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 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 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.
- Only have to build and maintain one app
- Easy to push updates as needed because you don’t have to go through App Store approval
- Can display and collect whatever data you want because you aren’t restricted by App Store rules
- Uses the same technologies that web developers already use
- The capabilities of what you can do with a PWA are rapidly improving
- Google is all-in with PWAs so your site or app are likely to benefit from their contributions
- It’s based on maintaining the open web and uses standards-based technologies
There’s also a lot to not like about PWAs.
- Doesn’t use native OS-specific API calls and features which may diminish the features you can add and provide an advantage to competitors with native apps
- Chrome is the only browser that fully supports the latest PWA capabilities while Firefox struggles to keep up, Safari remains far behind, and Edge has given up entirely but is switching to Blink and will support PWAs in the future
- The more complex a PWA gets, the more unreliable it becomes (this should change as the technology standards mature)
- It lacks the security and privacy checks provided by the App Store (from an end user perspective)
- Since it’s browser-based, it doesn’t support all OTT options like streaming devices
- Doesn’t have a presence in the App Store
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.
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.
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.