Should Your Website Have Sidebars? What the Research Says

Should Your Website Have Sidebars? What the Research Says

I think it was Shakespeare who once said, “To sidebar, or not to sidebar, that is the question.”

Shakespeare was a smart dude. He knew that the best way to go about making a major life decision was to stop, take a moment to think through the potential consequences of that choice, and speak it aloud to a crowd so they could hear all sides of the argument. And you know what? I think that’s a brilliant way to tackle these big life questions and I’m going to do that same exact thing here today.

So, the question on the table is this: should your website have sidebars or should it skip them altogether?

Sidebars have played an important role in web design as we’ve moved out of the ‘00s, where everyone was busy trying to figure out how to design for the Internet, in general. Now well into the ‘10s, I like to think that we have it all figured out. I mean, we can do some pretty incredible things with just a touch of a button or a quick update to code. So, it’s no longer about trying to learn our way around design software or content management systems to create great designs. That’s a given. Now we’re just trying to do it all more effectively.

Where does that leave the sidebar then? Does it stand in the way of effective web design? Up until the last few years, the sidebar had proven to be a supremely useful tool in web design, allowing us to:

  • Include information that might not otherwise fit on a page.
  • Place a call-to-action or form above the fold without disrupting the content flow.
  • Give visitors value-add material.
  • Put a spotlight on content that might get lost in the blog heap, but that deserved a spot front-and-center.
  • Run ads, whether they were your own or from affiliates.
  • Share live feeds from social media.
  • Improve the navigation of the blog by including recent post links, categories, tags, RSS subscription forms, search boxes, and more.

There’s no doubt that sidebars have come in handy in the past. However, as minimalism and UX design gain more ore traction with each passing year, we’re starting to see sidebars fall by the wayside. So, that leaves me wondering whether sidebars are on their way out and, if so, what we’re supposed to do with all that “stuff” we’ve been storing there all this time.

Luckily for us, there are a number of experts who have weighed in on this question. Should we use sidebars? If we do use sidebars, which pages do they belong on? Do they belong on the left or the right side of the page? You may be surprised by what they had to say.

The Experts Weigh In: Should You Have Sidebars?

I reviewed many different studies and expert opinions on this topic of whether or not sidebars should be a “thing” anymore. Although it seems like most take a solid stance on “to be” or “not to be”, I found myself wondering at the end if maybe it doesn’t have to be a completely black-and-white matter. Let me take you through the logic:

Opinion #1: Usability Geek

Yona Gidalevitz wrote up a great analysis for Usability Geek last year on why sidebars are pointless. But rather than say that sidebars have absolutely no place in UX design, he demonstrated how a sidebar could be used with purpose.

The example given comes from Google Drive, a platform we’re all well-acquainted with.

Google Drive features a left-hand sidebar.
Google Drive features a left-hand sidebar.

His argument, in this case, is that the sidebar makes sense for this site because:

  • It’s consistent with all Google application layouts.
  • It serves an actual purpose and isn’t just loaded up with unnecessary widgets.
  • It replaces the traditional top navigation most sites have.

Outside of that, however, he repeatedly demonstrates how leading news websites continue to burden their web designs with unnecessary and distracting sidebars.

The New York Times website is pretty busy.
The New York Times website is pretty busy.

They all look messy and it’s really just information overload at this point. If you think about it, there are so many other cool things we can do with all that information we would have previously tucked into a sidebar:

Decluttering is essential to keeping a website looking and running mean and lean, so why fight it with a sidebar? At least that’s the argument made by Usability Geek for UX design.

Opinion #2: Video Fruit

Bryan Harris of VideoFruit asked the question, “what would happen if you removed the sidebar and focused your readers’ attention solely on the content instead?”

It was clear that he was frustrated with the .3% click rate on his blog’s sidebar, and so he and his designer set out to test out this alternate scenario. The hypothesis was that if you removed the distraction on the side of the page, that more people would be willing to read through the post and click-through on the call-to-action even if it was placed at the very bottom.

And that’s exactly what happened.

While A/B testing this theory on the VideoFruit website, they found that the no sidebar version resulted in 26% more email subscribers than the sidebar version. Now, although the original results didn’t leave them with enough confidence to totally pull the plug on their sidebar, it appears that later tests did as they now have no remaining trace of it on their site:

The VideoFruit website.
The VideoFruit website.

