Single page applications (SPAs) are now a must-have for tech titans like Google, Twitter, Trello, and Meta. By transitioning their legacy sites and applications from multi-page applications (MPAs) to SPAs, these industry leaders enjoy greater efficiency while delivering a better experience to their users.

Does that mean SPAs are right for your site? Not necessarily. Here's a quick guide to what you need to keep in mind when making a choice between the two.

MPAs and SPAs: What's the difference?

Traditional websites rely on MPAs: They're based on a standard homepage/index and a menu with links to other pages. When a new link is clicked, a request is sent to the server to download a new HTML page. Data elements, graphics, and other information are pulled from the database and then returned to the client-facing website where the page is rendered.

Every time a user accesses a new page, this process is triggered - sometimes requiring user-maddeningly slow load times.

But with a single page application, data is presented to the user dynamically as they scroll through and interact with the site. That’s thanks to JavaScript, which runs inside the browser and requires no page reloads and no additional wait time since the content is downloaded automatically. Since developers can implement more advanced features with SPAs because everything is downloaded up front, SPAs can make for a better user experience.

SPAs are built using a combination of HTML, CSS, AJAX, and JavaScript frameworks such as React, Vue, Angular, Backbone, Meteor, and Ember.


The advantages of SPAs

Speaking of the advantages of SPAs, sites with single page applications are more efficient in terms of processing, they can cost less than traditional MPA sites, and they demand less time from developers because they can use repetitive layouts and act as "content on demand" apps.

Here are some other considerations:

1. General speed

MPAs constantly send server requests that are then processed as a database query. The database responds the server processes the query, and ultimately the pages are rendered. That’s a lot of patty-caking that slows down page loads.

SPA sites, on the other hand, download everything up front, so the back and forth is eliminated; new information is loaded as a single page rather than as a process that requires requesting more HTML pages within the site architecture. Higher speed and efficiency are achieved with the help of JSON; the end result is instant access to all features and functions of the site with no delay.

Also, sometimes it's faster to navigate among pages with an SPA due to caching (more on that below) and minimized data volumes. Only the required data is transmitted back and forth; even if a user needs the uploaded data, the application will download just the missing parts. So, the whole process is quicker compared with MPAs that load pages at every request.

2. Caching capabilities

SPAs request data from the server just one time, upon initial download, so caching works better; if a user has a poor internet connection, site data can be accessed with the server when the connection improves.

Also, even if the SPA is a landing page and the browser downloads the data only once, at some point it will check to see the cached data has changed or not. When something changes, an application retrieves it asynchronously.

3. UX

Single page applications also provide a better overall user experience. With an MPA, users have to click through links and menus to get the information they're looking for, but with an SPA, the user just has to scroll. This feature makes SPAs particularly well-suited to mobile environments.

Moreover, with an SPA, a user can access a page even with a poor internet connection, and it's generally easier to interact with an SPA from any device. Without the need for a page refresh, the experience is continuous, and navigation is faster overall because page elements are reused.


The disadvantages of SPAs

Efficient though they are, SPAs aren't a perfect fit for every situation.

1. Slowness under some circumstances

With SPAs, initial loading lasts longer because the JS volume is significantly bigger. Moreover, a mobile browser can significantly slow down app loading as it needs to parse and interpret the JavaScript data — especially when the smartphone's processor isn't powerful.

2. Compromised search engine optimization

Having a single page rather than multiple pages can hurt your SEO, as search engine crawls have to deal with JavaScript instead of HTML (the format they're more familiar with). Right now, only Googlebot (Google's web crawling software) can render JS pages (as opposed to Bing or Yahoo!), but that doesn't mean that you can't achieve good rendering with SPA; it’s just a little bit trickier.

To reduce SEO friction, you can use such techniques as server-side rendering, isomorphic JS, pre-rendering, or feature detection.

3. Website stats

Another challenge: SPAs affect the accuracy and usefulness of website traffic metrics. SPAs can make it difficult to discern which pages or content are the most popular given the fact that you only have one page — there aren't other pages to compare it to. Google Analytics, for example, tracks data on each page that's downloaded from a site.

If you want to track the activity on an SPA, you need to configure the default Google Analytics tag manually to track the page views on an SPA.

4. No way back

Finally, internet users tend to repeatedly hit the "back" button when browsing a website. With a single page application, going back removes them from the app or site completely, which is obviously frustrating and even a deal-killer for users.

There are workarounds, if you're willing to build a complex SPA, and it's even possible to build a landing page SPA in which "back" works. But that, some would argue, defeats one of the primary purposes of SPAs: simplicity.


Single page application examples

Even if you haven't fully understood the mechanics of SPAs, they've likely been sitting under your nose with apps you use on a daily basis.

1. Netflix

An online entertaining and streaming platform Netflix is built on the React framework so delays don't interfere with the user's viewing experience. With an SPA approach, Netflix can stream a huge quantity of data to simultaneous users of the platform. Netflix loads new data just in the browser when a viewer makes a new request, hence its speed.

2. Gmail

Gmail is a single-page application — that’s why you don't need to reload the page when clicking the messages in your inbox. As all the data is loaded from the server at once. Same with Google Calendar and Drive.

3. Grammarly

The online writing assistant Grammarly checks your grammar and spelling in real time largely thanks to AI, because of the advanced functionality of SAP, and because it's built on a Vue.js framework. As a result, a user can receive Grammarly real-time suggestions directly on the Google Doc to make their writing clear, correct, and understandable.

One final note: If you're looking into SPAs and your users tend to access your app across different types of devices, then you might want to consider PWAs (Progressive Web Apps). They're similar to SPAs and provide a smooth UX experience that's closer to a mobile native app, and they can work offline.