Collapsing WordPress Widget-Ready Areas & Sidebars

Problem: Theme users need as many widget-ready areas as possible. They’re easy to use and they help keep theme template files clean. But! unused, empty, widget-ready areas, areas waiting for you to add a widget of your choice, hang around waiting to spoil your designs by limiting your styling options. Just as bad, empty widget areas can invalidate your markup. But don’t worry, we can do something about it. Only first, we need to take a closer look at the problem.

Here’s how a typical widget-ready sidebar looks. I’ve taken the code from Automattic’s guide to widgetizing WordPress themes.

<ul id="sidebar">

 <!-- likely awesome stuff -->


We’ve got an unordered list and inside of it a statement that looks for the dynamic_sidebar() function. If we’ve registered one, it’ll spit out our awesome stuff: WordPress widgets marked up as list items.

All very good. But what if we start out with no awesome stuff in there? No default widgets? Well, that means our containing ul element will be hanging out there in our site with no li elements in it. A list without list items. Totally invalid and totally unsemantic. Worse yet: what if you were styling that ul with a margin, border, or just positioning it? That styling would stick—even if the widget area was empty. Totally unacceptable.

Thankfully, there’s a fix.

// Check for widgets in widget-ready areas
// Thanks to Chaos Kaizer
function is_sidebar_active( $index = 1){
	$sidebars	= wp_get_sidebars_widgets();
	$key		= (string) 'sidebar-'.$index;

	return (isset($sidebars[$key]));

Blogger Avice (Chaoskaizer) De’véreux came up with the nifty little function above, is_sidebar_active(), in response to a question in the WordPress support forums. It’s a beaut. With it you can check to see if there are widgets in a sidebar and if not, well, you can do something else. Like nothing for an example. Nothing, in this case, is really something.

Here’s an example of the code from the beginning of this post, modified to produce no widget-ready area by default and load one only if there is a widget added to it.

<?php if ( function_exists('dynamic_sidebar') && is_sidebar_active() ) { // there are active widgets for this sidebar
            echo '<ul id="sidebar">'. "n";
            echo '</ul>' . "n";
        } ?>

Now, where would this be useful? Well, Thematic is going to start making use of it. With 13 widget-ready areas and only two containing widgets by default, it was in desperate need of this technique. Here’s how Thematic is using is_sidebar_active() in it’s footer to only create a containing div for a group of 3 widget-ready areas if a widget is loaded into any one of them.

    <div id="subsidiary">
        <?php if ( function_exists('dynamic_sidebar') && is_sidebar_active(3) ) { // there are active widgets for this aside
            echo '<div id="first" class="aside sub-aside">'. "n" . '<ul class="xoxo">' . "n";
            echo '</ul>' . "n" . '</div><!-- #first .aside -->'. "n";
        } ?>                
        <?php if ( function_exists('dynamic_sidebar') && is_sidebar_active(4) ) { // there are active widgets for this aside
            echo '<div id="second" class="aside sub-aside">'. "n" . '<ul class="xoxo">' . "n";
            echo '</ul>' . "n" . '</div><!-- #second .aside -->'. "n";
        } ?>       
        <?php if ( function_exists('dynamic_sidebar') && is_sidebar_active(5) ) { // there are active widgets for this aside
            echo '<div id="third" class="aside sub-aside">'. "n" . '<ul class="xoxo">' . "n";
            echo '</ul>' . "n" . '</div><!-- #third .aside -->'. "n";
        } ?>        
    </div><!-- #subsidiary -->

I’m a big fan of widget-ready areas. WordPress themes should be using them more creatively and empowering users to take control of their templates. This technique only makes things even easier. Try adapting it in your next WordPress theme and make something beautiful—and usable too.

10 thoughts on “Collapsing WordPress Widget-Ready Areas & Sidebars”

  1. Thanks for this trick… But it doesn’t work when a widget is deleted from an area : area become empty, but ul element is displaying.

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for this tip, but as Vincent says in previous comment, it doesn’t work when a widget is deleted from an area : area become empty, but ul element is displaying.

    Any idea ?


  3. what about in the case where there is a widget but the content for the widget is dynamic and it could be null but also it could have contents. My question is how to rather probe for contents if null or empty or not empty?

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