WordPress Plugins vs Widgets: What’s the Difference?

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I’ll be the first to say it…

The WordPress ecosystem is complex.

But once you wrap your head around the various ways to extend your site, it all starts to make sense.

In this post, you’ll learn exactly what widgets and plugins are, how they’re different, and how they interact with your site.

What is a widget?

A widget is easiest to describe by its function:

Widgets output content.

That is all widgets do. For example, if you visit the Appearance > Widgets menu, you can see the 17 default widgets included in every WordPress site:

Default Widgets

The Categories widget outputs a list of your post categories. The Image widget displays any image you select. All of these widgets are used to display some kind of content on your site.

You might be wondering now, “why would I use a widget when I can already display this type of content in my posts and pages using blocks?”

Because widgets output content outside of the post area.

For instance, take a look at this post published with the Mission News theme:

Widget Areas

Marked in red is the post area including the Featured Image, title, and editor content. The widget areas are marked in blue, and any widget can be added to them. This lets you include things like related posts and advertisements on every page of your site.

And that brings me to the last thing you need to know about widgets:

Widgets have to be placed in widget areas and widget areas are provided by your theme.

Mission News adds numerous widget areas including two sidebars. The Challenger theme is quite different with its single-column design and only includes widget areas before and after the post/page content.

Challenger Widget Areas

In conclusion, widgets allow you to add custom content outside of the post editor by using widget areas provided by your theme.

Now let’s address exactly what a plugin is.

What is a plugin?

A plugin is a way to extend the functionality of WordPress. In other words…

Plugins add new features.

If you want to add social sharing buttons, install a plugin. Want analytics for your site? Get a plugin. Need a contact form? That’s right, you need a plugin.

Any time you want your site to do something it can’t do already, install a plugin.

Now let’s put it all together.

The difference between widgets & plugins

Here’s the big idea:

You don’t install widgets; You install plugins and widgets are sometimes included in plugins.

The MetaSlider plugin is a great example.

This plugin is used to add sliders to your site. When you install it, you’ll find a new menu where you can design custom image sliders.

Meta Slider Menu

When you’re ready to display a slider you’ve created, you can use a Gutenberg block, shortcode, or the included widget.

Meta Slider Widget
This is the MetaSlider widget

Another example is the WPForms plugin used to create contact forms. Besides a block and shortcode for outputting forms in your pages, it also includes a widget to display forms.

In conclusion, plugins are used to add new functionality to your site and if this involves displaying new content, like a slider or contact form, it likely includes a widget to do that.

Plugins vs widgets

Widgets and plugins aren’t two types of extensions for WordPress.

Plugins are used to extend WordPress and they sometimes included widgets to output a new type of content.

Updating your site and creating wonderful pages should be a bit easier with this knowledge.

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Thanks for reading this guide on the difference between plugins and widgets, and please share it using the buttons below if it helped you out today.

Ben Sibley
Ben Sibley
This article was written by Ben Sibley. He is a WordPress theme designer & developer, and founder of Compete Themes.