The Hidden Power of Widgets

Widgets are one of the basic building blocks of a WordPress website. Traditionally they’ve been relegated to the sidebar and footer areas, but in recent years many themes are designating areas within the page content section and even in the header.

Widgets are for the most part underutilized on most WordPress websites. There seems to be a basic misunderstanding of how they can be utilized. I believe that through a better understanding of how to organize and customize the widget content blocks, we can tap into their hidden power.

For the October meet-up of our Southern Maine WordPress Meet-up group, I gave a presentation that expounded upon the idea of widget management and I prefaced it with a  question: Who here likes to organize things? The idea of organizing your content cuts to the fundamental modus operandi for having a website.

A website is an organized presentation of information (text and images) arranged in such a way to facilitate human interaction (style, navigation, user interface).

Widget areas are capable of containing just about any kind of information that you would put in a page or post. I would urge you to look at how you are organizing your information and then with the tips and tricks that I’ll offer here, you’ll get some ideas of widgets’ role in that organization.

The advantage widgets have over page or post content is that this information can travel site-wide no matter what page visitor lands on. So, if there is important information that needs to stay present and viewable no matter the page or post, then widgets are your tool. This is why you’ll typically see contact information in a footer or navigational menus in a sidebar.  Widget content is ever-present, helping  to guide visitors. The content also announces its importance by its persistent presence.

But, what if you want to go beyond this basic use? What if you have a page that needs it’s own unique sidebar content? Or what if you want one kind of sidebar for pages and another for your posts?  This is where widget management plugins prove to be an essential WordPress tool.

But, before I jump into my top ten list of widget management plugins let me first mention theme templates. Theme page templates and the default post template will determine where your widgetized spaces will be. If you want to fully utilize your widget areas you must first familiarize yourself with where they appear on your pages and how different template choices will determine whether they are used or not. In short, widget areas are theme dependent. Some themes minimize the widget area and only have a sidebar or footer. Some themes have a variety of widgetized areas. The first step in any widget management is to look at your widget dashboard and see what you’ve got to work with.

For the MeetUp presentation I made a mock-up site which you may view at my presentation testing ground The theme I used here is Automattic’s Goran theme, which has footer and sidebar widget areas, plus a Front Page template which has three side-by-side widget areas within the page itself. This sample site is somewhat of a crazy-quilt of examples. It’s not meant to be a example of specific management solution but rather a variety of uses of widgets within one website. Pick and choose ideas that seem like good ideas to you.

Frank’s Top Ten Widget Management Plugins

Here’s my list of my top ten plugins for managing  and customizing widgets.

  1. Widget Builder (also Widget Content Blocks.) This plugin allow you to create widget content using the familiar visual editor making it easy to put anything that you’d edit in a post or a page in a widget area. A bonus use of this plugin is that you can create widgets for your admin dashboard, creating helpful user guides and shortcut links.
  2. Widget Clone – Essential for building out your widgets by allowing you to replicate widgets and have them appear in multiple areas.
  3. Widget Labels – Adds a label in your widget admin to help identify which is which. Ever use a bunch of Text Widgets without using the title attribute? If you have you will have noticed that you can’t tell what’s inside that widget until you pop it open. This plugin will let you label widgets in the widget management admin. Especially handy if you are using multiple copies of the same widget.
  4. Jetpack – Jetpack offers many widgets, mostly pertaining to social media. But there’s one hidden gem when you activate Jetpack and that is it’s implementation of Widget Visibility an essential tool for managing widgets and how they appear across our website.
  5. Widget Context – Similar to Jetpack’s Visibility but has more levels of choices for the logic of where widgets will appear (or not).
  6. Content Widget – Allows you to place the content of a post into a widget area. Handy if you want to have content perform double duty both as a post and as content in your widget areas.
  7. Custom Sidebar – Isolate a widget area for a specific use as on one specific page. This area can then be applied to replace a themes existing widget area for that particular use.
  8. Sliding Widget – I’m kind of cheating by adding this one, it’s not an official widget area but it’s a cool way to add a dynamic slide out “widget”. This is a common style, to see a tab on the side of the browser window and when clicking on it a section slides out revealing widget content. In effect it’s like a hidden widget area. This plugin lets you custom build one of these suckers.
  9. Whistles – Versatile modular content. Good if you have layers of content which you can display in a tabbed or accordion fashion.
  10. Short Codes Ultimate -This is a handy toolbox of all kinds of shortcodes from buttons to slideshows. This will open wide open the potential of widget content.
    Note: to use any shortcode in a sidebar you will have to include in your functions.php file the following code:

     add_filter('widget_text', 'do_shortcode');

Try out some of these plugins and get organized with your widgets!

Extras used on the site and referred to at the MeetUp.

Date and Time Widget – Old school. But fun.

Youtube Widget Responsive – Lots of YouTube widgets out there. This one runs smoothly and is easy to set up.

Rich Contact Widget – There are several contact/address widgets out there. I like this one because it adds all important microdata and microfomats which will make your info more SEO friendly.

Tabbed Login Widget – A nice solution to easily login to your site. Good for a multi-user website.

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