Death Watch: Feeds are important, but widgets still work

Posted on November 25, 2009 9:18 am by | Death Watch | Web | Widgets

Twitter and Facebook’s rising popularity have altered the online habits of more than a few people. Given the volume of information that comes our way through the tweets and status updates of those we follow, many are now convinced that the news finds us.

Certainly I discover a lot of interesting news by way of shortened URLs embedded in tweets, and the recent use of Twitter to direct Central Texans to the site of a hospital treating victims of the Fort Hood shootings exemplifies the ways Twitter increasingly is being used as a news delivery vehicle. But given the speed with which tweets fly by, I’m bound to miss a lot of news if I’m not watching my monitor at just the right time. To get a comprehensive overview of the news in which I’m interested, I still need other channels.

These other channels include widgets, which continue to thrive despite a growing chorus insisting that the web widget is dead.

The argument for the demise of the widget is best articulated by Socialvibe president Joe Marchese, writing on MediaPost. Marchese writes,

What marketers need to understand is that the feed killed the widget. Feeds, like Facebook’s news feed and Twitters status update, have made the portability of content nearly irrelevant.

The web, in Marchese’s view, is a world of people “programming content for friends, co-workers and total strangers,” one in which a destination (like a website) is increasingly irrelevant. A marketer’s goal, he says, is to get people to program your branded content into the information they’re feeding to others via their tweets and Facebook status updates.

I agree with Marchese—to a point. But, does this mean the widget is dead? Hardly. In fact, with startups like Sprout building entire businesses around widgets, building and maintaining high-quality widgets has become easier and cheaper than ever. The only question seems to be whether anybody will ever again visit a web page where these widgets are housed.

If you buy into Marchese’s assertion that the feed has killed the widget, then you believe that traffic to destination websites is trending to zero. There’s no question that unique visits to destination sites—even those that historically have done the best job of attracting traffic (think Nike, for instance)—are declining. But the loss of thousands—even tens of thousands—of visitors still leaves sites with thousands—even hundreds of thousands—who still drop by. As attention shifts from static sites to the real-time web, some attention will continue to focus on sites. (If the widget is dead, then isn’t on-site advertising dead, too? Don’t tell sites like TechCrunch or any of the top mommy bloggers, who seem to be getting enough page views to be profitable with advertising.)

Traffic to traditional sites is declining, not disappearing. There will always be reasons to visit a destination website even as most of our attention shifts to content produced through social channels.

Consider tweets that contain a shortened URL. That URLs takes you somewhere, often to a blog post or a news story. That content appears on a web page, and on that page you can find all kinds of other material that may serendipitously reveal even more content in which you were interested. After all, the blog’s theme guided the blogger to write the post that motivated someone to include it in a tweet, so why shouldn’t the material that orbits the blog’s posts—including widgets—be equally interesting?

Marchese’s post also assumes that widgets contain only the kind of content that is now communicated via tweets and status updates. A widget I created contains an audio player that, when activated, presents the latest episode of For Immediate Release, the podcast I produce twice weekly with Neville Hobson. So you click a shortened URL in a tweet, follow it to a web page to read the recommended post, and while you’re there you see this intriguing widget with an audio player. Curious, you click the play button and are introduced to FIR. Many of our listeners have shared FIR with people visiting their blogs by embedding the widget on their sites.

Widgets can also contain video, images, contests, fundraising activity (the American Red Cross has made excellent use of fundraising widgets during times of natural disasters), polls, and all manner of other content. They can serve a variety of purposes, like the fundraising/CSR widget below (feel free to embed it on your site):

It doesn’t even take a shortened URL to bring someone to a web page. Despite the fact that there are multiple channels through which our community can listen to FIR, our statistics tell us that most people use the Flash media player directly from the FIR website. Why not provide additional communication-related resources for them to look at while they’re there? Knowing that people do visit our site gives us the ability to provide them with more relevant and useful content they can serendipitously discover—and maybe even embed on their own sites. Then there’s the Twitter widget, letting people who visit your site know about your Twitter activity and, possibly, resulting in the addition of one more follower.

And then there’s Facebook, where many people go to read their feeds. Services like Sprout make it as easy to create and deploy a widget for Facebook as one for a standard web page.

Marchese is right about the trend toward feeds, but there’s a vast difference between disruption and destruction. There’s no doubt that newspapers are in decline, but more than half a million people still subscribe to The Washington Post, and the Post has the fifth largest subscriber base in the U.S. With millions and millions of people still reading paper newspapers, it makes no sense to abandon them as a means of getting your story out. With hundreds of millions of people still viewing websites, it makes no sense to abandon them, either, as a channel for reaching people.

Ultimately, widgets work. They’ve been widely adopted and they have tremendous reach, according to ComScore numbers analyzed by Terra USA Research:

Shel Holtz

It’s worth pointing to the widely reported decline in traffic to Twitter; use of the site dropped 27.8% from September to October, according to Nielsen, leaving the service with 18.9 million unique visitors. While many of those are influencers, it’s still a fraction of the total online population. Widgets can still prove useful in reaching the rest, whether they’re reading blogs, websites, or Facebook.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that much of the buzz around widgets has to do with the nascent market for interactive TV widgets and widgets on mobile phones.

And it’s more than a little ironic that Marchese’s post proclaiming the death of the widget was accompanied by two common blog widgets—a “related articles” widget and a “most read” widget.

Are you using web widgets and, if so, do you continue to derive benefit from them?



  • 1.I would suggest that widgets are not dead. As the Google Wave platform begins to develop and mature, I suspect that collaborative widgets which plug into Wave will become frequently used.

    Wes Kroesbergen | November 2009

  • 2.Great post shel and yes I agree with you.

    That traffic is trending towards the feeds does not mean it's trending away from widgets.In fact I believe it's really only trending towards more uniform (albeit arbitrary) structures which is a good thing (standards)

    But the feeds are way to busy to be monitored by the human mind and the algorithms to filter and prioritize are way to primitive.

    There is a whole market sitting on top of the feeds until someone will create one aggregator to rule them all.

    Thomas Petersen | November 2009 | Copenhagen

  • 3.Shel, every time I click on a title from your blog in Google Reader, I get an "Invalid GET data" page. Is that an issue on Google's end, or on the site's?

    Diane | November 2009 | Chicago

  • 4.@Diane, first time I've heard anybody was having this issue. I'll look into it.

    Shel Holtz | November 2009

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