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Understanding WP Widgets

Illustration showing relationship of widgets between backend and frontend of WP

Update August 2021: WordPress 5.8 introduced Widget Blocks. You can still use your Classic Widgets, but you need to upload a plugin by the name, “Classic Widgets.”


While working recently with a Client who was new to WordPress, I realized the words ‘widget’ and ‘plugin’ have different meanings inside and outside of WordPress.

Widgets in the Wild

Outside of WP, developers use the word ‘widget’ to mean any ready-made code that you can add to your website. For example, Charity Navigator has a search widget that site owners can use on their site.

WordPress Plugins

In WordPress, ‘plugins’ are also third-party scripts that can provide some ( or many! ) functions in a ‘plug-n-play’ fashion. They have to be made for WordPress specifically, though.

WordPress Widgets

‘Widgets’ in WordPress have a special meaning.

In the beginning, WP site owners were limited to making content updates only in the main content area. Unless! the theme developer created special ‘Widget Areas’ in such places as the sidebar, footer or any other area of a page.

These Widget Areas coud be used to display all sorts of content as long as they used WordPress-specific widgets. Default widgets included some for Images, Text, Post Lists, and much more.

You will often hear these Widget Areas being referred to as ‘Widgets.’

The Future of WordPress Widgets

WP is changing fast right now. Right now, the editor in the backend of WordPress doesn’t clearly resemble the frontend of the site. That’s going to change.

The plan is to become a visual editor based on ‘Blocks.’ It’s going to take a while yet, and many, many classic WordPress sites are still using Widget Areas, so it’s worth knowing how to use them.