What You Should Put In Your WordPress Blog’s Sidebar (and Why)

What You Should Put In Your WordPress Blog's Sidebar (and Why)The ubiquitous sidebar.

It is a staple of the blogosphere. Assuming that you are reading this post on WPMU (and not in an RSS reader), the tiniest of glances to your right will reveal our sidebar, complete with various widgets and graphics.

Sidebars are perhaps so popular for their flexibility. You can put just about anything in a sidebar — the world is your oyster. The problem is that far too many blogs abuse this freedom too willingly and end up with a mile-long monstrosity nestled alongside their content.

With that in mind, today I want to explore all of the most popular sidebar elements that we commonly see when browsing through blogs, and pass judgment on the practical value of each one. I have featured the seven widgets that I think you should consider, and the six that I think you should disregard.

Let’s get started!

The Mini Bio

This is one of the first things you should have on your sidebar. Why? Because when it comes to blogging, identity is everything.

Mini Bio
The mini bio on my blog.

Producing great content and having an awesome design are of course extremely important, but if you want to thrive as a blogger, people must know who you are. And since your About Me page will consistently be one of the most visited pages on your blog, you can be pretty certain that a little mini bio in your sidebar will be a popular addition.

Creating a mini bio is as easy as adding a text widget to your sidebar and adding content as you see fit. If you want to spice it up with an image or other formatting, you can use HTML or install a plugin like Black Studio TinyMCE Widget.

Newsletter Signup

If you have been blogging for any length of time you will understand the importance of collecting the email addresses of your visitors. Being able to reach out to people via that most intimate of online communication mediums can make all the difference (not to mention a lot of money).

Therefore, a prominent newsletter signup widget is a must for your sidebar. I recommend that you make it stand out from the other widgets, as I have done on my blog:

Newsletter Signup
It's pretty tough to miss.

Popular email list service providers like AWeber and MailChimp offer WYSIWYG designers for creating signup forms which you can then paste into a text widget on your WordPress dashboard. Alternatively you could install the Newsletter Sign-Up plugin, which comes with a bunch of great related features.

Popular/Recommended Posts

Displaying a list of your most popular posts in the sidebar is seen by some as a no-brainer. And in theory they are right, but I think there are good and bad ways of doing it.

Recommended PostsPersonally I go down the ‘Recommended Posts’ route, which is a manually selected list of posts that I think will resonate with people most and/or are for the benefit of the blog.

To the right you can see a partial selection of the current recommended posts on my blog. Four of the posts are ‘pillar’ articles (i.e. in-depth and evergreen content) targeting different topics, and one is a post that shows people how they can connect with me.

When people see a list like this and click through to the content, they are presented with the best of what I have to offer (plus an opportunity to remain engaged by subscribing via various means). What a way to make a great impression, right?

On the other hand, we have the far more common ‘Popular Posts’ widget, which is typically a dynamic list of posts sorted by the number of comments or visits.

The problem with such widgets is that the most commented and/or most visited posts on your blog aren’t necessarily the best. They might be the most controversial, or they may have been the lucky victim of a StumbleUpon power user, but that does not necessarily make them the posts that you should lead with.

It is up to you to decide which format to go with, but you should definitely have one or the other. Here are a few plugin options for you to check out:

Categories/Resource Pages

Keeping a relatively succinct and intuitive list of categories on your blog is tough, but absolutely necessary if you are going to display them in the sidebar. The alternative is to create a few “resource” links, which group some of your best posts by topic and present them prominently on a standalone page with some introductory text.

Resource Links
Links to resource pages on Social Triggers.

I think that resource pages are an excellent tool for increasing user engagement on your site, but they are a pain to maintain. On the other hand, categories pages are dynamic and require no upkeep. It is up to you to choose which option to take.

Alternatively you may choose not to display categories or resource pages at all, instead relying upon your recommended posts widget, comprehensive interlinking, and search.

Search

In my opinion, search is a necessity for any blog with more than a handful of posts. People expect to be able to search — it is the most common form of web navigation.

Google
Thanks to these guys.

