Progressive Web Apps as an alternative to mobile apps – does it work? How does it work? Pros and cons.

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PWAs and why to choose them

The boom for mobile applications started a few years ago. Every major company dreamt of having its own application allowing them to keep in touch with their users. Unfortunately, it meant opening another channel of communication and as we know, each channel needs to be fed with information. The most persistent tried to maintain engaging content on the website, social media and mobile application. However, if the user did not find any value in using the app, because, for example, it contained the same information as the website, or the functions it offered were not worth sacrificing (valuable at that time) space on the phone, its adventure ended before it really began. The company was left with a dead channel generating only unnecessary costs.

 

Progressive web applications emerged as a solution to this problem.  Finally, you could easily turn your own website into an online and offline application, available right under a distinctive icon on a smartphone screen. One of the biggest advantages of PWAs is the ability to build a web app accessible on all devices (except wearables and some Smart TVs). Additionally, there is no need to build the whole service from scratch, it can be based on an existing website. By adding the structure and minimum required PWA functionalities, we get a ready-made solution whose resources and data are available at a defined URL. Sustaining the web character, while being accessible from the main screen of the device, it gives more possibilities for marketing and SEM activities in comparison with native applications. 

 

 

 

 

Statistically, users return 3 times more often to mobile apps than to websites and the time spent in apps is increasing. On the other hand, the majority of user engagement time is spent on social media applications, which can be used to promote our content. Therefore, the combination of native functionality and web infrastructure within the PWA installed on the device seems to be an ideal solution. Google engineer Alex Russell summed it up perfectly: “PWA blurs the line between web content and apps, while retaining the advantages of the web.”

 

The ease of installation, support and maintenance make web applications outclass the native ones. PWA installation is accessible from the browser from any URL within the site without the need to use dedicated store for the user’s operating system. This is a maximum reduction of the process to one notification and click within the same service. Additionally, we become independent of the approval process in app stores, where it can take a while to release or update. By maintaining a single source of code, creating the next version and updating boils down to modifications on a single production server. What is more, it is available for all users from the moment of release without obligatory updates download.

What PWAs require and what they give in return

Several elements are required to build a progressive web application.

 

  1. SSL certificate – all traffic between the user and the server is encrypted, significantly increasing the level of security and protecting the transmitted data. 

 

  1. Responsiveness – content and template are adapted to the user’s device, so that the displayed information is presented in an optimal way.

 

  1. manifest.json – this is a file with settings and information enabling installation on the device home screen. This is a necessary condition allowing us to simulate the operation as a native application.

 

  1. Finally, service worker – the engine of the whole application – this is where the magic happens. Service worker is responsible for downloading and synchronizing resources with a built-in cache, which gives the ability to use the application offline. When used for PWAs, it is a separate file with JavaScript code that runs independently of the main thread of the web browser, giving the possibility of working in the background, and thus, among other things, support for push notifications.

 

One of the biggest advantages of web applications is the optimization of the service for speed, which translates directly into user satisfaction. Caching and synchronization of resources in the background, as well as downloading only the data needed to render a given view, allows to greatly shorten page load time, reduce the number of queries and, consequently, lower transfer usage. This is of key importance to users in areas with poorer coverage and allows some functionality when there is no internet connection. In the business context, the results include increased conversion rate, reduced rejection rate, higher number of users and longer session duration.

 

Lancôme was among the pioneers of big PWA implementations. In 2016, they took a risk and invested in the new technology. As it turned out, they hit the mark. Lancôme’s page load time was reduced by 50%, which translated into a 16% year-on-year increase in sales on mobile devices. Other major implementations with spectacular results include Forbes, Twitter, AliExpress and George, shown in the infographic below.

 

 

One service to rule them all

A website, a dedicated version for mobile devices and applications for Android and iOS – sounds familiar? The architecture and ecosystem of such a solution is expensive both to implement and maintain. An alternative approach is to build a progressive web application.  As I mentioned earlier, thanks to one service, we can deliver our content to mobile and desktop visitors regardless of the device they are using. A well-implemented application congruent with the marketing strategy is a win-win solution. On one hand, we provide the user with a single point of entry to all communication channels, at the same time making the UI/UX consistent and optimized across all platforms. On the other hand, the marketer gets the opportunity to use multiple touchpoints in communication with the user.

 

One way to take advantage of app URL availability is to place branded posters with QR codes (or NFC tags) at points of sale. To entice customers, embedded URLs can be further tagged to grant users a welcome gift, such as a discount on their next online purchase. After scanning the code or placing the phone against the tag, the user is redirected to a website where they can install the application. Thanks to this, they have a chance to read extended information about our product and brand. For the marketer, this is another way to promote the brand and the application page. Additionally, in combination with a potential loyalty programme, it gives customers access to benefits in both channels, including the use of customer cards offline in brick-and-mortar stores. After building the user base, you can take advantage of push notification functionality. This is an ideal tool for optimising abandoned baskets, activation campaigns and promotional reminders. Campaigns using push notifications are characterised by a high average CTR of 15-20%.

 

PWAs and SEO go hand in hand

Speed does matter and with PWAs, thanks to the cache, time to content is reduced to a minimum when accessing it the next time. Unlike native applications, all public resources are available on the Internet via URLs for both users and search bots. This provides huge opportunities for marketers and SEO specialists to promote the app and the website, as opposed to both Google Play and the App Store, where app developers have limited impact on the app’s position in the shop and they can only assign it to appropriate categories. 

 

It is well known that “Content is King” and it is progressive web applications, as opposed to native ones, that provide the opportunity to optimise content and document structure. Google, the main search engine, pays attention to the content of pages and their relevance for the user, and such sites are rewarded with a higher position on the search results page. The last advantage is the preservation of the web-based nature of PWAs and the related possibility of implementing off-site SEO, i.e. building valuable links to the website.

 

PWA still not for everyone

While on Android devices the PWAs can use many native features, on iOS it is more limited. Of the available device functionality on both Android and iOS we have GPS, gyroscope, accelerometer, microphone, camera and file access. Apple’s system lacks built-in support for the manifest.json file, which among other things allows you to add an icon to the home screen. However, the biggest shortcoming of iOS is the inability to send push notifications, which is a highly desired feature.

 

For content or ecommerce applications, as well as for marketing or SEO reasons, PWA is an excellent choice. Thanks to its functionalities, it optimises the performance of the website, improving the user experience. However, for applications with complex logic, games or solutions using native phone functions, PWAs may work slower or put more load on the user’s device. For such projects, a native application is still a better choice. 

 

Jędrzej Marciniak, Chief Technology Officer at Kamikaze Altavia Group

This article was originally published in Media i Marketing Polska Magazine on March 01, 2021.