Should you convert your site or app to a Progressive Web App?

Google appears to be all-in with Progressive Web Apps. There are a lot of good reasons to consider migrating and building PWAs. There are also several reasons not to, which is why PWAs may not become mainstream anytime soon.

A Progressive Web App (PWA) is a website with superpowers. A regular site requires an internet connection for you to access it but a PWA can be accessed with or without an internet connection (assuming you’ve visited the site before).

The core idea behind PWAs is to make a site or web app always accessible, regardless of the network conditions for the device. It’s an ambitious goal and is becoming a reality thanks to resources that are being poured into it from Google.

Google has fully supported PWAs since Chrome 57, and they’ve been discussing it at webmaster and marketing conferences for at least a few years now. In 2018 they significantly increased their messaging and resources related PWAs. At their 2018 Chrome Dev Summit, PWAs were on full display. They even debuted an image editing web app called Squoosh that could be used offline.

If you’re an SEO or webmaster, then you’ve probably seen mentions of PWAs everywhere. When you use the current version of Google Lighthouse, there’s even a dedicated score for PWAs. When you visit Google’s Web Development site, there’s a promoted and dedicated section for Progressive Web Apps. PWAs are a big deal to Google, and they’re betting part of their future on it.

Google Lighthouse Scores
The Google Lighthouse report includes a Progressive Web App score

Google needs PWAs more than you need PWAs

Native apps present an existential threat to Google. That’s especially true if you use non-Android devices. When you search on Google using an iPhone, visit a site, and then click on the link to install a native app, you have essentially closed the door on Google.

The App Store and iOS are not part of an ecosystem they control. They do still have the ability to collect data if the app developer uses their Analytics and Ads services. However, it’s Apple’s ecosystem, and Apple can do whatever they want with it.

As more users go to the App Store instead of Google Search, Apple becomes the search engine that controls the experience and earns revenue through their own Search Ads. Apple is also providing replacements for Google Analytics with their own App Analytics that are already baked in.

Apple Search Ads
Apple serves ads in the App Store search via their own Search Ads service

Apple also has a history of abruptly locking down their ecosystem and cutting off developers and services. So nothing is stopping them – short of federal regulation – from eventually excluding or pushing out Google from their offerings.

Bottom line, the lack of data and inability to monetize people are the main reasons Google needs PWAs to become dominant.

PWA Pros and Cons

The genius of Google is their ability to couple corporate goals with the betterment of society. Apple is brilliant at this too, which can be seen with their latest push for privacy.

If you want to keep people on the web and away from native apps, then you need to make the internet a better place. How do you make the web better? You make sites and web apps faster. You make them easier to use and less cluttered with pop-ups and aggressive ads. You make it more secure. You make it so it feels like you’re using a native app.

All of the things Google has been pushing for (or forcing) webmasters and SEOs to do the last few years – SSL, AMP, Speed, UX – are all aligned with maintaining and growing their core business. PWAs are no different.

It’s not all about Google though. There’s a lot to like about PWAs as a user or a developer.

PWA Pros

There’s also a lot to not like about PWAs.

PWA Cons

When should you build a PWA?

Building a PWA depends on what your site or app does, your financial and developer resources, and whether or not it’s right for your target audience. For example, a blog probably doesn’t need to be a PWA. Most publishers don’t need their site to be a PWA either. The likelihood that a visitor would save a publisher’s website to their home screen and want to read some articles from the site without access to the internet is very low.

PWAs start to become a real consideration when you have sites that offer special functionality, like providing a tool or an app experience.

I have a friend that is launching a new travel card game for families. The game requires one of the players to keep score for everyone. Since it’s a game that families can play in the car or even on a plane, I recommended that he consider creating a JavaScript-based scoring app on his site and to also make it a PWA that could be saved and used offline.

The decision to build a PWA becomes more difficult as the tool or web app increases in complexity. There seems to be a direct correlation between a PWA being feature-rich and also being unreliable. That’s probably why the vast majority of showcase PWAs aren’t very sophisticated.

PWA Rocks
A showcase of Progressive Web Apps

If a site has a legitimate use case for serving pages or tools offline, they should consider migrating to a PWA. However, if the features are sophisticated, require syncing, and depend on the browser to do all of the heavy liftings, it probably makes more sense to build a native app.

In my recent interview with Rusty Mitchell, VP of Design, and Kelly Merrell, VP of Engineering for Android at Mercury Intermedia – a company that makes native iOS and Android apps for large brands like Red Bull, Comcast, TED, The Washington Post, and many others – they told me they had never even heard of PWAs. They also said they’ve never had a single client or potential client approach them about it.

I think it’s safe to say that PWAs still have a long way to go before they become mainstream. However, one sure way we could see an acceleration in sites and apps becoming PWAs is if Google announces that they are a ranking factor. That’s certainly worked for them before.