What Is a Widget?

The magic gizmos that power your favorite blogs

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

What Is a Widget?

A widget runs a small portion of a different website within another website, akin to an iframe. For example, Facebook's widgets might embed a Facebook login or comment box. The host website may have little or no knowledge of what happens within the widget, depending on how the service is configured. Widgets are 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, 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 plug-in, which connects to Facebook's login functionality. These sites 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 plug-in and integration.

Either way, widgets are 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, widgets are still found in the form of plug-ins and extensions.

Uses of Web Widgets

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

Widgets can 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 from 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. However, 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 the features from scratch.

Downsides of Widgets

Web designers may also be limited by the design of the widget. That's always the case when working with non-native code. If you don't completely understand what the software does, there's 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 that the widgets are doing only what they say and no more. This is the security risk when external code is integrated into any venture, not the special burden of widgets. Node.js modules bring as much risk.