the WordPress widgets screen


WordPress Widgets: A Comprehensive Guide

To one extent or another, widgets are part of most WordPress sites. They’re typically added and rearranged by dragging them around and then dropping them where you want through either the “Widgets” screen or the Customizer in the administration side of your WordPress installation. Along with the drag-and-drop interfaces in both the main “Widgets” screen and the WordPress customizer, there’s also an accessibility mode for controlling WordPress widgets that isn’t very well documented.

In this guide, I’ll give you a brief history of how WordPress widgets came to be, document the “Widgets” screen’s accessibility mode, show you how to add and arrange widgets on your site, provide some tips on widget placement when you don’t have perfect vision, and discuss the fundamental shift that is coming to WordPress and how that will effect WordPress widgets.

The What and Why of WordPress Widgets

WordPress widgets are self-contained areas of a web page that perform a specific function. They were created to allow users to customize their sidebars without touching a line of code. After an overwhelmingly positive response by users, WordPress widgets became a WordPress plugin. Widgets became a core WordPress feature in version 2.2.

Two years after WordPress widgets were introduced to core, accessibility mode was added so that keyboard users and people with disabilities could control the widgets on their sites. Accessibility Mode was one of the WordPress project’s first forrays into web accessibility, having been added to core about three years before there was a dedicated accessibility team.

Although they were originally developed to help customize just the sidebar of a theme, WordPress widgets are now used to build the home pages of many premium as well as free WordPress themes. They are an indespensible tool for building WordPress websites, and you can get pretty far without knowing any code by using them. So let’s go through how to add and configure them accessibly, step by step.

Activate accessibility mode

From your WordPress dashboard, select the “Appearance” submenu, and within that submenu, select “Widgets”. Once you’re on the “Widgets” screen, expand the “Screen Options” tab by pressing enter on it. Press enter on the “Enable Accessibility Mode” link. Collapse the “Screen Options” tab by pressing enter on it again, and you’ll return to the mane “Widgets” screen.

An Overview of the Widgets Screen

When you enable “Accessibility Mode,” the appearance of the “Widgets” screen changes significantly. The first thing you’ll encounter once you’re in the main content area of the screen is a heading at level one that says: “Widgets”. Directly under the “Widgets” heading is a link to manage them in the customizer with live preview. Ignore that for now. We’ll discuss using the Customizer in a later post. Below this link, you’ll find any administration notices currently visible on your dashboard.

Next, you’ll find a heading at level two containing the text: “Available Widgets”. Directly below this, you’ll find a link with the text: “Add”, folowed by the widget title. All widget titles on this screen are contained in headings at level two, and below each title is a brief description of what the widget does.

How many widgets?

The number of widgets you have on this screen depends on the widgets your active theme and active plugins have added. Both themes and plugins often add their own widgets since they’re so integral to customizing WordPress sites. Each widget will have its own configuration options on the add-widget screen.

Below all the available widgets, you’ll find a heading at level two with the text: “Inactive widgets”. This section stores any widgets you’ve previously used, in case you want to resume using them along with the configurations you’ve set. There’s also a “clear inactive widgets” button you can use to empty this section. Clearing inactive widgets deletes them permanently from this section along with their configurations, so if you visit this section after you’ve cleared it and find you need to use one of the widgets you previously stored here again, you’ll need to go through the process of re-adding and reconfiguring it. Each widget title in this section is wrapped in a heading at level three.

Below the “Inactive Widgets” section, you’ll find each of your theme’s widgetized areas with its title wrapped in a heading at level two. Above each widget title in this section, you’ll find a link with the text: “Edit”, followed by the widget title. When you press enter on any “Edit” link, you’ll be taken to the widgets configuration screen where you can make and save changes. The number of widgetized areas depends exclusively on your theme. The name given to any widgetized area also acts as a brief description of that area. Below each “edit” link, you’ll find the widget title wrapped in a heading at level three.

