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When they were first introduced, back in WordPress version 2.2, widgets were an absolute game-changer. Since then, they’ve become a staple of the WordPress world. Almost every WordPress theme you could care to download boasts widgetized space — and with good reason.
In short, widgets let WordPress users display useful, eye-catching and/or functional features on a web page. Things such as a search function link to related posts, and blog archives can all be placed using widgets.
Want to see widgets in action? Simply take a glance to the right of this very page. You’ll see a long list of them in our sidebar area, all placed for essentially one purpose: To draw attention to important parts of the site.
WordPress 4.8 brought a big upgrade to widgets, and WordPress now ships with 17 default widgets — including Archives, Calendar, Video and Text widgets. However, this is still just the tip of the iceberg of what you can do with them.
Now, WordPress widget plugins come in two flavors: Dedicated widget plugins and general WordPress plugins with support for widgets.
In today’s list, we’ll be mixing-and-matching 25 free and premium plugins from both categories, as we run down the best WordPress plugins for adding new widgets and improving sidebars.
And, unlike many widget roundups, we’ll only be including one plugin for each functionality — thereby giving you the most bang for your buck in terms of ideas for that all-important widget/sidebar space.
A sidebar in WordPress is referred to as a widget-ready area used by WordPress themes to display information that is not a part of the main content.
It is not always a vertical column on the side. It can be a horizontal rectangle below or above the content area, footer, header, or anywhere in the theme.
The usage of sidebars varies and depends on the choices of the theme designer. Many WordPress themes support multiple sidebars also known as widget-ready areas.
Sidebars play an important role in designing the layout of a WordPress website to display content other than the main articles of a website.
For example, a short list of recent articles, recent comments, a list of pages, or popular articles on a website can easily be displayed across the entire site.
It can also be used to display advertisements from third-party websites. Users can drag and drop items into sidebars from Appearance » Widgets in the admin panel.
Some WordPress themes come with highly configurable options to create dynamic layouts for different sections of a website, which allow users to add their own sidebars from a drag and drop interface.
SiteOrigin Widgets Bundle (free)
Let’s kick things off with an excellent all-in-one widgets plugin — SiteOrigin Widgets Bundle.
The plugin introduces all of the widget functionality you could possibly ask for, with 22-plus dedicated widgets available. Here’s a selection of some of the widgets included in the box:
- Call-to-action buttons
- Contact form
- Google Maps
- Pricing table
- Image slider
The widgets are fully customizable, too, with support for infinite colors and more than 1,500 icons.
Content Aware Sidebars (free)
Content Aware Sidebars is a powerful plugin that lets you display different widgets and sidebars for different content.
For example, you can display one set of widgets for posts in one category and another set of widgets for posts in another category.
With this ability, you can create a more personalized, targeted sidebar.
You’ll be able to set up your conditional logic sidebars using a simple interface, and you get 13-plus options for displaying sidebars, including post type, taxonomy, author, template and more.
Out-of-the-box WordPress ships with a built-in search function and widget. Unfortunately, most users consider it quite poor at its job.
If you want to help your visitors to find useful content more easily, consider upgrading the default search function with Relevanssi.
The plugin is capable of partial-matching a visitor’s search query, plus it’s better at sorting by relevance than the default option.
With the plugin installed, you still have to use the default WordPress search widget. However, behind the scenes, the widget is now powered by Relevanssi.
Ninja Forms (free)
The sidebar is an excellent space to place a contact form, so your visitors can reach out to you.
Not every contact form plugin comes with a dedicated widget, though. If you want one that does, Ninja Forms is one of the best free options — it’s super-easy to use and comes with loads of customizations and advanced fields.
Testimonials Widget (free)
The widget space on your website is perfect for building social proof. Consider adding some testimonials, which tell the world what a fantastic job you’re doing, right from the mouths of real-life customers.
The Testimonials Widget plugin lets you display text, image or video testimonials in stylish sliders. You can also tailor which testimonials are displayed based on a post’s category.
The latest version also lets you display portfolio items in addition to testimonials, which is another great way to build your reputation.
Recent Posts Widget Extended (free)
Most visitors expect to see links to your blog posts in the sidebar — they depend on this for navigation.
Now, generally speaking, there are three types of navigation widgets: Recent posts, popular posts and related posts.
For a recent posts widget, I recommend the Recent Posts Widget Extended plugin. It lets you display a thumbnail and excerpt for each post, and you can also target recent posts based on category.
The plugin lets you order your posts based on publication date or most recent comments.
WordPress Popular Posts (free)
If you don’t fancy recent posts, what about your most popular posts? After all, these posts are popular for a reason, right?
They’re probably the best-written or most informative, so they provide exceptional value to all visitors.
WordPress Popular Posts is the best plugin for the job. It displays the posts’ thumbnails, plus you can target the popular posts based on category and time range.
You can even have multiple popular posts widgets live at once, each with different settings.
To define what ‘popular’ means, you can use different conditions like traffic over the last 24 hours, seven days or 30 days.
Contextual Related Posts (free)
A related posts widget is the most sophisticated navigation widget — the plugin needs an algorithm to determine which posts are related, after all.
The Contextual Related Posts widget uses both a post’s title and content to discover related posts. However, you can omit posts or entire categories from the search should you wish.
Related posts can be displayed with thumbnails, plus the posts are cached to increase website speed.
You can also include custom post types in your related results, which is helpful for custom sites.
Monarch (with Elegant Themes Membership from $89 a year)
Most of us are already adding social sharing buttons to our blog posts — if you aren’t, why not? However, not enough bloggers realize that the sidebar area is a great place to slap a load of social follow buttons.
Monarch is arguably the best social media plugin around, marrying usability, lots of advanced features and gorgeous design.
Remember: Every post you make to social media reaches your followers. Solely focusing on social shares is a big mistake.
Widget Options (free)
Widget Options gives you a ton of helpful new settings to control how all of your other widgets function.
It has some similarities to the Content Aware Sidebars plugin, in that it lets you conditionally show/hide widgets for certain posts/pages — but it also does a lot more than that.
For example, you can show/hide widgets based on a visitor’s device, add custom alignments to widgets, hide widget titles and lots more.
Smash Balloon Social Photo Feed (free)
Instead of your media library, perhaps you’d prefer to pull your images straight from Instagram.
If so, you need the Smash Balloon Social Photo Feed plugin (formerly known as Instagram Feed, before a trademark issue forced the developer to change the name). It’s active on 900,000-plus sites, and has scored a perfect 5/5 rating on more than 2,400 reviews, which is quite impressive.
The plugin lets you display thumbnails, medium-sized and full-sized images, and you can also mix-and-match multiple Instagram accounts.
The images don’t have to be from your account either — you can display images from any non-private account. And, if visitors like what they see, they can choose to load additional images by clicking a Load More button.
Slider Revolution ($26)
If you’re looking for more dynamic sidebar images, you may want to consider a slider plugin.
With a powerful feature set and affordable price tag. It ships with a dedicated slider widget, letting you place scrolling images in any widgetized area.