Mobile apps, mobile coupons, mobile websites, mobile rankings…. Holy hell, you might be thinking, I can’t keep all these mobile things straight. Sometimes when marketing companies promise clients a mobile app it’s a bit of a misnomer, which certainly doesn’t help with the confusion.

Mobile websites, which are now referred to as responsive websites most of the time, are simply websites that display well on a smartphone or tablet. There’s more that I could say about responsive sites and their importance, what makes a good one etc., but for the sake of this post let’s stay focused on the distinction from a mobile app.

A mobile app is an actual piece of software you download to your smartphone or tablet. Think of the Facebook app a lot of people use to check their news feeds. Yes, you can go to from your phone and use their mobile interface, but you’re still browsing a website. It’s not the same thing as the app on your home screen, even if they look similar. A lot of times the app will have special functionality you can’t get on the website, or will be laid out differently to be easier to do certain things while on the go.

Think of the apps in the app store (Apple or Android) for pizza places like Papa John’s. Again, you could order pizza through their website from your phone in a mobile view, but their actual app streamlines the process. You don’t have access to all the fluff on the website that you don’t need if you’re just looking to order a pizza, so the app makes it simple to do the one thing you actually need.

Okay, so hopefully the difference more or less makes sense now if you were confused. But why is the distinction important?

Here’s where it gets dicey…

I mentioned in the beginning that sometimes marketing agencies offer “mobile apps” to their clients as a misnomer. I’m sure there are a bunch of legit agencies that actually retain programmers on their staff and literally create phone applications (that you can make available in the app stores). But the trouble is, a bunch of other firms actually just make standalone mobile websites and call them mobile apps.

I’ve seen some of them networking, spoken to former clients of some of them, and at one point even worked for one. “If you build the mobile site a certain way it’s basically the same thing as an app,” the owner had said. “If they download a shortcut to the site on their home screen it even acts like launching an app.” Basically the same?

If you’re thinking that sounds like a lame justification for not actually knowing how to write software get it into the app stores, you’re spot on.

Even if it looks a lot like a mobile app it’s missing a very important element: brand clout.

How actual apps build brand clout

People like apps. Some studies even show that 86% of mobile users get their information through apps. The numbers will vary, but the idea is that actual apps are a big deal.

And let’s face it: if you’re a known brand half the reason to have an app is the perception it creates that you have an app. Think back to the days when websites were not ubiquitous for companies. If you were a business that had a website, and a well-built one at that, it said a lot about you when people saw it. These days of course the reverse is true; it says something about a company that doesn’t have a website.

If you’re a known brand and don’t have an app, but your competitors do, what does that say about you?

Imagine if Papa John’s didn’t have an app but Dominos did. If you’re a person that likes to order pizza from your phone a lot and want to use an app to do it, you might switch even if Papa John’s used to be your go-to place.

If Myspace didn’t have an app but Facebook did, back when Myspace was actually competition for Facebook, would conclusions would you draw? It’d probably make it look like Facebook is more professional, that they are more committed to their customers, or that they simply are more successful.

And THAT is something valuable that comparatively a mobile website does not offer in the same way as a mobile app.

Companies that sell mobile sites masquerading as apps are either preying on what people don’t know or are ignorant themselves about the difference. Either way, steer clear and arm yourself with facts.

Maybe you don’t care. Maybe all you’re worried about is that people can find you on the web through their phones and have a good experience. In that case you’re probably fine either way. But if you’re about to sign a contract thinking you’re going to have a bona-fide app in the app store, make sure that’s exactly what you’re getting.