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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Personally 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sign up for more
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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