Single-page applications are slowly but steadily growing in popularity. They are much faster than traditional multi-page applications, easier to use, and so they can give an exceptional user experience that internet users are now expecting. The backend code can also be quickly reused for mobile apps, making the development process much faster. All those benefits make many brands drawn to SPA development.
You shouldn’t cross out the traditional web applications just yet, though; for some projects, they might be a better choice.
So which one should you pick? Our guide should help you make the right decision – we’ll mention the key differences between those two apps and when each of them might be a better choice.
What is a Multi-Page Application?
Let’s start with a multi-page application (or multiple page applications, MPA in short) since you are probably more familiar with those. As the name suggests, MPAs are applications that are made up of many separate, static pages. Any time you interact with something on the website (like clicking on the link), the website sends a server request and loads a new page to show you the content you want.
Multi-page application examples: Most of the websites you use every day are multi-page web applications – for example, ecommerce websites like Amazon, news portals like the New York Times or Forbes, and Wikipedia are all MPA’s.
How does a MPA work?
Let’s say you are opening the New York Times to read the latest news. To read the articles you are interested in, you have to click on the links leading to those. The browser then sends a request to the NYT server. The server processes this request, interacts with the necessary backend components like databases, and sends back a new HTML page to the user’s browser – this happens for every single page you want to open.
That makes MPA a perfect choice for lengthy and complex applications (since you can easily organize the content) but also makes those apps both relatively slow and require a lot of bandwidth.
What is a Single-Page Application?
That way, visitors can browse the website without having to open multiple web pages or wait for the pages to load – the browser will adjust the page automatically.
Single page application examples: Some apps that work as SPA are Twitter, Facebook, Google Maps, and Trello.
How does an SPA work?
Have you ever thought about how you can browse Facebook or Twitter feeds almost infinitely, and the app swiftly reloads the feed as you are scrolling down? That’s precisely how a single page application works in practice. Instead of requesting full page updates from the server every time users interact with those apps, they load a single HTML page and then dynamically update the necessary elements.
Single Page and Multi-Page Application: Key differences
Now that we have explained how those two types of applications work “behind the scenes,” let’s look at the main characteristics that make those two types different.
One of the biggest advantages of SPAs is their speed and responsiveness. Whenever a user interacts with different application parts, it refreshes only the relevant elements rather than reloading the entire page, making the app load almost instantly. Some users even say there’s no significant difference between SPA, native apps, and desktop applications regarding responsiveness.
The difference in performance can be especially noticeable when users are on a slow or unstable internet connection. Since SPA has far fewer elements to download and render, they take much less time and bandwidth to update the page.
The initial load time might feel somewhat lengthy since the application needs to download most of the resources it might need to work smoothly upfront. As soon as everything is downloaded, there’s virtually no delay between clicking on a button or zooming, and the page updates.
Multi-page applications are unfortunately much slower than single page apps due to the way they are built. Since the browser has to send a request to the server and reload the page fully each time the user does something on it, MPA does take a while to load. This means that users often have to wait for a page to load fully, especially if the server is under heavy load, the users’ internet connection is slow, or there are multiple elements to render.
Tooltester, in their 2023 page load study, found that an average page load time on the desktop is 2.5 seconds and 8.6 seconds on mobile. On 3G, the loading time is even higher – 19 seconds. And while there are multiple ways in which brands can boost their web app speed, MPAs are still quite behind SPAs when it comes to performance.
SEO (Search engine optimization)
Optimizing Single Page Applications for search engine rankings used to be quite a tricky thing since search engine crawlers had problems recognizing dynamic content. For them, SPA’s literally had just one page, and so the crawlers only indexed the main HTML page without seeing the rest of the content.
Now though, Google crawlers got much better at recognizing and labeling dynamic content, so it’s possible to create a search engine-friendly single page app – though it often requires an additional effort.
Optimizing multi-page sites for SEO is a much easier task. Each page can be optimized individually so marketers can have full control over meta tags, content optimization methods, and keywords they are targeting. This leads to better search engine visibility, especially for websites targeting a wide range of topics or keywords.
Working smoothly even on poor connection or offline is another benefit of single page apps. SPA typically downloads all necessary data during the initial load and then stores it on the device. This way, users can access and use the application even if they are in a location with weak or no internet connection. The data will be then synched with the server once the internet connection is back.
