Why Widgets Matter

Call them gadgets, mini-applications, or badges, but widgets are becoming more and more popular with both consumers and advertisers. They give users a way to interact with your brand and your content far beyond your web site. Keep reading to find out more about these useful bits of code, and why they may spawn a small revolution in the way we use the web.

Usefulness, in fact, is the heart of a widget. A widget is a module that connects the user to a primary source of information. The important properties of widgets are that they’re small and portable; a user can take the widget and plop it down on his or her own personal home page, social networking site profile, web site, desktop, or even mobile device. Not all widgets are designed to work in all of those environments, of course, and some web sites (such as MySpace) permit only certain widgets on their pages.

Wherever they do work, however, widgets give their users a new way to experience the web and to interact with content. Instead of going out to a web site to get a bit of information they need, users can check their widgets. Want to know the weather? Check your Weatherbug. Want the latest news? There are tons of widgets that can give you news from various sites; Forbes just recently created and began promoting eight widgets that provide content from its site on topics that include technology, breaking news, business, stock to watch, and lifestyle. Widgets are the latest use of push technology; in the nature of their reach, they’re like RSS feeds on steroids.

Widgets boast some other very cool aspects for both their users and their creators, which I’m going to explore in some detail. At their best, they’re very viral; their mobility makes them very easy to share. When made right, they’re useful, providing information a user genuinely wants. And they can also be a way to promote your site and your brand. Before I touch on these topics, I’m going to give you a little widget history.

The concept necessary to the development of widgets first hit the radar in the 1990s with PointCast, a startup that tried to promote a service which "pushed" data from the web to desktops without the use of a web browser. As is usual with these things, some thought push technology was the next big thing, while others ridiculed it or scratched their heads, not understanding why someone would want to have data shoved down his or her throat.

The relatively limited technology available at the time made things worse. With all that data being pushed through them, networks slowed down. Companies saw their networks go through data bottlenecks when their users took advantage of PointCast’s service, and some of them forbade its use. Many home users had problems with the bandwidth — remember, the majority of web surfers were still on dial-up connections.

But all that began to change in 2000. WeatherBug, a very small push program that sits on the user’s desktop and does one simple thing — tell the weather — came out. In its first eight months, more than 1.5 million users downloaded it. Today, more than 65 million people have registered for the WeatherBug service.

One major sign that it was time to start paying attention to widgets came a couple of years ago, when Yahoo bought Konfabulator for an undisclosed sum. The two-year-old company made widgets for the Macintosh. Yahoo took the bold (and prescient) step of giving away the Konfabulator software that allows users to make widgets. The venerable search engine now has a site at which users can download "1,000s of widgets for your Mac or Windows desktop."

Yahoo is not alone in its interest in widgets. MySpace recently purchased photo-sharing service Photobucket for $300 million. MySpace may well have figured "if you can’t beat them, join them" with this purchase; the two companies had a spat before the purchase over Photobucket’s service putting ads within its photos and videos — photos and videos that MySpace users were embedding in their own pages. But MySpace’s owner, Fox Interactive Media, also purchased Flextor, a company that makes a mini-application which lets users mash up various media (such as videos) and embed them as widgets.

MySpace competitor Facebook really opened things up when it launched the Facebook Platform in May of 2007. Advertisers and developers could now create all sorts of widgets for Facebook that could be easily shared. Widget makers would be allowed to keep all revenues from sales and ads generated by their applications. The floodgates opened; less than a month later, more than 300 widgets could boast more than 1,000 users each.

Naturally Google is getting involved. Its initiative, dubbed Google Gadgets, focuses on widgets for the desktop. When it rebranded its personalized home pages as iGoogle, it also came up with a way for users to create simple gadgets with wizards. To encourage gadget creation among developers, it launched Google Gadget Ventures, a program that distributes grants and seed investments to developers and users of the Google Gadget API. The program awards $5,000 to developers who create promising gadgets that meet a certain number of weekly page views. A Google grand recipient wanting to develop a business around the Google gadget platform may receive $100,000 in seed money if he or she qualifies.

When Business Week talked about "The Next Small Thing," it gave tons of examples of different ways to use widgets. Some of them facilitate the community aspects of the web and social networking sites. Take the Flixster movie widget that is popular with many Facebook users. Users can list the movies they’ve seen, and give a rating and a review; they can also look at pages that show movie reviews and ratings from their friends. They can even check out what’s currently playing in the movies and film trailers.

iLike saw amazing success with its Facebook widget. It lets people share their favorite musicians and songs, and informs users’ friends when they’re going to a concert. It’s not unusual for users to see this information and buy tickets to the same concert. Though iLike signed up a million users in the first six months of its existence through its web site, it signed up its second million in one week on Facebook. It now has four million users — and is selling ads and earning commissions.

Widgets can work as a sort of "lubricant" to help people socialize on and offline, and to help them express themselves; after all, there are lots of ways to use data. Dave Morgan, writing for Media Post Publications, thinks it can go a lot further though. He notes how blogging brought about the rise of the citizen journalist, and thinks that widgets might bring about the rise of the citizen publisher. With widgets, he explains, "people can import much more content and functionality into their web pages…They are assembling more complete consumer media solutions. They are becoming not just writers, but citizen publishers…they can even receive payments from movie studios for putting movie trailers on their pages."

Morgan further notes that they can redistribute these widgets to other citizen publishers. In this way, the publisher becomes a syndicator. This can lead to citizen networks — users setting up "their own groups of sites, publishers, journalists, and users that they connect with constantly, distributing and redistributing items among themselves." This could certainly upset the status quo, but wise content producers, advertisers, site owners, and SEOs should look upon this as an opportunity.

When it comes to making sure your brand reaches someone who isn’t on your web site, it doesn’t matter whether your widget is designed for the desktop, a user’s personal home page, or the public web. But if you want your reach to extend as far as possible, you need to create a widget for the web. In that case, you should familiarize yourself with the requirements of Facebook, MySpace, and iGoogle, since those sites contain the personal pages in which most users embed widgets.

Once you take that step, there are a number of ways in which you can include widgets in your online marketing campaign. First and foremost, make sure the functionality you want to include in your widget is both simple and useful. If it isn’t simple, it defeats the point of having a widget; if it isn’t useful, nobody will download and use your widget. You should also keep in mind that there won’t be a lot of room in the widget for advertising; the widget itself should show how a user can benefit from your product (like Flixster for Netflix).

Widgets can help you develop links to your site. You want to include text links in widgets because the search engines don’t read Flash, and that kind of video is often a big part of how a widget works. Just be careful about this; with Google on the warpath when it comes to link spam, a few bad apples could spoil it for everyone.

You can always optimize the page on which you offer your widgets for download. This is similar to the idea of optimizing a page on which a video appears. It can give you another page in the SERPs for your keywords, and that’s always a good thing.

If you’re doing anything with social media, or thinking about it, widgets can help. Widgets make excellent linkbait. If your widget is genuinely useful, and noticed by bloggers, community moderators, and others online, they will download it and put it up on their highly visible blog pages or talk about it in their communities. More importantly, they’ll include a link back to where they got the widget.

The world of widgets is still small, but it’s growing. A recent one-day convention in New York was devoted to widgets, and companies that make widgets (and other interested parties) now have their own group, the Widget Marketing Association. If you haven’t considered reaching out to web surfers who make use of content and information in this new format, perhaps you should.

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