The Trouble with Widgets

Back in mid-August, WordPress switched to a Block interface for adding and updating widgets. The announcement was made on August 10th on the WordPress.com News blog, which has 87M followers, but it still came as a surprise for most.

“Widget” is a fancy word for “doodad,” which is itself a fancy word for “small tools that you can add to your blog that add a variety of functions and content.” Widgets do many different things, like letting readers see which of your posts is most popular or automatically displaying your Instagram photos.

get lingo-learn wordpress.com

Is it a Block or is it a Widget?

Widgets can be added to the sidebar and footer area of your site, depending on theme. The vast majority of WordPress.com’s more recent themes support a single widget area confined to the theme footer and some very new themes, like Zoologist, do not have a widget area at all (to keep things simple).

With the introduction of Block Widgets, I’d hoped it would be possible to add widgets anywhere in a Page or Post,

Because blocks are blocks, right?

Apparently not; that is not how the available widgets work. If you open your Post or Page Block Inserter and search for “widget” the list of options is as follows (Block for anywhere, Widget for footer/sidebar only):

screenshot of widgets available in the Editor block inserter
Block Inserter “Widgets”
  • Shortcode: Available as a Block
  • Archives: Available as a Block and as a Widget
  • Calendar: Available as a Block and as a Widget
  • Categories: Available as a Block
  • Custom HTML: Available as a Block and as a Widget
  • Latest Comments: Available as a Block and as a Widget
  • Latest Posts: Available as a Block and as a Widget
  • Page List: Available as a Block and as a Widget
  • RSS: Available as a Block and as a Widget
  • Social Icons: Available as a Block
  • Tag Cloud: Available as a Block
  • Search: Available as a Block and as a Widget
  • Star Rating: Available as a Block
  • Repeat Visitor: Available as a Block
  • Event Countdown: Available as a Block and as a Widget
  • Timeline: Available as a Block
  • Blog Posts: Available as a Block
  • Post Carousel: Available as a Block

I don’t believe all the available widgets appear in that Block Inserter search, so for good order’s sake, here are the full lists of:
Blocks
Widgets

Block, Legacy and Classic? Oh. My!

Moving along from your Post or Page Editor, navigate to your site’s Appearance>Customize>Widgets and you’ll be greeted by a Welcome notice informing you that you are now rocking the Block Widgets. Click “Got it” to move on and select the area (sidebar/footer) where you want to add a new widget or edit an existing one. From there click on the “Plus” sign to add a new widget or click on the active widget you want to edit.

The Block Inserter here acts like the one in your Post or Page Editor and clicking the plus sign “Browse All” will give you that entire scroll along list of currently available blocks, although I have to wonder how useful that is in the context of a footer or sidebar. (Note: the list in the Block Inserter in the Customizer does not respect any blocks you may have hidden in Preferences.) Technically you can insert any Block as a widget, but you’ll also find a widgets section in that list. These are the same ones as pictured above, with the addition of “Legacy Widgets” previously available. Legacy widgets include:

Legacy Widgets

For working with any sort of widget, my preference today is to open the WP Admin>Appearance>Widgets dashboard, the biggest reason is the Block Widget interface in the Customizer does not have immediate access to Block settings like in the Post or Page Editor’s sidebar.

(Need a refresher on how to access WP Admin? Take a look at this support guide.)

WP Admin’s Widget Dashboard-Inactive Widgets are below the currently active ones

To be fair, it is possible to access Block Widget settings in the Customizer, but it involves more clicks. First, you click on the ellipsis in the Block toolbar, then click on the link to “Show more settings” which then opens those settings in the same sidebar.

Where to find the Block Widget settings in the Customizer

Aside: When opening Appearance>Customize>Widgets you might also encounter a reference to “Classic Widgets” which is only available to WordPress.com members on the Business or eCommerce plan. This plugin reverts the current widget editing interface to the previous (and IMO saner) one.

Inactive Widgets

After the switch to the Block interface for widgets, I found a few of my widgets had migrated to the Inactive Widgets section, although this normally happens only if you change to a different theme. If you have Inactive Widgets on your site and want to move one to the active area, for now you’ll only be able to that in the WP Admin Widgets dashboard. Any widget you remove in the Customizer is automatically moved to Inactive widgets rather than deleted.

Visibility Settings

When I drafted this post Widget Visibility Settings, which allow you to display widgets only on certain pages, were available exclusively on Legacy Widgets. Over the last couple of months, Visibility Settings have come to Block Widgets as well, though the wording is a little different in each and where you add these settings is different in each. In Legacy Widgets, Visibility settings are available immediately after adding the widget as before. In Block Widgets, Visibility settings can be found after you add the widget, under “Show more settings,” mentioned above, and then “Advanced”.

Regardless of a Block or Legacy Widget’s visibility setting, at the moment it appears perpetually in the Customizer. (Bug or Design Feature, I’m not sure at this point.)

Bug Warning!

There is a larger bug with Block Widget visibility settings which was thought to be squashed. If you create a visibility rule in the Customizer to hide a Block widget, at some point the visibility rule will flip to show instead. After some intensive testing and reporting to Support, this oddity only appears in the Customizer but does not affect the widget itself. It continues to behave as though the rule is hide. I’m really hoping The Powers That Be can find and squash this ASAP.

Final Thoughts

It’s pretty clear from the News blog article that Widgets are a work-in-progress and that Legacy Widgets, as well as Shortcodes, will be deprecated and replaced with a Block equivalent. Until things are stable, unless you absolutely need to change something in your widgets, I’d say it’s probably best to leave them alone, or be aware that things may go pear-shaped. If it does, use your available Support options to get help.

For someone who is not familiar… oh, who am I kidding, this is just plain confusing, whether you are familiar with widgets or not. There’s only just so many things a person can keep in their head at one time!

As always, the information in this post is correct as of publication date. Changes are inevitable.


For me, this is my last scheduled post until the end of this year, barring some major occurrence. There are a number of off-line projects with deadlines looming that can’t be ignored any longer.

To those that do, wishing you a joyous holiday season, and a happy Festivus to the rest of us.

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Featured Photo by Mabel Amber on Pexels.com

Published by JenT

After 4 years hand coding HTML and CSS websites, 2 years setting up and running WordPress sites, I launched my first website on WordPress.com back in 2006 and never looked back. Since then, I’ve helped other WordPress.com site owners navigate through the ever-changing WordPress.com ecosystem. Find me at wpcommaven.com

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