The sidebar is an important part of a typical WordPress blog, but many people just follow the crowd and use it for ads, social media widgets, links to recent posts and perhaps a monthly archive.
And while this is perfectly acceptable, today I’d like to offer you a challenge – take a good look at your sidebar and think about the way you’re using it. Ask yourself this question: What could I do to make my sidebar work harder for me?
In this post, I’ll be looking at the way that many popular blogs use their sidebars, and offering you ideas you can take away to use on yours. While the suggestions might not work for you straight away, don’t let that put you off experimenting and coming up with new ideas. There’s always room for improvement, and I believe that the sidebar is often not used to its full potential.
The Typical Sidebar
In your average sidebar you generally see the same things:
- A mailing list opt-in form (usually placed at the top, as attracting new subscribers is the number one goal for most blogs).
- Social media buttons linking out to social media profiles.
- A short bio and photo.
- Adverts to own and/or third-party products.
- Social media widgets pulling in tweets, photos from Instagram, or a Facebook Like box.
- Links to popular posts.
- Links to recent posts.
All these elements are perfectly fine. It’s how you use them that turn the sidebar into a valuable asset.
1. Use a Sticky Widget to Keep Important Information in View
If getting people to give you their email address is your highest priority, it makes perfect sense to have your opt-in form at the top of the sidebar.
The problem is: As a user scrolls down (on a desktop machine or laptop), the widget containing your opt-in form disappears when the reader reaches a certain point.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could keep it in sight all the time? The good news is you can!
The solution is a plugin called Q2W3 Fixed Widget (our tutorial). It adds a checkbox to each of your widgets. The ones you tick stick to the top of the screen as a reader scrolls down. Which means that they remain in the eye line of the people reading your blog and – because it remains visible – there’s a higher chance of somebody responding to your call to action.
You can use it on any widget. So if ads are your thing, you could keep a widget containing an ad at the top of the screen.
I suggest you don’t use it on AdSense ads though. It’s against the AdSense Terms of Service and could get your account banned.
2. Use Multiple Sidebars for Maximum Performance
Did you know that you can create multiple sidebars and assign them to individual posts and pages? If you don’t, and even if you do, just think about how much control that gives you over what people see when they land on your pages.
You might have a site that covers a few topics that are closely related, but far enough apart to create indifference in some people. If you only use one sidebar across your site, everyone sees the same things. This could reduce the performance of the content in your sidebar, but if you create sidebars based on the content for each post, you stand a better chance of people interacting.
For example: you write a post about web hosting on your blog about blogging. The post ranks well on search engines and you get a fair amount of traffic from Google. Most of the people landing on your page are looking for a good web hosting company and aren’t interested in blogging, so the blogging related content in your sidebar gets ignored. There’s also zero chance of them signing up for your newsletter because they’re just not interested in blogging.
So, to capitalize on the traffic, you create a new sidebar focused on web hosting. It might contain nothing more than one affiliate ad (although it would be a smart move to use it for some internal links too, as a page ranking on Google obviously has some authority – linking from it spreads some of that authority to the pages it links to).
Now you’ve optimized the sidebar and targeted the content, there’s a good chance that somebody will click on the ad and make a purchase, earning you a commission from the sale. Yet everyone else on your site sees your standard sidebar, which contains content they’re interested in – everyone’s a winner!
There’s no reason why you can’t create sidebars for each and every one of your pages. It’s a big job if you have a large site, but the potential benefits are worth consideration. Furthermore, if you use this method coupled with the Q2W3 plugin I mentioned earlier, the ad stays in view as people scroll.
Below we’ve highlighted six good contenders for creating multiple sidebars:
- Custom Sidebars
- Thrive Clever Widgets
- Content Aware Sidebars
- Simple Page Sidebars
- Easy Custom Sidebars
- SMK Sidebar Generator
- Genesis Simple Sidebars
3. Less is More
Just for a second or two, think about your sidebar. Now, answer this question: Do you give people too much choice?