If you’re curious about what they do use now, it looks like they’re using floating social icons, exit-intent popups, as well as a hello bar.

Opinion #3: Impact BND

Here is another company that was struggling with this existential crisis. John Bonini of Impact asked, “I mean, you can’t remove your blog sidebar, right? Every ‘ninja’ and ‘guru’ with a decent internet connection and a modest grasp of grammar and syntax has a sidebar on their blog. How else are you supposed to generate leads?”

The theory he devised was actually similar in its basic premise to the one VideoFruit posed to themselves: if we remove the sidebar and quiet down all this extra noise around our content, maybe visitors will stay focused long enough to reach the call-to-action at the bottom. Impact took this one step further, however, and they altered the design of their CTA by reducing friction and keeping visitors on the page to convert.

Here were the results of their A/B test:

  • Original with sidebar: 33 click-throughs to form; 14 form submissions.
  • Variant without sidebar and revamped CTA at end: No click-throughs (as form was right on the page); 24 form submissions.

As was the case with VideoFruit, you can now see that Impact no longer has a sidebar on their blog:

Impact removed its sidebar to increased its conversion rates.
Impact removed its sidebar to increased its conversion rates.

Opinion #4: Neil Patel

Okay, so this next one may be enough to give you pause since it comes from Neil Patel, the man responsible for Crazy Egg and Kissmetrics, two companies dead-set on helping businesses increase online conversions.

Back in 2015, Patel wrote a blog post entitled “Does Your Blog Need a Sidebar?” Granted, this post is now two years old, but the QuickSprout blog does still rock a sidebar, so it looks like Patel is holding firm to his belief.

A great read on the merits of having a sidebar.
A great read on the merits of having a sidebar.

Here is his argument:

Sidebars give you—the marketer, the writer, the company, etc.—the chance to:

  • Get more subscribers by putting the email sign-up form right up top.
  • Establish a more personal connection to the audience by providing a bio and headshot.
  • Include high-quality internal links to content on your site that’s worth keeping in front of your audience.
  • Use those same links to notify search engines about the content you want them to repeatedly associate with your site.

In addition, Patel not only suggests that a sidebar is necessary for your blog, but also believes that it should be on the right side of the page. What he found in conducting tests on this matter was that left-sided sidebars resulted in 9% less views of the blog post, but 13% more subscribers. Here was his justification for choosing to put his blog’s sidebar on the right:

“[I]t increased the number of blog post reads by 9%. In the end, the purpose of a blog is to educate you through content… so why would I take that away?”

Summary of the Results

There is part of me that wants to take the side of Usability Geek and the others who decided that sidebars are obsolete. You really can’t argue with their logic: unless the sidebar is simplistic and purely functional in nature, it doesn’t belong on a website. Plus, with there being so many visitors coming in from mobile devices, all those sidebar elements disappear anyway.

In the end, though, I think this is a decision you’ll have to make on your own since you’ll know what’s best for your site. I don’t think there’s any evidence that suggests that sidebars have a place on standard website pages, so if you’re thinking about putting them on your Home, About, or Contact pages, you should probably reconsider that.

Your blog, however, is a different story—and I don’t know if that’ll ever change. Visitors expect that they can turn to the right side of the page to see:

  • Email opt-ins
  • Social share icons
  • Search bars
  • Categories
  • Archives

According to research done by Egon Sarv, these are the most common elements that occur across the top blog sites. So, if you’re going to stick with a sidebar, these are the ones to keep.

Wrapping Up

As with anything else I ever suggest that could have a serious impact on your site’s traffic and conversions, use A/B testing to soften the blow. Your site may be the perfect candidate to keep the sidebar, as Neil Patel suggests. Or it may just need to do away with it so people can stay more focused on the content. Ultimately, you’ll have to make the decision based on your end goal.

If you do opt to keep sidebars on your site, here are some tips for optimizing them for traffic and conversions. And if you decide to ditch them, good luck!

Brenda Barron
Over to you: What sort of stuff did you put in your sidebars in the past that you’re absolutely horrified to think about now?