WordPress’s Default Widgets and Widget Configuration

Aside from the widgets provided by your active theme and plugins, WordPress comes packaged with several default widgets. I’ve listed all of the default widgets below, and, (because I’ve been around the WordPress block a time or two), any experience and/or opinions I may have about each one.

  • Akismet Widget: Display the number of spam comments Akismet has caught. In my experience, this widget doesn’t have a practical use. Displaying the number of spam comments caught is merely a vanity metric, and is not likely to increase the trust of your site’s visitors.
  • Archives: A monthly archive of your site’s Posts. This widget is useful if you run a blog with a lot of excellent content that people may want to re-visit.
  • Audio: Allows you to easily display an audio player without knowing HTML. This widget is useful if you’re a musician and you want to showcase tracks you may have for sale.
  • Calendar: A calendar of your site’s posts, in a data table. In my experience, this widget also has no practical use, since a site’s visitors won’t typically browse a site’s posts by month.
  • Categories: A list of links to all of your site’s categories, (excluding any attached to custom post types), or a dropdown, (combo box) of all of your site categories, (excluding any attached to custom post types).
  • Custom HTML: Allows you to add text marked up with HTML. This widget is infinitely useful, in my opinion. It often forms the backbone of the text on home pages, and is also useful for things like displaying banners, badges, one-time advertisements or advertisements controled by a third party, site announcements that don’t merit their own blog post, the list of possibilities for this widget is close to endless.
  • Custom Menu: Allows you to add a WordPress menu to areas of your site without those areas needing to be defined as menu locations by your theme. This widget is useful if your theme is stingy about navigation menu sections.
  • Gallery: Provides a graphical user interface for adding a gallery of images to a widgetized area on your site.
  • Image: Provides a graphical user interface for adding a single image to a widgetized area, including any image attributes such as alternative text and captions.
  • Meta: Login, RSS, & links. In my experience, this widget is also useless in practical terms. Most sites will not want to display links back to, and I’m not a fan of displaying a log-in link on the front-facing portion of a site for anyone to be tempted by. This last bit could just be me having a get-off-my-lawn moment.
  • Pages: A list of your site’s pages. This widget could be useful, although it displays a list of every page on a site, and I recommend adding important pages to your navigation menu instead.
  • Recent Comments: Your site’s most recent comments. This widget is useful if you run a site that gets a lot of user engagement in the form of comments, typically large blogs.
  • Recent posts: Your site’s most recent posts. This widget is useful if you’re using a static front page as your home page, but you want to highlight recent posts in a side bar.
  • RSS: Entries from any RSS or Atom feed. This widget can be useful if you run more than one site and want to quickly display content from that site on another site.
  • Search: A search form for your site.
  • Tag Cloud: A cloud of your most used tags.
  • Text: Allows you to add any text to a widgetized area using the standard WordPress content editor. The aim of this widget is to make adding arbitrary text easier for those who don’t know HTML. The custom HTML widget was added after enough of us expressed our displeasure at having our favorite widget contaminated with a WYSIWYG editor. This widget also supports adding an image to a text widget, using the “insert image” button in the editor tool bar.
  • Video: Displays a video from the media library or from YouTube, Vimeo, or another provider.

Common Configurations Among WordPress Widgets

Every widget has configuration options specific to it, but there are parts of every widget configuration that are the same no matter which one you’re adding or editing. Each screen will ask you to choose the following:

  • Widgetized area: Labeled as “Sidebar”, this refers to any widgetized area of your theme, including dynamically generated pages.
  • Position: The position of the widget you’re adding within the widgetized area. Each area commonly has two positions, although I’ve seen situations where there are more than two.

