Widget areas in WordPress are containers you can use to add functionality or design elements via widgets at predefined or custom spots on your pages. Widget areas, in combination with widgets, are therefore a powerful customization tool that allows you to make the most out of your WordPress site.
Working with them isn’t universal because it is affected by the theme and plugins you use, as they control widget area and widget availability.
This post will guide you step-by-step through the basics of creating and working with widget areas in WordPress.
Existing and New Widget Areas
Existing widget areas in WordPress are controlled by your current theme. They can be found under Appearance->Widgets in the menu to the left of the screen. Most free and basic themes have typically one or two widget areas called sidebar and footer. Sidebars are meant to be used to the side of pages, whereas a footer is usually placed at the bottom of the page. Most basic themes have pre-coded the position of the available widget areas, meaning for example that footer content goes into the footer of the page. Most premium themes allow you though to freely choose, where and how you use widget areas, regardless of their names.
More advanced themes have either more pre-defined widget areas or the option to create custom ones.
If your theme allows you to add custom widget areas, you can do that by finding a theme option called Widget Areas or similar.
Keep in mind that the exact name might vary, as it is freely chosen by the theme author.
Once you have located Widget Areas, click on it. You end up on a screen, where you have the option to create new widget areas. It will look something like the screenshot below, prompting you to choose a name for the new widget area, add it, and save your settings.
Once you have done that, the new widget area should appear on the list under Appearance->Widgets (see the first screenshot above).
Even though widget areas in WordPress are controlled by your current theme, there are ways to go beyond your theme’s functionality. You can add new widget areas by inserting simple functions into your functions.php file on the server.
Alternatively, you can automate the process by installing a plugin, such as WP Custom Widget Areas. It adds the option to create widget areas from your WordPress backend. The process is quite similar to the one you go through when using Theme Options.
How to Use Widget Areas
Widget Areas are basically like empty containers. They don’t show on your pages and don’t add any functionality to the frontend of WordPress until you add a widget into them.
Widgets are applications or components, allowing users to view content, perform actions or access services. There are standard WordPress widgets, theme-controlled widgets, and plugin-controlled widgets. Therefore, it is impossible to make a universal list of available widgets, as they depend on each individual setup.
You can see and manage all available widgets under Appearance->Widgets (see the first screenshot above). You can add a widget to a widget area by drag-and-dropping it into the chosen widget area.
Once you’ve dropped the widget, it enfolds and displays all available settings. Settings differ a lot, depending on the widget you are using. The only setting, common for all widgets, is Title. Title is an optional field, allowing you to type some text that will be displayed above the widget. Also common for all widgets, is that you must remember to click on Save, when ready with the setup.
As long as the widget area is displayed on your pages by default, which is often the case when using simpler WordPress themes with predefined widget areas, the widget you just added should be accessible on your site right upon saving it.
When using custom widget areas though, you often need to add them manually in order to appear on the page. There are two ways to add custom widget area to a page: by choosing it from a sidebar/footer list of available widget areas (see the screenshot below)
or by using elements made available by page builders, such as WP Bakery Page Builder’ Widgetized Sidebar (see the screenshot below).
When using standard sidebars and footer, you only get to choose which widget appears on one or all (depending on the theme) pages. When using a widgetized sidebar from a page builder, you can literally insert a different widget area anywhere on any page.
In the first case, the setup is pretty straightforward: you have a ready sidebar/footer, positioned on a page, and the only thing you need to do, is choose, which widget area should be displayed in it.
In the second case, you have to insert a widgetized sidebar (might be called something else, when using other page builders) somewhere on your pages and then you have to choose, which widget area should be displayed in it.
No matter which method you use, you can display just one widget area per sidebar/footer. You can, however, put multiple widgets in each widget area. In theory, you can use as many widgets per widget area as you wish. Keep though in mind that some footers are formatted to appear with 3 or 4 columns, making it a good idea to modify widget use accordingly.
Working with Widgets from a SEO Perspective
As noted above, widgets are a powerful way to add functionality, custom content or design elements to your pages. You should, however, be aware that widgets tend to slow pages down, especially when using more than 1-2 per page.
Page speed is one of the most important ranking factors and this makes widgets an enemy of SEO. While you shouldn’t be afraid to display an extra menu or a sign-up form in a widget area on a page, avoiding unnecessary widgets as feeds, ads, video or animations is highly recommended.