What Is a Widget?

The magic gizmos that power your favorite blogs

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

What Is a Widget?

Technically, a widget runs a small portion of a third-party 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.

Custom-built websites can 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 could be considered a widget, though the term has largely fallen aside for more generic terms like "plugin" and "integration."

Either way, when you consider widgets in regards to web design, you're mostly talking about self-contained code blocks that slot into a website without changing any of its 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 are most frequently used to 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 and 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 can slap 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 copy and 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 third-party code. This is especially true for code you might not understand. 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 third-party code into any venture, not the special burden of widgets; Node.js modules bring just as much risk. It's important to learn enough about the plugins you're running to understand the security risk.