If you’re looking for some cool widgets to put on a blog then there truly are hundreds of options possible. Apart from the default stuff (available in a fresh WordPress install right from the get-go) there are also countless plugins and custom widgets you can download from the official directory and many third party sites.
Does it really make sense to use every widget you can get your hands on, just because you have some space in the sidebar, or the footer?
Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments, but in the meantime, here’s my take on the matter:
Why use widgets
I guess that the general reason why people use widgets is because widgets are cool … as simple as this.
However, I’d like to present some more pros and cons that might become useful when hitting the final publish button on them.
Not that there’s anything bad with “coolness,” but I believe that widgets should be about something more that just that.
Is it in tune with the site’s purpose?
Well, every site has a given purpose, whether it’s to sell a product, or get people to read some blog posts, there’s always something.
Unfortunately, not every widget works in favor of this purpose. For instance, the simplest example I can come up with, if you want to promote your own product then displaying some additional ads in the sidebar is a very bad idea. It confuses the visitor, as they not only start wondering why you’re showcasing other people’s stuff, but they also get presented with relevant alternatives for your product (that’s how contextual advertising works).
Now, I know that this example was very basic and that you wouldn’t make such a mistake, but there are still other scenarios that are not that apparent right away.
That’s why my advice is this: Whenever you’re thinking about introducing a given widget, decide whether it strengthens the site’s purpose or weakens it. If it’s the former then by all means go ahead.
Clutter tends to be a big problem for many websites. These days there are just so many things every website can display that it’s easy to move away from your main goal.
For instance, there’s a trend to display as many social media share buttons as possible. But is it really that important to make your site two times more cluttered if you only get a handful of re-tweets on average?
Or do you really have to show that Facebook box that says your fan base counts 15 people?
The best websites are not ones that manage to cram 27 different widgets into their designs. The best websites are ones that can achieve their goals with just a handful of essential widgets.
Help them, not confuse them
We all know that every website should aim at making its audience confident of what the site has to offer and what kind of action the webmaster expects of them.
For instance. If there’s a product on offer then it’s obvious that what the website owner wants is to sell it. But if there are 5 different widgets on the side, each with a different call to action (like: “follow us on Twitter,” “like us on Facebook,” “subscribe to our newsletter,” “join our custom forum”) then the main message is no longer clear, and the visitor is confused about what they should do next.
Confusion is not good for conversion. If there are too many options, people are likely to take no action at all.
Check the available widget areas
If your theme is a quality one then you surely have a handful of widget areas at your disposal. Check what your theme has to offer and think about the creative usages for each of those areas.
What some people don’t realize is that widget areas are not only in the sidebar. Just to give you some examples, here are the areas I use on my blog:
- four widget areas in the footer (still pretty basic),
- one widget area above the first post,
- one widget area below the first post,
- one widget area after the more marker in the full post view,
- one widget area below the post in the full post view.
What I’m trying to say is that you should always find out what you get to work with before selecting any widgets.
Okay, let’s discuss some of the specific widgets WordPress and various plugins let you use.
Social media widgets
I’m starting with those because this is probably the most intuitive kind of a widget possible.
Nowadays, there are follow me buttons, re-tweet buttons, like buttons, stumble buttons, and such all over the place.
In essence, every website has some kind of social media widgets installed. And the fact is that it’d be very difficult to build a popular website in this day and age without any social media integration, so I guess we’re just stuck with that…
Another very basic type of widgets, and another one that’s very useful for virtually any kind of site (except small, two-page product websites where there’s simply nothing to search for).
Now, native search in WordPress still isn’t the best search feature around, so feel free to replace it with a third party plugin. This is something I described in my post titled Improving Search in WordPress.
Some good places for a search widget are: at the top of the sidebar, at the bottom of the sidebar, in the footer. (If your design is a bit more unusual then feel free to use it elsewhere.)
Some people get very creative when it comes to displaying ads on a website, but the most popular areas are still: the sidebar, the header (banner), somewhere inside the body of the content.