The standard WordPress search functionality is spectacularly bad, so you should take a moment to install the Relevanssi plugin, which brings Google-style search to your blog (at no cost). Just add the normal WordPress search widget to your sidebar, and Relevanssi will take care of the rest.

Social Media Buttons

There is an interesting argument for not displaying links to your social media profiles on your blog — it drives traffic off your site. Sure — it drives people to your profiles, but do they then follow you? Or do they lose interest and wander off?

For me, the primary function of social media is to bring people to your blog who had not previously heard of it — not to get readers to follow you (hopefully they will subscribe by email).

Having said that, I appreciate that it is really tough to take that leap and not include social media buttons on your site. I have aspirations to one day carry out a study to study the effects of removing social media links from your blog, but until then, they stay.

Social Media Buttons
I still have them on my blog.

There are a huge number of social media widgets available, and which one you choose is largely down to personal preference. I featured the cream of the crop in a post here.

Testimonials

This is more for the business bloggers, but personal bloggers and brands can use testimonials too.

They are an extremely effective form of social proof and can make the difference between converting a lead into a customer, or a reader into a subscriber. As such, you may be of a mind to display a testimonials widget prominently on your sidebar.

Testimonials Widget
The Sales Lion's testimonials widget in action.

When it comes to plugins, I have only found one that really ticks all the boxes for me — Testimonials Widget.

Widgets You Shouldn’t Use

You’ll find no complaint from me if I browse a blog and find any of the above widgets being used (in the right context). Each of them has a proven purpose.

However, there are few more popular widgets that (in my humble opinion) should never see the light of day. There are exceptions to the rule (and I will mention them), but for the most part, you should avoid using the widgets below at all costs.

Recent Posts

I can guarantee that your homepage is by a distance the most visited page on your blog, and it probably displays a reverse-chronological list of your posts. In that case, why do you need a ‘Recent Posts’ widget? You’re just duplicating what is already available.

People understand blogs — they know that the most recent content is available via the home page. One could argue that a blog that doesn’t display the most recent posts on the home page is defeating user expectation, which is never a good thing.

So unless you have a particularly unique reason to include recent posts in your sidebar, don’t.

Tag Cloud

Once upon a time, tag clouds were all the rage. They’re not anymore. Let me ask you one simple question — when was the last time you actually clicked on a link within a tag cloud? They are an unintuitive and jumbled mess of links.

When it comes to creating a positive navigation experience for your readers there are far better options, so resist the temptation to include a tag cloud within your sidebar.

Comments

I can’t think of any circumstances under which it is useful to the reader to display a list of recent comments in the sidebar.

Here’s what I would consider fact — for the most part, only the person who wrote the comment has an interest in it, and even they don’t at times. So why include a widget that no one wants to see?

Advertisements

I’m not against advertising on blogs (as long as it doesn’t have too detrimental an impact on the design and content). However, I also think that many people place advertising banners on their sidebars and generate little to no money from them.

The simple fact is that sidebars just aren’t that great a location to include advertising. Whilst I am not saying that you must not include advertising in your sidebar, I am saying that you should actually analyze whether or not it would make you any money.

Blogroll

These have for the most part gone the way of the tag cloud, but I still see them occasionally.

I don’t think anyone cares about or takes an interest in blogrolls any more. Interlinking is the way forward, and offers a far more beneficial experience for the reader. Not only that, but site-wide links are heavily frowned upon by Google and should be avoided when possible.

Social Media Feeds

If people would like to see what you have to say for yourself on Twitter or Facebook, they will follow you. But otherwise, what interest is it to them?

Often, social media feeds display completely banal and/or meaningless status updates such as “@tomewer Thanks!” or “@tomewer I know what you mean…” How does that benefit the user experience?

Value Your Available Space

The simple fact is that space is at a premium in your sidebar. Therefore, you need to be ruthless with what you include — the less, the better. Less choice means more action, and if you can concentrate the options down into actions that best benefit your reader and your blog, everyone is happy.

Although some of the widgets I recommend against above are fairly harmless on their own, one must understand the value of the available space and question their worth to the reader.

