What Are Widgets in WordPress?

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What are the widgets in WordPress? How do you use them, and when? This tutorial answers all these questions and more. It also takes a tour around the Widgets interface in WP Dashboard.

WordPress Widgets Defined

WordPress widgets are literal blocks of organised content. Webmasters simply drag and drop the blocks onto areas of their sites from within the Dashboard. That’s typically sidebars and footers. The purpose of widgets is to offer something extra to the visitor.

Widget examples include the following:

  • Social media widgets
  • Text widget
  • Table of contents
  • Email subscription
  • Search the site
  • Click to call buttons
  • Google maps
  • Many others

Widgets Vs. Plugins

Novice site owners often get confused between widgets and plugins. Although some plugins do what widgets can—and vice versa—there’s a difference between the two.

WordPress plugins

A WordPress plugin is a functional piece of software written in the PHP scripting language. Unlike widgets, you must install, activate, and sometimes configure plugin settings. Some work invisibly in the background, while others offer visible features and or functions. These small, powerful programs often add their own menus in the WordPress Dashboard.

WordPress widgets

Widgets are free, preinstalled blocks of drag-n-drop code that display at the front-end. They can only go into designated widget-friendly or widgetised areas. Moreover, they’re always visible and don’t work in the background like some plugins do. Thus, the reason to add a widget is to enhance static or interactive content, typically in sidebars, header areas, and footers.

Some plugins are widgets, but no preinstalled WP widget is a plugin. Plugins can be complex and powerful. Widgets, though, are usually simple and restricted in their usage.

Preinstalled Web Widgets

Every version of WordPress comes with a set of preinstalled default widgets. Some options may not be available. Which ones you have access to depends on the theme you’re using. However, you’re not restricted to these as there are      third-party options available if you need them.

Log in to your WP Dashboard to check what widgets are available to your theme. There’s an ‘At a Glance’ box that should tell you the current version of WordPress and the theme in use.

Now let’s check the available widgets for the activated theme design.

From the side menu, select Appearance -> Widgets.

This takes you to your Widget screen that should look something like this.

The image above shows some of the available widgets for the Academy Pro theme. On the right is the widget-friendly space. In this case, it’s the Primary Sidebar, which already has 6 widgets. It’s just as easy to drag-and-drop them out of this area as it is to add them.

Remember, the WordPress themes in use control the available widgetized areas. The Twenty Seventeen theme, for example, has one sidebar and two widget-friendly footer areas.

Custom widget settings

Notice the small down arrow to the right of each widget block above. When you click these, you’re presented with a few options to customise the content to your liking.

Here are the settings available for the Recent Posts widget.

Always remember to click the Save button when you’re done.

How to Add New Widgets to Dashboard

You can search for new widgets if what you need isn’t in the pre-installed list.

From the side menu, go to Plugins -> Add New.

Type the name of the widget plugin into the search box if you know it. Otherwise, type something general and explore your options. For this example, let’s search for a Google Reviews Widget.

Widget plugins give you the same useful information as any other plugin.

  • Star rating and the total number of active installations show the plugin’s popularity
  • When the program was last updated
  • Whether the widget is compatible with your version of WordPress

Add the new widget plugin to your widgets area

Click the plugin’s Install Now button.

After a few seconds, the button shows Activate status. Click it.

The new Google Reviews Widget is now in your Available Widgets list and ready to use.

All blocks in the Available Widgets area (left) remain inactive until you add them to the site.

Because this widget is a plugin, you can also access it from the WordPress Plugins page.

From the side menu, click on Plugins.

Find the widget plugin and click on its Settings link. The settings, number of tabs, and details you get depends on the program.

Here’s how the settings screen looks for the Google Reviews Widget.

Note the 6 tabs along the top. Be sure to check out the settings screen for widgets and all plugins. There can be lots of useful information and options you may otherwise miss.  

Closing Comments

Widgets are fast, simple, and effective ways to enhance the look and function of a WordPress website or blog. You can add preinstalled ones or search for third-party widget plugins. Don’t be afraid to experiment because it’s not possible to break anything by trying. If the widget doesn’t look or perform how you expect it to, drag it out of the widget areas and save the changes.

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