Why Prioritizing a Mobile App Over a Website is a Terrible Idea

We’re in the middle of something of a mobile app craze, to put it very mildly. It’s not just startups or large companies; these days every business seems to be investing money or at least exploring the possibility of developing an app. Sometimes it’s to the extent that companies forego websites altogether, or even turn their websites into vehicles to promote their apps.

In the past few years in particular, there have been a flood of articles (many written by actual app development companies with a financial stake in this) declaring that your business must get its own mobile app if it wants to continue thriving, that websites are dead, and that mobile apps are the future!

Except this is a really bad idea both short term and long term. It’s not dissimilar to the “everyone needs a Facebook page” craze that swept the Internet back in 2011 or so, when people were convinced that Facebook pages were going to replace websites and that we were going to be living on a “Facebook Internet.” Not that Facebook doesn’t probably still salivate over that idea, but in hindsight we’ll probably talk about the “websites are dead, get an app!” craze in the same way.

If you’re a business and you’re looking to push users from a mobile website to a mobile app, you probably fall into one of two categories:

  1. You’re doing it because it’s easier to collect data on your users, ping ad servers to serve more ads and sell data to advertisers.
  2. You’re doing it because you’re a business getting swept up in the app craze and convinced that “everybody needs a mobile app” now.

I’m specifically going to address people in the second category. Not only are websites alive and well, but business apps are, by and large, a massive waste of time and money. Especially for a small business.

The first thing to point out is that if websites are dead, the industry itself must have missed that memo. I’ve criticized the lack of quality control in web development in the past, but the market is collectively worth $20.1 billion in the United States alone. 16 million new websites are published every month, 70% of websites are created by developers or companies, as opposed to 30% being from DIY website builder tools. So don’t worry, there’s no need to compose a eulogy for websites.

It’s also worth mentioning that even companies that could justify foregoing websites on smartphones in lieu of mobile apps – Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube – all have mobile versions of their websites that work fine even though they try to push you to install their apps (see #1). If anything, we’ve been seeing an opposite effect where major apps like Instagram gain dedicated web versions. Even the biggest apps still see value in websites.

When it comes to specific reasons for why this is a bad idea, any business that adopts this approach does so at the risk of alienating people based on the number of hoops they would have to jump through to get any app, let alone one they’ll use far less frequently than Facebook or SnapChat. Let’s do a side by side comparison to see the fewest number of steps both processes could possibly take:

Website: Enter URL in browser.

Smartphone App: Open app store, click search, enter app name, find app in results, download app, open app. Assuming, of course, you don’t need to register for an account as well.

Making customers take six steps as opposed to one is never good, and interface 101 says that the more steps you have customers take, the more likely you are to lose them. Look forward to watching your analytics drop off a cliff for all but your most intensely loyal customers if you decide to forego a website in favor of a mobile app.

This is especially important to consider when you remember that the vast majority of apps don’t offer any functionality that mobile websites don’t already offer without the installations and greater permissions access to your smartphone. Loyalty programs, online ordering, ticket orderings and online shopping are all things that app developers and “build your own app” companies tout as special features, but these are all things that mobile-responsive websites can and do offer. If you’re being sold “unique” features on a mobile app you’re effectively being sold something you already have the capacity to build on your website; they’re just charging you extra. It’s also not as if a mobile app is going to load faster because it uses the same Internet connection to process the data.

If anything, a mobile app is going to be a great way to annoy customers if they even bother to install one. There are more than 24,000 Android devices alone before you factor in iOS devices, Windows phones and Blackberries. If large apps developed for big companies can be frustratingly buggy you can guarantee that small business apps are prone to crashing, freezing, stuttering, and being a good old fashioned pain in the ass.

What’s more, if you’re a small business, are you really going to have the budget for the kind of QA assurance required for the variety of mobile devices that use apps now? At some point the amount of money that goes into development and troubleshooting is going to surpass a return on your investment.

Even if you decide to maintain a website but aggressively push people towards the installation of your app (which you’ll likely to make a return on your investment; for a small business developing them often has a hefty price tag) you’re going to run afoul of Google. As of 2015 Google has started downranking websites with huge app install ads. Not that it would have even made a difference, because Google’s own internal study found that most users don’t even click through based on website ads advertising mobile versions.

Speaking of Google, even if you weren’t pissing off the search engine giant with banner ads prompting people to download an app, remember that websites (mobile and otherwise) and local listings show up in search results. Mobile apps don’t. At most you could get people to pull up an App Store web listing for your mobile app, but this only brings me back to my first point that accessing a mobile website rather than opening up an app store and downloading an app. You could advertise your app in search results, but you run into the same series of problems of accessibility.

When you also factor in how many apps exist relative to how many people actually use, the proliferation of small business apps is not something you as a business should be encouraging or excited about (never mind the financial investment). Despite the meteoric growth in the number of apps on both Google Play and the App Store, users seem to be hitting a limit based on how many separate applications they’ll install. The average user has 41 apps installed but only uses about 25.

Think about this from the perspective of the customer who frequents multiple businesses on a semi-regular basis. Imagine having to install ten different mobile apps that they may not even use more than once or twice a month on top of regular apps from more entrenched mobile apps that see more regular usage, like Uber or Netflix.

The prospect of having to install or open up a different mobile app is going to feel like a chore and the user is going to feel like they’re being pushed to install bloatware. By contributing to this fragmentation of mobile browsing you’re making it far less likely that people will even be willing to access your content.

These are just some of the reasons why prioritizing an app over and above your website itself is a horrible idea. I alluded to this earlier, but it’s the same “because everybody’s doing it” bandwagon-driven hype that motivated everyone to get a Facebook page back in 2010, the vast majority of which now sit on Facebook collecting dust or are just updated every three months. The only difference is that this is a bandwagon that requires a significant amount of time and money and detracts from other business opportunities. Don’t buy into the hype; just because there’s an app for that doesn’t mean you need one.