Are you asking them to join your mailing list, like your Facebook page and visit all your top content? You may think you’re doing them a favor by providing so many options, but by giving people too much choice, they may not do the things you want them to.
Take a look at the sidebar on ProBlogger:
The sidebar contains just five elements, each of which encourages some kind of interaction between the reader and ProBlogger.
At the top of the tree is the all-important mailing list opt-in form, as well as links to social media profiles. In addition, there’s impressive social proof – “Join Over 321,000 Readers”. The next three widgets contain adverts for ProBlogger’s products. Lastly, there’s a “Find us on Facebook” widget. The main goals of the widgets is to get people to join the mailing list, buy products or follow the very active ProBlogger page on Facebook.
You can’t tell from the screenshot, but Darren Rowse uses the “sticky widgets” technique too, so everything you see in the screenshot stays with you as you scroll down the page.
This is an excellent example of using the sidebar to build your mailing list and sell your own products.
The Facebook widget entices people into the ProBlogger circle too, but without the commitment of spending cash or sharing an email address. No doubt, after someone has followed ProBlogger on Facebook for a while and seen the value offered by the status updates, they are more likely to join the mailing list or purchase a product. It might take a year or more. But the relationship starts with a simple Like.
4. Busy Works Too
Pinch of Yum is a very popular food blog following a different style to ProBlogger – the sidebar here is crammed with options.
It starts with a short bio and a picture of the people who run the blog: Lindsay and Bjork. Next is the first opt-in form. This one’s for people who want to follow the blog and receive new recipes in their inbox. The third widget contains a search box, and the fourth contains the first ad.
As you scroll further down the page, you’ll see another opt-in box. This one’s for blogging tips, primarily aimed at people who want to setup and run their own food blog. After that, the widgets alternate between self-promotion and adverts.
If you’ve never seen this blog before, I know you will be impressed when you hear about what goes on behind the scenes.
By reading the monthly income reports Bjork publishes on PoY we can see that, although this sidebar is very busy compared to ProBlogger’s (and others), it works. It helps generate a consistent monthly income of over $20,000.
One of the biggest earners each month is a post about setting up your own food blog. The post links to Bluehost, and Pinch of Yum earns a commission each time somebody buys hosting through their link. In the income report for May 2015, the amount earned through this one page was $5,635.
Take another look at the image above. See the “3 Steps to Start Your Own Food Blog” image – guess which page it links to. That’s right, it’s the post that makes Pinch of Yum thousands of dollars each month.
Notice also how it’s not at the top of the sidebar. It’s tucked away in the middle. But that’s okay, because the posts on Pinch of Yum are typically very long and include lots of pictures, so it takes a lot of scrolling before it disappears.
Now, I’m not saying all the traffic landing on the page in question goes through the ad in the sidebar, but I think it’s fair to assume some of it does and the banner might be helping PoY rank on the first page of Google for “start a food blog”.
5. You Don’t Need a Search Box
For a very long time, Derek Halpern of Social Triggers didn’t have a search box in the sidebar of his blog.
He explained why in his own words, when his blog was just nine months old and he’d published less than 100 articles:
Does that make sense? Can you see the benefit of excluding the search box to improve the user experience on blogs without much content? Can you also see that it makes perfect sense to have a search box if you have a lot of content that’s hard to find?
So, if you feel under pressure to add a search box just because you have to – because you see other blogs do that very thing – think about Derek’s stance to see if it applies to your situation.
6. Keeping People on Your Site
Typically, people don’t buy from you or sign-up to your mailing list the first time they come across your site.
There’s a ‘getting to know you’ period to get through before anything like that happens.
ProBlogger, Pinch of Yum, and Social Triggers each have an outstanding reputation in their respective fields. If your blog isn’t so well known, you must try harder to gain respect from your peers. You can do this in many ways, one of which is through your expertise and knowledge of your niche, which you display through your blog.
Minimalism is the trend for blog design right now. Which is great – as long as people can find your content or you’re adept at directing them to what you want them to read.
This is where your sidebar links come in.
