The Smart Blogger's Guide

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Widget wonderland

Anyone can slap pictures and text on a Web page and call it a blog. It’s much harder to make a blog that stands out from the pack. One way to do so is by dressing up your site with widgets. Widgets are essentially tiny programs that add functionality, transforming your blog into something unique. For instance, a widget can display your photos, an RSS feed from another site, a list of songs you’ve listened to lately, or even a map that shows the places you’ve visited.

Installing widgets

Adding widgets to your blog is generally painless. In fact, some services supply their own, making installation an easy, automated process. One such service is WordPress, which offers a calendar widget, a widget for displaying your blog stats, a Flickr widget, and more. To install one, select the Presentation link, click on Widgets, and then drag and drop the one you want onto your blog. TypePad has an even wider selection, offering everything from a Google calendar widget to a widget that displays a daily cocktail. Click on the Design tab and then search the Widget Gallery. When you select one you like, TypePad automatically adds it to the sidebar of your blog.

Even if you’re not using one of these services, you can add widgets to your site. Some widgets include an automatic installation option for popular blogging services, which takes the brainwork out of incorporating them. Otherwise, you’ll need to copy the widget’s code (there’s typically a button that selects the right code for you) and paste it into your blog’s template. I recommend placing widgets in your blog’s sidebar, which makes them available on all pages (unless you’ve set up your blog to publish individual pages with different templates or sets of rules).

Blogger lets you add widgets to either the sidebar or the bottom of your page. Click on the Template tab, and then go to Page Elements. Click on Add A Page Element, choose the HTML/JavaScript option, and paste in the code. In TypePad, you can add external widgets to your sidebar as TypeLists. Go to the TypeLists tab and create a new Notes TypeList. Paste the code for your widget into the Note field.

WordPress makes things a little more challenging. Because the service blocks a number of commonly used HTML tags, many third-party widgets won’t display properly (especially ones with dynamic images and scripts). Here’s a list of WordPress’s supported HTML tags. Still, if you want to give it a whirl, go to the Presentation tab and click on Widgets. Drag the Text widget to your sidebar, click on the configure icon, and paste the code into the sidebar’s body. (WordPress.org offers an installable version of its software that will let you install other widgets of your choosing, as long as you have your own Web host and are confident about doing some site administration.) If you’re using Vox or Tumblr, you’re out of luck. Neither service provides a way to place widgets in the sidebar.

Finding widgets

So now that you know how to install widgets, it’s time to deck out your blog. Widgets are available from individual developers and from online collection sites like Widgetbox. Not sure where to begin? Here are some ideas.

General Interest A number of all-purpose widgets can take your blog to the next level. With Widgetbox’s New York Times widget, for instance, your blog can be your newsroom, updating visitors not only about what’s going on with you but also about the world at large. To add the local forecast, check out the teeny-tiny WeatherLet widget.

Perhaps you’d like to add a calendar with iCal data so visitors will be able to search for upcoming events. With the YourMinis Calendar widget, you simply enter the Web address of your published iCal calendar—above the widget, click on Edit Me and then on Edit, and enter the URL where people can subscribe to your published iCal calendar—and then copy and paste the code to your blog. Or if you’re an avid runner and use the iPod Nike+ Sport Kit to track workouts, the Nike Plus widget is a great way to boast about your mileage total, challenges, and goals.

Music Widgets Want to show the world how good (or bad) your taste in music is? Apple’s My iTunes widgets broadcast your latest purchases, music or videos you’ve reviewed, or your favorite iTunes artists. To grab these widgets, visit your iTunes Store account settings and click on Enable My iTunes.

Widgets also exist for fans of Internet radio. Last.fm, for example, lets you create a miniature radio station that plays your preferred types of tunes right on your blog.

Web Tie-ins If you’re keeping a blog, chances are you’re also maintaining personal data on other sites, whether it’s a page on Facebook or photos on Flickr. So why not incorporate the highlights into your blog? The Twitter widget displays your latest tweets so you can inform visitors about what you’re doing right now without having to create a new post. Or you can add a widget from Upcoming that keeps visitors up-to-date on which concerts, games, and conventions you’re hitting in the coming weeks.

If you want visitors to find you on your social-networking site of choice, drop in a widget that ties back to your profile. For LinkedIn I, a variety of buttons connect back to your professional profile. If you use Facebook, you can add a widget that links to your profile and even includes some basic updates you make on the ’book. (To find out how to add widgets to a social-networking page, see “Accessorize Your Social Space.”) For photos, the static Flickr badge displays a selection of recent pictures (up to ten), while the Flash badge adds motion, rotating different photos from your entire stream or from a specific set or group.

Widgets for Fun Of course, widgets don’t need to be informational. They can just be entertaining distractions that encourage visitors to hang out on your site. For instance, the Meebo widget lets users chat live on the Web, and if you aren’t around, visitors are able to leave a message. Or for pure nostalgia, a Pac-Man widget gives visitors a crack at popping pills and chomping ghosts across your blog.

Keep it fresh

The best way to discover widgets is to surf, sample, and see what works. At the end of the day, a blog’s goal is to offer content that makes people want to come back again and again, whether it’s your mom or an interested reader halfway around the world.

[ Mathew Honan has been blogging since 1998. His blogs include Emptyage and the tumbleblog Emptyagr. He also writes for Wired and National Journal’s Technology Daily.]

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