Widgets -- easy-to-copy chunks of code that people can add to their own websites or social networking pages -- are fast becoming an important tool for businesses. No longer just for simple news headlines, weather bugs, and tiny games, small and mid-sized businesses are using them to raise the profile of their brands or products and track interactions with customers.

The so-called "widgetsphere" is a place where guerilla marketing, innovative promotion, and viral distribution are the Web 2.0 way.

'I'd say widgets are extremely useful, both as marketing tools and as a business tool in general,' says Jacqueline Taylor-Adams, marketing consultant and owner of MasterGriot.com, a site devoted to the spoken-word art form. 'It would behoove anyone in business to learn how to use them.'

When to use widgets

One of  Taylor-Adams' consultancy projects is Black Business Space Value Tour, an entertainment and business development site that sports no less than six widgets on the page, including: community chat, blog listings, sample audio downloads, and more. Her own MasterGriot page, however, is widget-free.

'It depends on what you want to accomplish on each page,' says Taylor-Adams. 'This one is more for promo and connecting with the community, so I use various widgets to accomplish that.'

Kelvin Brown, business consultant and owner of KB Enterprises, agrees. 'You don't want to use a widget on a strictly product site,' says Brown, 'because it draws attention away from the primary purpose of the site, which should be sales.'

Widgets -- also sometimes known as gadgets or apps -- are the latest incarnation of Web 2.0 technologies, a suite of tools including blogs and social networks that seek to foster information sharing and collaboration. The rise in use of widgets is partly attributed to the social networking craze, as such sites as Facebook made it easy for users to download and install a variety of widgets such as world clocks and movie trivia quizzes. Widgets are now widely available -- most often for free -- from a variety of developers and sources.

'I think it's the future of Web 2.0,' says Shara Karasic, community manager at Work.com, a small business advisory site and another believer in new uses for widgets. 'You need your information no matter where you are, and widgets can make that distribution easy.'

Google's customizable homepage, iGoogle, uses widgets the company calls 'Google Gadgets' that any savvy coder can make. Google offers video step-by-step instructions that seem easy and well laid out for the code-capable to learn from. But unless you know something about Application Programming Interface (API), HTML, and/or JavaScript code calls, it's not a task for the general non-techie.

'It's a fairly easy process to create a Google Gadget when you follow our instructions,' says Heather Spain, spokesperson for corporate communications at Google, 'but it's really intended for developers, and not just average users.'

How to use -- or build -- your own widgets

So how do you start using customized widgets, and maybe even build your own for your small business? You can hire a code writer to build your widget, but they have to be made according to specific code requirements for each Web 2.0 platform. That means you're looking at re-coding for each platform -- Facebook, MySpace, iGoogle, Orkut, LinkedIn, etc. -- you'll want your new widget/gadget distributed on.

Or, you can just go to Widgetbox, a San Francisco company that helps people find, create, and use widgets. 'The small business community is very aggressive about using the new tools,' says Widgetbox CEO Will Price. 'We think that's where the new business model is going for small and medium businesses.'

Widgetbox has quickly become one of the largest, if not the largest gallery of widgets online, with over 50,000 downloadable widgets and growing fast. Widgetbox offers a free, easy to use widget builder, as well as an extensive FAQ, and a responsive support team. Anyone can make a widget for almost any purpose, and then load it into what appears to be any widget-able platform, from Facebook to Wordpress and even as an iGoogle gadget. One extra advantage Widgetbox has over others is the ability to download any widget from any site, then convert it for any other site you want to use it on.

'We support the major Web protocols,' says Price. 'You can do content widgets, streaming audio, or video widgets, you name it. Widgets are like the Shetland pony of the online world, they can do pretty much anything a website can do. We also now support widgets on the iPhone.'

I tried it myself, and built what Widgetbox calls a "blidget" for my own blog. It took maybe three minutes to create a professional looking widget that listed the titles of blog entries, carried the logo picture from the blog, and was complete and ready to distribute. No coding required, no API code calls, no HTML/JS.

'This is an experimental year,' said Price, 'where people are trying out all kinds of new ways of using them. It's going to be interesting to see where things go.'