It's hard to get noticed in the cacophony of the World Wide Web. But there's a new tool that companies can use to build their brands online--and it's practically free. Widgets, also known as gadgets, are like miniature television screens, usually no more than a couple of inches high or wide, which can be posted on a website, blog, or desktop. Here's how it works: You design a widget and put your brand or logo on it. It can display any kind of information or image: sports scores, scrolling news headlines, the weather report, animated graphics, a slide show. Visitors to your website will see it, download it, and post it on their own blogs or Facebook pages. Voilà--your brand is now in front of thousands of new consumers, who need only click on the widget to be redirected to your site. A golf course, for example, could create a weather widget; users would download it to their desktops and receive constant updates on whether it's a good day to hit the links. A chain of hardware stores could develop a widget that scrolls home repair tips. Or a website that features cute photos of puppies could build a puppy-of-the-day widget (and, in fact, one has--see previous page for the DailyPuppy widget).

A widely distributed widget can increase traffic to your website and boost your search engine rankings. "Widgets can be very powerful when you have something of value that you want to distribute," says Ivan Pope, the self-described "Mr. Widget" and founder and CEO of Snipperoo, a widget directory with thousands of widgets available to download. "It's a great way to continually remind people that you exist." That's one reason they've grown in popularity--ComScore, an Internet research firm, says widget-adorned webpages reached 239 million unique visitors in the month of June. That's up from 178 million when ComScore started tracking widgets in April.

The best part: Your widget doesn't have to be fancy to be a success. It doesn't even need thousands of users--for some widgets, dozens will suffice (see Florida List For Less Realty, below). And building a widget is relatively easy--a skilled computer programmer can do it in just a few hours. You can also use one of the thousands of widgets readily available on Snipperoo and other sites. Many of the widgets are customizable; you can add your company name and logo and decide what information will appear on the widget. Some websites will help you build your own unique widget, without dirtying your hands with code (see Resources, below). Here are some examples of how businesses have used widgets to improve their visibility on the Web.

CarDomain Network

Seattle

The widget: CarDomain.com is a social networking site for car lovers--a place where owners of 1967 Mustangs, for example, can share pictures of their rides, swap stories, and ask questions about upgrades and repairs. The company recently started accepting uploads of user-created videos. The videos are available on its widget, which scrolls the latest uploads.

The results: Hundreds of outside sites have downloaded the widget, and many users have put it on their CarDomain profiles. Less than two weeks after posting it, CarDomain saw an uptick of 60,000 page views a day.

Babystrology

Vancouver, British Columbia

The widget: Vincent McCurley started Babystrology in December 2006, when his wife was newly pregnant and he had just lost his job as a computer programmer and Web designer. On Babystrology.com, he sells T-shirts, mugs, and caps with clever phrases like "Pregnant, not fat" and "An inconvenient tooth." The site yielded lackluster results--until McCurley developed the baby ticker. An expectant mother can put her due date into a simple form on the website, then download the widget to her desktop or webpage. The fetus grows as the date gets closer.

The results: About 95 percent of the website's traffic comes through the baby ticker, says McCurley. The widget has been downloaded more than 70,000 times.

DailyPuppy.com

Santa Monica, California

The widget: DailyPuppy.com is the go-to destination for anyone wanting to look at photos of, you guessed it, puppies. The widget, which founder Michael O'Keefe built a year ago, displays the featured puppy of the day.

The results: The website, which O'Keefe sold in August to Los Angeles-based Demand Media, has 30,000 unique visitors a month, and about half of them come through the widget.

Florida List For Less Realty

Cooper City, Florida

The widget: Take a blog and turn it into a widget--the result is known, not surprisingly, as a "blidget." Scott Daniels, co-founder of Florida List For Less Realty, started blogging in 2005, hoping to boost business for his brokerage firm, which has 24 full-time agents. But his blog didn't draw much traffic. To extend his reach, he built a blidget, which scrolls the headlines of his latest blog posts. He created the blidget in less than an hour, using free tools available on Widgetbox.com.

The results: It has noticeably improved his blog's placement on Google searches. The number of inquiries he received from buyers, sellers, and renters quadrupled when only 70 people had downloaded the widget (now it's up to 100). Says Daniels: "The widget has made me look like a 400-pound gorilla."

AnchorBank

Madison, Wisconsin

The widget: It's a mortgage calculator; viewers can type in the amount of money they're looking for and generate rate quotes. The widget is ideal for real estate agents, who can post it on their desktops or websites and help their customers find rate information.

The results: AnchorBank just launched the widget a couple of months ago and doesn't have data on how many people have picked it up. The bank, which has 61 branches throughout Wisconsin, hopes the widget will help build its brand with local real estate brokers.

Resources

For tools that will help you build your own widget, check out www.widgetbox.com, desktop.google.com/plugins, and widgets.yahoo.com. You can also find widgets at www.snipperoo.com, www.widgetgallery.com, and www.apple.com/downloads/dashboard.