When it comes to the technical side of things, there are many advertising plugins available. They allow you to serve ads from ad networks like AdSense, as well as provide some in-house advertising. Also, you might go the complete manual way and include some embed codes by hand.
Either approach works just as well. However, keep in mind what I said about being congruent with the purpose of the site…
Depending on the complexity of your site, you might find it necessary to display more than just one menu (the one in the header). Widget areas are the natural place to get this done.
You can use the built-in custom menu functionality in WordPress, create menus through plugins, or manually.
Whatever approach you take, make sure to not make the whole thing confusing. If you’re providing more than one menu then make them thematic. For instance, separate menus for: products, resources, customer support, blog, media files, and so on.
This is something that has become popular just recently. An opt-in widget is simply a box where the visitor can subscribe for a newsletter or “opt in” for any other kind of updates, although newsletters are the most popular usage of this.
Here’s the one on this site:
You can get various opt-in boxes through custom plugins or resources supplied by your email newsletter service provider (like MailChimp).
The most popular placements for such things are: top of the sidebar, right below the body of the post, inside a custom popup.
Social proof widgets
A social proof widget is something designed to make you look good and trustworthy in front of your audience, basically. This can be achieved by displaying all sorts of counters, stats and such.
The idea is that whenever a new person comes to your site they can see that you already have 10,000 other people following you … therefore you must be important, right?
The most common placement for such things is at the top of the sidebar or in the header.
You can get counters from Twitter itself, FeedBurner, or through a number of external plugins.
The idea itself is very similar to the social proof widgets, but this time you’re proving your credibility by showcasing logos of popular brands and websites.
The most classic application of a credibility widget is a box labeled as “as seen on” showcasing logos/badges of popular and credible websites.
Obviously, you need to get “seen on” somewhere before you can use such a widget, but once you have this possibility it can really add you 10 points to credibility, so to speak.
The most common placement for such a widget is either inside the header or just below the header.
About the author
The idea is very simple, you get one short paragraph of text to say a couple of things about yourself (often along with a picture). This is a very popular widget on even the most popular sites. Here’s an example by Darren Rowse:
The easiest way to do this is through a simple text widget (no plugins required). The most common placements are: in the sidebar, in the footer, or just below the body of the post.
I probably should have mentioned this much earlier in this post. Content widgets are ones of the most basic widgets possible. Some examples:
- popular posts,
- related posts,
- related pages,
- core content (links),
- RSS feeds.
Anything that tries to promote (link to) a given specific piece of content is a content widget. Bloggers have been using those since forever. And it’s quite understandable, there’s no better way of keeping the visitor on the site than by linking to yet another post, article, or page.
There’s no one popular placement for such widgets. They tend to be displayed all over the place. Simply go with your common sense and pick whatever spot seems the most sensible for your site.
Meta content widgets
Meta content is a piece of data that provides some information about the real content. I know that this sounds very strange, so let me just give you some examples of meta content widgets:
- categories (links),
- other custom menus.
Basically, it’s anything that provides yet another organization for your blog’s main content.
Similarly to the content widgets, there are no top placements for this. You can go ahead and use whatever widget area seems the most sensible to you.
These are all widgets that your readers can use to interact with each other, or to at least see the latest activity on your blog. One of the prime examples of such widgets is recent comments listing, or top rated comments listing (if you use any sort of rating system).
The most popular widget area for this is the sidebar, or the bottom of the page.
At the beginning of this post I said that we have to be careful not to clutter our blogs, and then I went ahead and listed tens of different possibilities when it comes to widgets … so what’s the deal?
Well, the deal is to give you some choice and a wide area of options. I’m 100% confident that using all the widgets listed here on a single blog at the same time would result in a massive fail.
That’s why let me take this final paragraph to emphasize one more time that it’s absolutely crucial to be careful about this. Use widgets only to help your site’s purpose, not to make it more confusing.
What’s your take on this? Do you use a lot of widgets on your own blog or the blogs you’re creating for clients?