All the widgetized areas and their positions are displayed within a table. Select the radio button for your preferred area and choose the position of the widget from the combo box below the radio button you’ve selected. Once you’ve chosen the widgetized area and the widget’s position within that area, save your configuration choices by pressing the “save” button. If you’re editing a widget, and you want to delete it, press the delete button without changing any configuration options instead. Your deleted widgets will then appear within the “Inactive Widgets” section until you clear the section of its contents. After you’ve added or edited your widgets, you’ll be redirected back to the widgets screen after you press the “save” or “delete” buttons. If you decide while editing or adding that you’ve changed your mind about the widget, there’s a link labeled “Cancel” directly above the “Save” button. Press enter on that and you’ll be redirected back to the widgets screen and your changes will not be saved.

Some Tips On WordPress Widget Placement

When adding widgets to your site, there are some things you’ll want to keep in mind as a visually-impaired or blind person. Firstly, not only does your theme define what widgetized areas are available, it may also style specific widgets. Alternatively, a theme’s CSS may need to be modified to accommodate a widget the theme has no styling for.

Secondly, widgetized areas themselves will be styled, and this will determine which widgets may be suitable for a particular area, even if the theme doesn’t require specific styling for the widget. It can be helpful to read through your active theme’s CSS to get a sense of what’s going on visually. This is why I prefer the Genesis framework and its child themes when building sites for myself or for clients. The CSS is very well-organized and well-commented, which makes it easy to read.

If you’re not sure about how a widget is going to look with your theme, ask for help. The help you need could be as simple as someone advising you on a more suitable area for the widget, or as complicated as someone customizing your theme for you. Be aware that the former can be readily had for free, while the latter will cost you. Any investment on your part will be necessary though if you’re selling products or providing services to the public. A well-designed website is just as important as the clothes you wear to a job interview. If it’s your personal blog and you want your sighted friends to read what you’re writing, then design also matters, if for no other reason than avoiding a poor user experience for your sighted visitors. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. It just needs not to be an eyesore. Finally, when you change themes, you’ll need to go back in and edit your widget placement. The new theme you’ve chosen may have different widgetized areas, and/or the widgets you used with your old theme may be part of the theme itself. If they’re part of the theme, they’ll disappear from your available widgets once you deactivate the theme by switching to the new one.

Change is coming to WordPress, and this will effect WordPress widgets

Before wrapping up this guide, I want to talk a bit about the changes coming to WordPress in the near future, because they will have an effect on WordPress widgets. The changes I’m referring to are code named Gutenberg, and the goal of the project is to change the way content is created in or added to WordPress. This includes widgets. The aim of the Gutenberg project with regard to widgets is to make them portable, meaning that they’re no longer dependent on widgetized areas, and can be added to anywhere on a site. This will help site owners more easily create dynamic pages, for example. In the future, it will also mean that wordPress doesn’t need to maintain three separate interfaces for controlling widgets: The customizer, the main widgets screen, and accessibility mode. It will mean that site owners wil be able to add widgets to their sites accessibly while taking advantage of the same interface that everyone else gets to use, thus eliminating the separate-but-equal status of assistive technology users. Widgets will become portable, so site owners won’t necessarily need to worry about reconfiguring widgets when they change themes. All of this is in flux, and is not slated to be released until it’s ready. There are accessibility kinks still being worked out. But Gutenberg promises to be a better experience for everyone, and despite my current concerns, I’m fully on board with the idea. It will, however, mean some adjustment for those who have been using WordPress for a while. The content creation experience, (including editing and controlling widgets), is going to become richer, and initially there will be some discomfort on the part of those who are used to the old way of doing things. Because those of us who are blind or visually impaired have never had complete access to the way the rest of the world does things when it comes to creating sites, I think the jump will be initially hard to make, because we’re going to need to get comfortable to a whole new set of concepts we’ve never experienced before. But I’m looking forward to the challenge, and I’ll be updating this guide so that you’ll be able to navigate them as well.

Widgets have been a staple of customizing WordPress sites for a long time now. This guide should help you more confidently experiment with them to make your site your own creation. There are as many widgets as there are WordPress plugins and themes, so there’s a lot of variety for you to explore when customizing your site, all without touching any code. Go forth and build cool things.


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