate, share.

They can buy.

When it comes to companies and brands, this opens up a world of possibilities. Web applications can solve complex problems, enhance customers’ lives, and help sell products.

Take a pizza restaurant, for example. A website would only show customers the menu, provide some basic promotional information, see any specials or deals, and tell them how to get in touch by calling or driving to the location.

A web application lets you choose your pizza, customize it, place an order, pay for it, get an email confirmation, sign up for weekly promotions and a loyalty program, track your pizza’s progress, and share a photo of your pizza when it arrives.

That’s a fairly simple example, but the planning, strategy, user experience design, and development that goes into creating a application like that is far more sophisticated than what’s required to create a static website.

As mentioned above, Domino’s Pizza Tracker is an example of a web application that makes ordering a pizza a more interactive, even fun experience. This approach has propelled Domino’s from simply a food delivery company to becoming a technology company.

But the payoff is far greater. Customer experience is the new branding, and if your customer experience is better than your competitors’, you win. A better customer experience can impact other aspects of your business, as well. It can automate portions of your sales process, increasing sales conversion and lowering employee costs. It can also integrate with your marketing efforts, increasing your return on your marketing investment.

Still, many companies are viewing their online presence as a website, and are not realizing the full potential they have to deliver a compelling experience to their customers.

So if you call us up and ask for a website, we’ll politely, even enthusiastically agree. Just know that you will not be receiving a website, but instead a web application designed to make your lives (and your customers’ lives) better.