Placeholder settings are used to create predefined insert options for components (sublayouts, renderings and web controls). You have two basic approaches to use: setting the placeholder key on the item's Placeholder Key field:
or setting the key when you apply it to an item through it's presentation details.
Setting the placeholder key on the placeholder settings item will set the component insert options of any placeholders with a matching key. This could be useful for global elements or in single site deployments where you're not concerned about managing individual settings for each site.
Setting the placeholder key on the standard values of a template will allow you to set the same group of component insert options on different templates or placeholders. This, I suspect, may be most useful especially in multi-site instances since it would allow you to specify the sublayouts used for your specific site's placeholder keys.
There are a two out-of-the-box placeholder setting items in Sitecore: content and webedit. You can incorporate these into your strategy or create your own. I'll demonstrate the latter. Browse to /master/sitecore/content/Layout/Placeholder Settings. Right-click on the placeholder settings item and insert a new Placeholder item.
If you're going to set the placeholder key on the placeholder setting item you may want to name the item based on the content placeholder key it will be used for. On the other hand if you're going to be specifying the placeholder key in standard values, you'll want to name it based on its intended use. IE: Sidebar Controls, Header Content etc. The new item has four fields: Placeholder Key, Allowed Controls, Description and Editable.
As mentioned earlier, the Placeholder Key field is optional. If it is set Sitecore will apply the component insert options to any placeholders with a key that matches.
The Allowed Controls field allows you to select the components that you want to be available to an editor when they click on the "Add to here" buttons in the Page Editor. For this example I'm going to add my New Sublayout under allowed controls. So on the field I'll click the "edit" button and will receive this dialog window.
Then click "Ok" and you'll see that the field has selected the item.
The Description field appears to be informational. I didn't find any place where it was visible other than on the control itself.
The Editable checkbox determines if the placeholder settings will be editable from the presentation details windows. Here I've unchecked the checkbox and you can see the edit option is greyed out.
I'll want to also add the placeholder setting to the standard values of an item. I'm going to open the presentation details and then I'll click on the edit button for the default device.
Then I'll select the Placeholder Settings section and click add.
From Here I can select the New Sublayout item and enter in "content" for the Placeholder Key.
Now if I go to the Page editor and click on the blue component button to insert a component. I'll see the "Add to here" buttons.
When I click on the "Add to here" button, I'll now only be given the New Sublayout as an option.