Use a plugin to show off your popular posts. There’s a few to choose from, including the tried and tested WordPress Popular Posts plugin. It’s simple to setup and could be used without changing any of the default settings.
If you do this, it will show posts from all categories. But if you wanted, you could exclude categories by entering their ID into the relevant box (this post explains how to find the ID number).
Now, going back to the idea of creating sidebars for individual posts.
How about creating a sidebar for all posts in a particular category, and using the WordPress Popular Posts plugin in that sidebar . but instead of showing posts from all categories.
you only show posts from the category using the new sidebar and exclude the rest.
So, when somebody reads a post from the category ‘blue widgets’, the only links in the popular posts widget point to more posts from the ‘blue widgets’ category. This helps focus on the topic and will also give your site an SEO boost as you’re not using site-wide sidebar links.
Yes, it might take some time to set up, but I think it’s worth trying. Your goal is to keep people on your site. To get them to important areas. After a few of days of running a plugin like this, you can easily see how effective it’s been by asking the following questions of your analytics data:
- Has your bounce rate improved?
- Are people viewing more pages?
- Are they staying on your site longer?
- Are you getting more conversions?
If the answers to these questions are all yes, you’re onto a winner.
By the way, if you’re using a sidebar with lots of widgets and just want to change one widget for each sidebar, you could clone the widgets using this plugin. Sadly, we haven’t found a plugin that clones an entire sidebar.
After all the excitement of what we’ve given you so far, how boring does the Recent Posts widget sound? It seems almost pointless if your goals are to build a business or make money from your blog.
What use is a list of your recent posts?
It’s one of those widgets we add because everybody else does and because we think people might want to read our recent posts. They probably don’t; they want to read the really meaty stuff. The posts that provide true value.
And that is why you should consider creating a custom list of links to point people to where you want them to go. It could be your product pages, your highest earning affiliate pages, or a page to download e-books or reports.
Whatever your niche, use custom links to guide people to where you want them to go.
A lot of blogs create a ‘Start Here’ page. It typically contains links to all the areas of the site the blog owner considers important. It’s a great asset for new readers, as they don’t have to trawl the site looking for the information they want.
Creating a set of custom links for your sidebar might sound easy. However, the truth is that you need some HTML knowledge to do it straight into the widget. If you don’t know HTML, follow this method instead:
- Create a new post or page.
- Create an unordered list of custom links – the pages you want people to visit.
- When you’ve finished the list, switch from Visual to Text view.
- Select all the text and copy it.
- Now, go to the widget area and add a new text widget to the sidebar you want to use.
- Paste in the copied text.
- Save and preview in the browser.
If everything worked, you should see your custom list sitting in the sidebar.
Once again, if it’s important for you, make this widget sticky so it always remains in view.
7. Left or Right – Which is Best?
Most blogs put the sidebar to the right of the content. You might think this increases the chances of ad blindness and decreases the chance of people visiting your site and interacting with the content in the sidebar.
It probably does. But sometimes, the sidebar just doesn’t look right on the left hand side of the screen. That said, it looks perfectly fine on the KissMetrics blog – a blog built on and all about data and analytics; so you’d hope they know a thing or two about what works when it comes to page layout and sidebar optimization.
The final suggestion in this list of seven is switching your sidebar from right to left – assuming you use the more traditional layout and your theme has the ability to switch sidebars from one side of the page to the other. (If it doesn’t, and you feel like switching, check out our guide on choosing the perfect WordPress theme.)
When we view a web page on larger screens, our eyes are automatically drawn to the left of the screen. We view the content in a kind of F-shape. You can see a heat map image and if you want to run a heat map plugin on your site, read our review on the PTEngine plugin. While most of our attention is naturally focused on the left hand side of the screen, we tend to ignore the right hand side.
Therefore, if we want people to engage with our sidebars more, it makes perfect sense to switch them from right to left. With that said, doing so doesn’t guarantee your sidebar will work harder for you. But surely it’s worth running with it for a week or two see how it performs?