What Is a Widget?

The magic gizmos that power your favorite blogs

In web design, widgets are small web components that expand the functionality of a webpage or website. The word widget is most popularly associated with managed content management systems like Wordpress, where administrators slot new features contained within widgets into their blog's webpages.

What Is a Widget?

A widget runs a small portion of a different website within your website, akin to an iframe. For example, Facebook's widgets might embed a Facebook login or comment box. The host website may have little to no knowledge of what happens within the widget, depending on how the service is configured. They're like a window to another website's features and functionality into which you have variable visibility and control.

website with widgets

Custom-built websites also incorporate widgets, after a fashion, by using open-source code or frameworks to provide certain functionality in whole or in part. For example, comment functionality is often handled by a Disqus plugin, which connects to Facebook's login functionality. They might also add RSS or podcast features. This feature could be considered a widget, though the term has largely fallen aside for more generic terms like plugin and integration.

Either way, you're mostly talking about self-contained code blocks that slot into a website without changing any of the site's core features. While widgets have become gradually less popular as marketed entities, they're still found in the form of plugins and extensions.

Uses of Web Widgets

Widgets provide on-screen user interface elements that ingrate with other platforms. For example, social media icons seen around news articles are a type of widget. They enable easy sharing of content with a small, embedded program.

This widget can be run on any web page on a website, with consistent placement and user interface. The connection to the social media platform is managed by the code within the widget, saving the web developer the trouble of learning and understanding how every social media platform's APIs work.

If you're a web designer, you'll likely want to know that information, but most editors are focused on a functional, usable website that encourages users to interact and read more. They don't have time to learn what an API is or how JSON is written. Instead, they insert a widget onto their website and social media integration is complete.

The major benefit of widgets is the ease of use. A coding novice can easily paste a set of impressive features into their new blog, upgrading their website's functionality and user experience without designing all the features from scratch.

Downsides of Widgets

Of course, they'll also be limited by the design of the widget. That's always the case when working with non-native code. If you can't completely understand what the software is doing, there's always the chance the software is doing something undesirable. In the best case scenario, it's a harmless inefficiency.

But in a worst-case scenario, the widget could execute malicious client-side code on your visitors' computers. That's why it's critical to only use widgets from a trusted source, or confirm beforehand the widgets are doing only what they say and no more. This is the security risk whenever you integrate external code into any venture, not the special burden of widgets; Node.js modules bring just as much risk.