Web Widget Optimization

If Rene Descartes were alive today, rather than saying “Je pense, donc je suis” (“I think, therefore I am”), he might say, “Il est, donc j’optimise” (“It is, therefore I optimize”). By that same reasoning, if Monsieur Descartes were alive today, instead of emerging as both the Father of Modern Philosophy and the Father of Modern Mathematics, he’d be trying to figure out how to optimize Web widgets -- the next frontier of search engine optimization.

With Newsweek and others calling 2007 the Year of the Widget, then it will also invariably be the year of Web Widget Optimization (WWO). First, let’s get on the same page as to which widgets we’re talking about.

Widgets, alternatively called gadgets (by Google), applications (by Facebook), badges (by people who like the letter b), and other terms, provide a way of syndicating any form of digital content imaginable to other Web sites. Google refers to them as mini-websites. Blog publisher TypePad calls its widgets “bling for your blog.” Jai Shen, co-founder of widget developer RockYou, told Reuters that widgets are a form of self-expression.



There are three key types of widgets, with important distinctions among them (I’ve also included this as a table on my blog):


  • Desktop widgets: Users download the widget and may keep them running constantly in the background. Examples include WeatherBug, Southwest Airlines’ Ding! deal alert, and NBC’s “Heroes” countdown. Pros: They provide a pervasive brand experience for the widget publisher even if the user is offline. Cons: They’re only seen by the user who downloaded it.


  • Personal Web widgets: Users post the widgets to their personal homepages such as My Yahoo or iGoogle. Pros: For users who set their personal homepages as their browsers’ start pages, the widget may be viewed every time the user’s online. Cons: They’re only seen by the user who added it, and the user has to visit his personal homepage for the widget publisher to get the most value.


  • Public Web widgets: A user posts a widget publicly to social network profiles, blogs, online communities, and other sites. For the best widgets (or the laziest users), they stay on those pages indefinitely. Pros: They scale -- if the user installs one widget, it can be seen by many people, and the user can install it on multiple sites. Cons: The publisher needs to provide new content daily or weekly to keep the widget fresh.

Public Web widgets, largely because of their viral potential, have been the focus of most of the press attention lately; they even starred in their own event, the full-day WidgetCon that Freewebs hosted in New York last week. Their scalability is also the reason why they deserve most of the focus of Web widget optimization.

Rather than offer a technical manual for optimizing widgets, here are three ways to consider how to include Web widget optimization as part of your online marketing program:

1) Develop links. Widgets offer promise of link development, but there are some inherent obstacles in how widgets are designed, with Flash being especially common. Including text links in widgets can help get around that. What’s important is to keep SEO as a secondary goal when using widgets. Google has been especially aggressive lately in updating its algorithms to minimize what it deems link spam, so trying to use widgets solely for optimization purposes could penalize everyone, including those who aren’t gaming the system. That’s more of a precaution. In the meantime, widgets can potentially offer similar value as being included on someone’s blogroll, but the backend of the widget will determine if that’s even possible.

2) Increase search shelf space. For any query, the more links you have in the top ten natural search results, the more you own that term and gain a major competitive advantage. A page for your widgets is one more opportunity for visibility. This isn’t a commonly used strategy yet, but it can provide incremental value. The object here is to optimize the page that the widget is on rather than the widget itself.

3) Support social media strategies. Reaching out to bloggers, community moderators, and other influential people online can pay dividends on a number of levels, including complementing search engine optimization programs. Widgets, if they truly offer some sort of value to the recipient (in terms of utility, entertainment, self-promotion/ego inflation, or some other benefit), can be a great hook to encourage links back. Regardless of how well the widget itself is optimized, site owners will often link to where they found the widget to share the information with their sites’ visitors.

This is a nascent field, and as this fervor for widgets proliferates among consumers, publishers, and marketers, the science of Web widget optimization will mature. In the meantime, this should give you plenty to digest. After all, it was Descartes, the would-be Father of Web Widget Optimization, who said, “In order to improve the mind, we ought less to learn than to contemplate.”

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