What’s What: Custom Web Application, Plugin, & Website

What’s the difference between website, plugin, and custom web application?

Hands up if the words website, plugin, and web application all sound like synonyms! To the untrained eye, these digital thingamajigs all seem to look and feel the same, but while they share some similar territory, they are actually quite different.

Which is very important for business owners to understand, because when you have a cool idea you want to integrate into your online presence, you’ll need to know the difference between a website, plugin, and custom web application.

Here at Smack Happy, we don’t just do websites. Plugins and web applications also fill our days (along with delighting our clients and supporting their business efforts).

So we tapped two of our web developers — Ruben and Viktor — to help break down the difference between a website, plugin, and custom web application.

What is a website?

wordpress website icon
“A website is an online publication of information. It’s mainly focused on providing the user with information and so it’s mostly one-way traffic where the user ‘pulls’ the information on the website.”
— Ruben

So, a website is all about delivering information to a user. Most business websites have a home, about, and services page, each of which displays information about those topics. How it’s expressed and delivered is where copywriters and designers get creative and bring in important marketing tactics like technical SEO and intuitive user experience.

“There are many different types of websites. From a corporate site to a product microsite and different levels of content and interactivity provided for the user change what the scope of the website is.”
— Viktor

The good news here is that a website can deliver as much or as little information you want. This allows your business to share in the website format that is most authentic to your brand.

form fills for websitesWhat is a plugin?

“A plugin is an extension to an existing product. It adds or modifies the functionality of a software product.”
— Ruben

If you’re using WordPress, you probably have a handful of plugins already. Each plugin provides a specific functionality like a contact form or SEO analyzer that works within your WordPress website.

“In the case of WordPress plugins, you can add new functionalities to WordPress by installing and activating a plugin.”
— Ruben

This is why activating or deleting a plugin doesn’t wholly change your WordPress website. The plugin is a bundled set of files that extend the functionality of your website, sort of like the attachments to an electric drill or hairdryer.

“WordPress, notably, is written in a way to easily allow that kind of practice. There is an abundance of plugins available currently and, beyond that, a proper framework and documentation to develop custom plugins to fit any kind of tailored needs of a project.”
— Viktor

What is a web application?web chat application

“A web application is any application running inside of a web browser. It’s meant to provide the user with some kind of functionality to accomplish a certain task, much like a desktop application or a mobile app.”
– Ruben

To take a step backward for a moment, an application is a type of software that allows you to perform specific tasks. You might have a desktop application like Microsoft Word that allows you to create and edit documents. You might also have a mobile application like DoorDash that allows you to request and pay for food delivery.

A web application is very similar, only instead of installing onto your computer or mobile phone, it runs (without installation) in a web browser like Chrome or Firefox.

“For example, Google Docs is a web application that provides similar functionality as MS Word, but it’s running inside a web browser instead of on your own computer.”
— Ruben

What is a custom web application?

This is where it gets really fun!

“A custom web application is any web application that’s built from the ground up vs using an existing product. This is usually necessary in cases where certain functionalities aren’t available in existing products or when someone has a unique idea that needs to be implemented.”
— Ruben

The distinction between a web application and a custom web app is important for business owners who want to implement a unique idea. If it’s never been done before, there’s a good chance you’ll need to go custom with an experienced developer.

“For example consider you came up with the idea to build Slack. There was no existing solution for that product back when they came up with that idea and so they implemented it as a web application. Later on, they also added desktop applications, but it’s still a web application in its core.”
— Ruben

The easiest way to determine if a web application will need to be customized or custom-built is to book a consultation with an agency like ours. The reason why is because they’ll already have a good idea of what existing solutions have been created saving you hours of research and a steep learning curve just to determine if an idea is viable!

Custom web applications are tailored completely to the specific needs a company might have. One example might be an online product designer — maybe a make your own t-shirt designer — that would be integrated within the purchasing process offered by an e-commerce website. A custom web app is really anything one could think of to solve a problem or address a certain need.”
— Viktor

At the end of the day, Viktor and Ruben are right. Websites, plugins, and web applications are all tools to solve a problem or address a certain need. So the right tool for your business or idea just depends on what you want.

TLDR? A website is informational, a plugin is functional, and a web application is interactive.

Do you have a big idea for your business?

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