The Wide World of Web Widgets

When Kyle Ford set out to create a customized iGoogle homepage, the 30-year-old Los Angeles native decided he wanted it to show information he needs every day — such as current weather conditions and a calendar. Lucky for him, adding these features was easy thanks to a technology called “widgets.” 

In technical terms, a widget is a chunk of programming code that delivers a small amount of content to a web page. At its core, a widget is a mini software application that you can incorporate into your own web page. This is do-it-yourself programming.

Also known as gadgets, badges, flake and snippets, widgets can help to enhance your personal web site or online profiles with video, music, photos and games. So with widgets, you don’t need to hire a programmer or web designer to add content to your web site or MySpace profile, explains Pam Webber, vice president of product development and marketing for Widgetbox, a widget directory.

Ford, a product development manager at Ning, a technology company that also creates social networks and widgets, adds that: “Widgets take information you want and push it to you.”

If you’re ready to get started using widgets, here are the basics you need to know:

What are widgets?
Widgets have become so popular on the web these days, that you might not realize that you’re already using them. For example, you may have a friend who has a profile on Facebook and she may have used the site’s widget library to add special features to her profile such as iLike (a list of music she likes), the Traveler IQ Challenge (an interactive quiz), or the Virtual Bookshelf (a list of favorite books). If you’ve seen these features, then you have witnessed a widget in action.

On Ford’s own family web site, House of Kyle, he creates widgets with family snapshots and home video so that others can copy and paste them on their own blogs, web sites or social network profiles.

These snippets of code can be found at many web sites on the Internet, including Widgets Lab, which offers widgets for a variety of functions. There is one that enables you to put your photos in a slideshow. Another one helps you to create your own comic strips. You can even add the New York Times’ crossword puzzle to your personal web page. Many widgets are free, while some come with a nominal cost.

Why do you need widgets?
The easy answer: because they make your web pages more entertaining and a lot more fun. Adding widgets to your social networking profile or blog is tantamount to accessorizing. You wouldn’t leave the house without your lucky watch or your favorite purse, would you? So why would you leave your Facebook page without a widget?

You can also find widgets that are useful for business (such as tracking the flights of colleagues who are traveling) and finance (like signing up for news feeds about the stock market), or family life (instead of emailing family and friends the latest video of your kids, let them copy a widget from your web site and paste it on their own.) Widgets can help you save time. For example, if you already have a blog, you can use an RSS (really simple syndication) widget to import your latest musings into your Facebook profile. Same goes for your Flickr photos — you can use a widget to display your photo albums on your Facebook profile or personal web site.

How do I install widgets?
Widgets are getting easier to install every day. On some social networking sites, it’s as simple as clicking one button. Other widget providers require that you download an installer.

If you’re a more sophisticated web user, you can install widgets the traditional way — by copying the underlying code and manually pasting it into your web site’s basic code. The web site usually needs to support either Flash or JavaScript. “One-click works beautifully,” says Gina Bianchini, the co-founder and CEO of Ning. But the copy and paste method allows users “a lot more freedom and flexibility,” she says.

To delete a widget — either manually or with an installer — you would delete the code that you inserted. On MySpace, for example, go to profile edit page, locate the section where your widget is displayed and delete the code. On Facebook, it’s as simple as hitting the delete key next to where the widget lives on your profile.

Do widgets pose any downsides?
The popularity and ease of use of widgets has meant that more people are developing their own games, video and other types of widgets. Many web sites that feature easily downloadable widgets warn users that they are about to install something that could possibly include malicious code and result in damage to their computer. So how do you know whether a widget is safe? One way is to review user feedback. Sites like Yahoo! and Facebook, for example, show the number of times a widget has been downloaded and include reviews from actual users. This feedback can alert you to possible dangers. So even though most sites warn that you download widgets at your own risk, your best bet is to get them from companies you trust.