How Effective Are Blog Sidebars?

Redoable Lite WordPress
The highly attractive Redoable Lite theme on WordPress.com.

When bloggers first start out, they tend to have a very optimistic view of what a sidebar does. The traditional concept of a sidebar is to place a series of text links beside each post, and many blog widgets will make this very easy to achieve. But does this kind of thing work? Will blog visitors click the links in a sidebar? Does it matter which side the sidebar goes? And is there anything bloggers can do to make their sidebars more effective?

Whether or not a sidebar will be of any use first depends on the project. But whatever the reality for any individual blog, sidebars are usually a lot less effective than inexperienced bloggers think they’re going to be.

One of the biggest problems with sidebars is that they’ve become synonymous with advertising and low quality, irrelevant links. People are generally only interested in the specific editorial content they came for, and by and large, if they can avoid adverts, they will. Of course, your sidebar might not contain any ads, but it’s perception that matters, so even if visitors only think your sidebar is full of marketing waffle, they won’t go near it.

DO PEOPLE EVEN LOOK AT SIDEBARS?

In some cases, no. Attention spans are shockingly low on the Internet, and some people don’t notice anything outside the area they perceive they’re supposed to be looking at. Some, indeed, will only look at the headline and the pictures on any given page. The more observant visitors will spot the sidebar, but they’ll probably form an opinion on the nature of its contents in a split second. If it’s full of promotions, or even if it looks like it is, a split second may be all the attention it gets.

DO I NEED A SIDEBAR?

Whether or not you need a sidebar depends on two main factors:

  • Whether or not you need to display adverts.
  • How you intend to encourage visitors to navigate around the site.

You don’t necessarily need a sidebar to display ads, but it is a good place to situate ads on a blog. It lets you keep your posts looking clean and nicely formatted. Sites that put ads inside their posts can look like they’re only there to sell, and it can give the impression that the administrators don’t really care much about the content – especially if the ad is right in the top left hand corner. It doesn’t usually look very neat either. It’s not the most visitor-friendly measure. Sidebars take the advertising somewhere that’s still visible, but which is much less likely to discourage or annoy the reader.

Navigation is one of the most neglected elements for new bloggers, who so often overlook the overwhelming reluctance of the average visitor to make any effort whatsoever to explore an unknown site. Realistically, no one’s going to look for the nativation system. You have to put it under their noses. Not only that – you also need to compel them to use it. More on that shortly.

LEFT OR RIGHT?

As far as the positioning of your sidebar goes, it’s a safe bet that it’ll get more attention if it goes on the left. But the problem with putting the sidebar on the left (particularly if you make it too wide) is that it could be too dominant, and if it looks a bit ‘spammy’ or overly aggressive, that could give discerning visitors a bad impression. In some cases visitors may exit your site before they’ve even read a post. You also need to be sure your design theme is mobile compatible if you’re putting the sidebar on the left. If your theme doesn’t adapt for mobiles, the sidebar could be all mobile visitors see, and you definitely don’t want to be losing mobile traffic. Whilst left hand sidebars are noticed more easily, right hand sidebars make your blog more user-friendly, and either of those options could work better in your particular case. It’s worth trying each side and monitoring the results.

THE INCONVENIENT TRUTH

Primarily, visitors from the search engines are used to search engine layouts and paradigms, and will navigate in a similar way when they reach a blog page. They’ll respond to convincing and well-labelled search widgets, and displays that are roughly in keeping with Google Images (arrays of thumbnails), and they’ll click links in the post body text if you make them enticing.

Beyond that, most won’t want to know. Imagine you’re on Google. Almost all your attention is on the results, and realistically, that’s the only place most people are going to click. On a blog, your actual post is the equivalent of the results on a Web search engine, so if you want a text link clicked, the most reliable option is to put it inside the post. Text links work well integrated into articles. In my experience, however, text links are hugely less effective in sidebars, because they’re isolated and they don’t court the visitor in the same way.

WordPress Sunspot theme with dual sideabars

What definitely does work in sidebars, if you get it right, is a series of clickable image thumbnails. After starting the blog Tape Tardis with a conventional layout featuring standard text widgets in a single sidebar, I switched to the twin-sidebar design shown above. The blog is hosted here on WordPress, and uses the Sunspot theme. The switch made a huge difference to the amount of exploration from visitors. If you have good, relevant and impactive images, and can thumbnail them around your posts, you have a much better chance of grabbing visitors’ attention. The more like a combination of Google Search and Google Images you can make your blog design, the better.

CONCLUSION

Despite the increase in site exploration I’ve experienced when using attractive thumbnails in a sidebar, I’ve found integrating links into posts just as successful with some projects. A blog I built from scratch with a policy of placing a high incidence of links within posts has performed incredibly well on Tumblr of all platforms. The design does also have images in a single sidebar (on the right), but Google Analytics has shown that the links in the posts are driving a whacking chunk of the exploration.

I’ve also found that tabs or buttons at the top of the page beneath the header typically get a lot more clicks than text links in a sidebar.

The real soundbyte of the subject, though, is that no sidebar will work just because it’s there. It has to catch visitors’ eyes, and to do that it has to hit their interests on the nail. It’s no use getting visitors who are looking for information on guitars and putting a picture of a corner shop in the sidebar. The images have to be good, but they must also match the interests of the visitor. And any sidebar insertion that looks like you’re trying hard to promote or push something will probably be ignored, because people want the free Internet – they’re not looking to spend money.

To answer the main question: how effective are sidebars?… Some work well, some are a waste of space, and you shouldn’t feel forced to have one. But if you don’t use a sidebar, consider carefully how visitors will find your other posts and be enticed to look at them. The absolute worst thing is to have a fantastic blog full of amazing posts, which the visitor has no idea even exist. The sidebar is a quick and simple way to avoid looking like you have a ‘one page blog’. But if you have a better way to lead visitors to your back catalogue, go for it.

Author: Bob Leggitt

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