For example, Google Maps can be used offline as long as users downloaded the necessary maps earlier and the chosen route is within those maps.
MPA’s unfortunately don’t work as well on a weak internet connection. Since MPAs rely on server-generated HTML pages, they either have a very limited offline mode or can’t be used offline at all. For example, some applications can cache previously loaded pages and open those offline.
However, any interactive functionalities or those requiring real-time updates typically won’t work without a stable internet connection.
SPAs are regularly praised for the app-like experience they offer. Since users can swiftly move between pages without waiting for them to load fully, making them feel as if they’re interacting with a native application on their device. An offline mode also makes it more convenient to use SPA’s in places with poor internet connection since the app stays functional. This might encourage users to use the app regularly or spend more time on it.
A common problem with SPA’s browser navigation is that the back button doesn’t always work the way users are used to though. When browsing an SPA app, it often happens that the back button, instead of going back to the previous page, makes users leave the page altogether. This occurs because the SPA doesn’t keep track of how many pages the user visited, and so it treats clicking the back button as a sign the user wants to leave the page. Many front-end frameworks now have routers with Browser History API though, which might be a solution to this problem.
MPA can’t exactly compete yet with the speed and smoothness of SPAs, but they can improve user experience in other ways. The biggest benefit here is that it’s much easier to build intuitive navigation for an MPA since the content and features can be easily organized.
MPAs also don’t have any problems with the back and forward buttons since each page of the MPA has its ‘own URL, and thus, the application can easily track what pages the users visited earlier. Sharing and bookmarking specific pages can improve the user’s orientation and control as well, especially on large and complex pages.
Single Page Application vs Multi-Page Application: what to choose?
As you can see, it’s not that easy to say which of the two development models is better – both have their advantages and drawbacks. So when deciding which one would be a better fit for your next app, it’s essential to first think about how you want your application to work, what type of content you will have on the website, and what are your main business goals.
You might want to go for SPA if:
- You want to give a highly interactive, lightning-fast experience to users
- Your content is closely knit and, so you don’t need to work as much on SEO.
- Offline capabilities are important for your users.
You might want to go for MPA if:
- Your platform will host a wide array of content, each requiring a dedicated page.
- You want more control over your app’s SEO
- You’re aiming for a tried-and-true website structure and navigation that the majority of users are familiar with or need to design a complex user interface
And to boost your users’ experience even further, you can integrate your website with Xtremepush to design and send relevant, tailor-made messages to them – and always at the right time. Schedule a meeting for a demo and see for yourself just how much of a difference Xtremepush’s advanced features can make when it comes to delighting your users. 🙂
There’s unfortunately no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of whether you should go with the classical approach to web app development or instead go with the SPA trends. It all depends on what are your business requirements and project goals. For a lightning-fast and responsive web app, a SPA might be a good choice.
But if your website will have varied content and you want to make the navigation as intuitive as possible, then it might be better to rely on the traditional MPA architecture. What matters is how useful the app will be to your users – and this should be what guides your decision.
Single page vs. Multi-page applications FAQ
What is a single-page application (SPA)?
How is a multi-page application different from a single-page application?
A multi-page application loads a new page every time you request different content or perform an action. Think of online shops or company websites where you click on links and get taken to new pages. In contrast, a single-page application updates the content on the same page without loading new ones.
Are single-page applications faster than multi-page applications?
Yes, that’s one of their key advantages. SPAs can perform much better after the initial page load because they don’t need to reload the entire page every time. However, the initial loading time might be longer because they load all the content at once. Multi-page applications meanwhile load quicker initially but often have delays between loading pages.
Which is better for mobile devices: SPAs or multi-page applications?
Both can work well on mobile devices. SPAs can provide a smooth and seamless experience, similar to mobile applications, which makes SPAs more convenient and user-friendly. What’s more, SPAs backend code can be reused for dedicated mobile apps, making software developers work faster and smoother. Multi-page applications can be optimized for mobile devices as well, though this might take a bit more work.
Which one should I choose: a single-page or multi-page application?
The answer depends on your business objectives, user needs, and what type of applications you want to build. If you want a fast, seamless user experience, especially for mobile users, an SPA might be the ideal choice. If SEO optimization, clear site structure, and traditional web navigation are priorities, a multi-page application might be better though.