Widgets -- you see them everywhere, those little branded badges or boxes on websites and blogs that display content from another site.  Web widgets have exploded in popularity in 2006 and 2007. It seems like they are reproducing faster than rabbits -- and for good reason.

Today more and more individuals and business owners publish their own websites and blogs.  Widgets give site owners and bloggers a quick and inexpensive -- usually free -- way to add interactivity and interesting content to a site.  And for those who publish widgets for other sites to use, those widgets are a low-cost branding and viral marketing technique.  Let's take a look at widgets, including ways to enhance and promote your business online using widgets.

Wikipedia defines Web widgets  as a piece of embedded code on a website, containing content that is not static (that is, it’s content that changes).You often see widgets in the side columns of blogs.  They have become so prevalent that a slang term has developed to describe the phenomenon: blog bling. 

Of course, widgets also show up on traditional business websites.  One common usage on traditional websites is to display breaking news headlines.

There are thousands of widgets available today.  Widgets are available to display content that ranges from pure fun (rotating photos of cute kittens for visitors to vote on) to the utilitarian (the local weather).  Popular widgets might display eBay listings, Amazon books, customizable polls and surveys, or the latest posts from your favorite blogs.  You can even find widgets consisting of MP3 players to allow visitors to hear music or business podcasts on your website, not to mention video players to entertain visitors with your favorite clips. 

Some of the most popular widgets today help you network and develop contacts, displaying photos of people – people you know or might want to get to know.  For instance, MyBlogLog has a widget that is popular right now.  It displays the photo and screen name of registered MyBlogLog users when they visit your site, providing interactivity to help others explore and discover one another’s blogs and make contact.

Flickr, the photo organizing site, also offers a widget with rotating images of your favorite photos.  I noticed that Ramon Ray, Technology evangelist at Smallbiztechnology.com  (and a columnist here at Inc Technology) has an interesting Flickr badge on his site showing well-known personages known in the small business market. I asked Ramon to explain the attraction of widgets to site owners, and he noted, “I’m not a programmer. I can do only the basics on my web site. What I like -- no, love -- about widgets is that they enable non-programmers to add enhanced functionality to their websites. Widgets let you do things on your website that you normally could not do. Web 1.0 is long gone. Your customers (most of them at least) expect your website to be alive and provide smart and useful interactivity. Widgets let you do this, and more.”

In the 1990s, the traditional approach to websites was to keep visitors on your site and not link out to other content.  That approach has gone out the window in today’s world where user-generated content and “conversations” spanning several sites are common. 

In fact, sites are even encouraging users to add widgets with content from third party sites. 

For instance, at Work.com, you can now add widgets to your profile page. According to Shara Karasic, community manager, “Because Work.com is a hub for business experts to promote themselves by sharing their expertise, we've started encouraging these experts (many of whom have several blogs or online columns scattered around the Web) to enhance their Work.com profiles by reflecting their presence on the wider Web through adding widgets that display their headlines from what they're publishing elsewhere. It's a win-win situation: it allows other members to learn more about them, increases trust and context, and adds compelling and personalized content to our site. And their Work.com profile becomes the central place to find out about that expert."

Wondering where to get a widget for your site or blog?  Check out Widget Box, where you can choose from literally thousands of widgets organized by theme or topic.  There you can also create a widget of your own blog headlines, called a blidget. 

With widgets, even if you are not a programmer, you can add interesting and interactive content to your site. Go get widgetized!

Anita Campbell is a writer, speaker and radio talk show host who closely follows trends in the small business market at her site, Small Business Trends.