How to Use WordPress Widgets

WordPress widgets are a special kind of plugin that add small blocks of content and functionality to the sidebar of your website.

In the past, modifying a sidebar required mucking around with a theme’s PHP code. Fortunately, WordPress widgets eliminate the hassle by allowing anyone to easily customize a theme’s sidebar with drag-and-drop ease.

Widgets are one of WordPress’s most powerful features. In this post and the accompanying video, I’ll explain what widgets are, where to find new widgets, and how to positioned WordPress widgets on your website.

How WordPress Widgets Work

Before you jump into using widgets, it helps to understand WordPress sidebars. A sidebar is a special region of a WordPress theme that’s designed to hold widgets.

To find your theme’s sidebar areas, log in to your WordPress admin area and look under Appearance -> Widgets. When you do, you’ll see all of your available widgets along with the sidebar areas defined by your active theme.

Take note, if you ever change themes the sidebar areas change as well. It’s worth emphasizing that your theme defines the sidebars locations. And that’s why changing themes may cause your previously positioned widgets to disappear.

The Sidebar Isn’t Always a Sidebar

There’s one other point about sidebars that’s worth noting. You shouldn’t take the name “sidebar” literally. WordPress sidebars are quite flexible and can be located in any number of places.

Depending on your theme, you may have sidebars in the header, footer, or even embedded in a special page template.

“Sidebar” is a terrible name for this feature. It’s really a widget area that can be located anywhere the theme designer chooses.

Examples of Popular Widgets

The WordPress community has developed a large and growing collection of widgets that let you plug all sorts of things into your WordPress sidebar. From Instagram photos to your Twitter status, if there’s something you’d like to add to your blog sidebar, chances are there’s a widget to help you do it.

Some samples of popular WordPress widgets include:

Where to Find More Widgets

Are you looking to add some specific features or content to your sidebar? Start your widget search in the WordPress plugin directory (remember, Widgets are a special kind of WordPress plugin).

Search for whatever functionality you’re looking for and add the word “widget.”

Further, some themes install their own widgets that are specially designed to work with the theme. Just be aware that theme-specific widgets will vanish if you ever change your theme.

How to Install Widgets

Installing a WordPress widget is just like installing a plugin. Log in to your WordPress admin and go to Plugins -> Add New, then search for the functionality you’re looking for.

Once you’ve found the right widget, click the “Install” button, then click “activate” and your widget is ready to use. The process is just like installing any other plugin.

How to Position WordPress Widgets

With your widgetized plugins installed, it’s time to use them on your site. There are a couple of different ways to position your widgets.

Position Widgets from the Widgets Admin Page

From your WordPress dashboard, visit Appearance -> Widgets. As mentioned previously, your available widgets are on the left, and your available sidebars are on the right.

Drag any widget over to any sidebar. And just like that, the widget is placed on your site. But you’re not quite done yet. Widgets have settings and options. Depending on your widget you may have quite a few settings available. Modify your settings to suit your needs, then click the save button at the bottom of the widget.

Position Widgets From the Theme Customizer

One disadvantage of using the Widgets admin page is that you have no idea what your widget looks like on your site. You’ll have to jump back and forth between the front-end of your site and the admin area to adjust your widget settings and see the results.

The Theme Customizer eliminates this problem by providing you with a real-time preview of the widget and your widget settings as you make changes.

From your WordPress dashboard, visit Appearance -> Customize. Doing so puts you into a live preview of your site with available theme settings. The customizer provides you with a real-time preview of any changes you make from this screen. Changes you make here are not visible on your site until you click “Save & Publish” at the top left of the customizer screen.

Once the Customizer is active, click the Widgets menu option on the left. When you do, you’ll see a list of available widget locations.

Click any widget location, and you’ll see widgets that are already installed in that location (you can reposition those or change their settings from this screen) along with an Add Widgets button that displays a scrolling list of all of the widgets installed on your website.

One important note: Your widgets may not be visible in the preview area on the right. If you don’t see the widget area you’re looking for, navigate to a post or page where the selected sidebar appears. Don’t worry; you can use the preview window to navigate around your site as if you were a normal user. Your settings remain available on the left while you navigate.

Widget Wrap Up

Now that you know how WordPress widgets work, it’s time to jump in and start using widgets on your website. Start simple with one of the pre-installed widgets and add new plugins as needed.

It won’t be long before you’re confidently customizing your WordPress site with all kinds of widgets.


6 thoughts on “How to Use WordPress Widgets”

  1. Kirk,

    These are wonderful videos! I’ve spent the last couple weeks learning the new 2.5 interface, and dealing with issues like image uploading and missing IDs. Your videos are really helpful. The widget video is timely for me. I’m trying to figure out how to modify the functions.php file to create a text widget using definition lists, and not having much luck.

    Do you have plans for a future video on customizing the functions.php file?

  2. Christian Cuniah

    Is it possible to have a plugin or widget whereby one can put a picture in the sidebar?

    1. @Christian If your theme has a widgetized sidbar you can simply drop the Text Widget onto the sidebar, then manually enter the IMG tag with the image that you want to display. You can even upload the image through the media manager and use the URL generated by the media manager as your SRC attribute.

      Alternately, I’m sure there are a number of plugins that solve this same problem in any number of different ways (pulling images from Flickr or other services, etc.).

  3. Hi Kirk,
    I find your video tutorials very helpful. I put up my Theme Genesis Education as child theme with help from another web builder. However I want to do some changes to my right sidebar by adding static pages and organizing my blog-style pages. Is this possible on my current theme?

  4. Hi Erlinda,
    You should be able to make those changes with Widgets and Custom Menus.

    First, take a look at the video on custom menus. Setup a new menu with the pages or posts organized any way you like.

    Next, go to Appearance -> Widgets and add a Custom Menu widget to your sidebar. Set the widget options to use the new menu you just created.

    You can setup as many of these widget menus as you need.

    Hopefully that’s close to what you had in mind.

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