So what’s in your sidebar? Do you include elements that I am against, and if so, why? Let us know in the comments section!

Creative Commons image courtesy of Patrick Hoesly

Comments (17)

  1. I have to disagree on recent posts and recent comments. A lot of my traffic is from Google directly to older posts, and showing recent posts gives the reader a quick indication of what the site currently writes about. According to Google Analytics, my recent posts actually get about 40% of their referrals from older (some years older) posts, which is more than from the home page. I do agree it’s redundant on the home page, which is why I use the Widget Logic plugin to not show it there.

    For recent comments, it drives conversation and encourages comments. People want to see what people are talking about, and what they’re talking about “now.” Some people are reluctant to leave comments on older stuff unless they feel strongly compelled to do so, but they’re more likely to leave comments on things others currently are too, because it seems a little less passive. In my humble opinion anyway.

    • Hi Jay,

      You make a good point regarding recent posts, although I would argue that’s what the “About” and “Start Here” pages are for on a blog.

      As for comments, I think the vast majority of people have absolutely no interest in comments on blogs. And sidebar real estate is at a premium, so I don’t think a recent comments widget should make an appearance.

      Cheers,

      Tom

  2. I agree with your concept, yes, sidebars are way too cluttered so often. But at the same time there are just so many variables and the purpose of your blog. I really like the list of what you consider the must haves, and often preach the same thing in my workshops. But there are places for recent posts, as someone mentioned, as well as social media feeds, ads and yes, even tag clouds. Again, depending on so many things.

    What I really like is using a theme or plugin that allows you to have different sidebars on different pages, or even posts. This helps you to focus more on the content and what compliments it. For example, on my “about page” I am more likely to put in a Facebook or Twitter feed, but not on other pages. On an event page I would like to specifically put in a widget in the sidebar that mentions other events. Etc. etc… you get the point : )

    Great post and something I think we all need to revisit from time to time… the sidebars.

    • Hi Bob,

      I think it’s fair to say that different blogs suit different sidebars, and that you can’t necessarily lump widgets into a “never use” category. Although I would love to see an example of a useful and regularly used tag cloud ;-)

      Using the likes of Widget Logic to selectively display sidebar widgets is definitely a great idea.

      Cheers,

      Tom

    • Though in a way i agree with you Terry, i also have to add that it also is benefical to promoting your site/product/content

      i found there are 2 types of social media buttons, those that link to your social media page, and those that share what’s on your page via the social media platform.

      it usually is distracting (when used in correctly) and may motivate the user to navigate away, but it also helps for promotion.

  3. Interesting – and controversial article! Like.
    I’m firmly of the view that social media buttons need to stay – I feel they represent the reader’s choice as to how they want to consume your content. As a user, I often come across posts I desperately want to read in detail, but can’t right at that moment. I then follow that person on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, wherever – on the assumption they’ll keep me nicely in the loop there. I also old skool bookmark the page, and might Stumble or Delicious it too.
    But in the main, I feel pretty irritable with and suspicious of bloggers who don’t care about how I like to have their content flagged to me. If you want me to read your stuff (and chances are I do want to read it) then help me out – you gotta keep reminding me!

  4. I agree with pretty much all you say here, especially the recent posts widget – I’ve always wondered what purpose it serves as it’s simply duplicating the content on the home page.

    I don’t, however, agree that a recent comments widget is useless. Maybe I’m unique, but when I hit a blog I I’m far more likely to hang around and start digging if there are up-to-date comments displayed in the sidebar. If I like a post, I’m interested to read what others have to say – it’s exactly why forums are still so popular; people like discussion.

  5. Wow man, I just wanted to say this was very very helpful. I was worried I wasn’t showing enough of my content on the sidebar, so I crammed it with like 20 posts, and thumbnails. Now I can see that it was a bad idea….

    Thank you for this post!

  6. I think what everyone is missing is that people are reading on hand held devices. Your sidebar shows up waaay at the bottom. We really have to start taking a hard look at how people are really reading and what you want them to do next.

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