I sometimes refer to the sidebar as the sausage of a website or blog because that’s where people feel the need to stuff every widget and plugin on the face of the earth.
Not sure where to place something on your website? Stuff it into the sidebar! After all, content to the sidebar is like jello to the stomach. There’s always room for more. Ugh.
First, I think it’s important to clarify what I meant when I used the word “helpful” in the title of this post. Sidebar content, like any other content on a website or blog, should be helpful to the visitor, not the host. Content that’s helpful to visitors will be helpful to you in the long run in the form of trust and loyalty.
In a perfect world, your sidebar content will fill as much space vertically as your main content, but I don’t get too hung up on that. A little white space never hurt anybody. Your sidebar content should serve a very specific purpose.
If you’re adding sidebar content for the sole purpose of filling space, you’re just adding distractions.
And you’re probably not providing anything helpful.
Sidebar Content That’s Helpful
Registration Form: Want people to sign up to receive blog posts or download an e-book? Use the prime real estate in your sidebar to encourage people to register. Just make sure you’ve clearly conveyed why visitors will benefit by signing up.
Popular or Recent Blog Posts: If you have a strong blog that’s updated on a regular basis, promote it on your website. That’s a no-brainer. However, if you haven’t updated your blog in six months, you probably shouldn’t draw attention to it.
Search Box: This is one of those features that I almost never use myself when I visit a website or blog, but I know it’s a must-have. Don’t let personal preference outweigh the needs of your visitors.
Social Media Pages/Feeds: Have helpful videos on your YouTube channel? Sharing great content on Twitter? Is your Facebook page buzzing with comments and conversation? Let people know in your sidebar. Limit it to one social page or feed – the one that visitors will find most helpful, relevant and interesting.
One school of thought says we shouldn’t include links that take visitors away from our website. I disagree. By displaying my Twitter feed, I can prove that I read a lot, stay on top of trends, and share helpful information on a regular basis. I want people to know that, and I’m confident that those visitors will come back for more.
Job Postings: Are you hiring? Why not use your sidebar temporarily to spread the word? You may even improve the quality of applicants because they’ve already shown some kind of interest in your company by visiting your site in the first place. And you’re more likely to get solid referrals from regular visitors.
Bios: I’ve seen companies rotate headshots and brief bios for staff members. This is a really smart way to personalize your business by connecting visitors with the real people behind your company.
Display Ad: There’s nothing wrong with making a buck by running an ad on your website or blog as long as the product or service is relevant to your visitors and doesn’t detract from your content. You can even create an ad for one of your own products.
Let’s say, for example, you write a blog post about the benefits of acupuncture. You shouldn’t do any direct selling in your blog, but you can certainly advertise your acupuncture services in your sidebar.
Sidebar Content That’s Not So Helpful
Tag/Keyword Clouds: These clouds look like a Scrabble board and give me a headache. I can’t imagine anyone in the history of websites ever found a word in a tag or keyword cloud and said, “Yes! Just what I was looking for! And it’s the big word in the middle! I need to do business with these guys!”
Awards: Unless your industry award is relevant to your visitors and will make them more likely to do business with you, don’t turn your sidebar into a trophy case. Your sidebar is better used as a tool for helping and earning the trust of clients and prospects, not showing off to competitors or sucking up to the corporate office.
Recent Comments: First, make sure you’re attracting more than a handful of comments to each blog post before you consider adding comments to your sidebar. Second, suppose somebody completely trashes your post or goes on a borderline offensive rant. Whether that comment was justified or not, do you really want it plastered on your sidebar until enough comments are added to bump it off your sidebar, or until you have a chance to delete it?
Healthy discussion is great, but the blatherings of an ignorant windbag can do serious damage to your brand. I prefer to keep comments in a more controlled environment.
Archives by Date: Do you remember what you wrote or published in June of 2012? Neither do your readers and visitors. A search box provides a better, more specific solution and takes up less space.
What types of sidebar content do you find most helpful or interesting when you visit a website or read a blog?
Join the discussion 7 Comments
Nice post Scott. I personally think that “most recent/popular posts” or a sign-up form or some of the best widgets to put in a sidebar. But even then you have the risk of distracting the reader from focusing on your content. Kissmetrics do it pretty well on their blog.
Thanks, Steven. Yes, any sidebar content is just a distraction if it’s designed and laid out properly. Just looked at Kissmetrics – yes, they keep descriptions brief and get a lot in there without cluttering up their sidebar. Good stuff. Thanks – Scott
Yep, I like the “popular posts” list too, as it helps me read up on posts that others found useful too.
Hum, I like that post, because after all this time I had not exactly thought that the side bar shouldn’t be helpful to the host, but to the reader. That makes sense, but how many bloggers know that?
Actually, I’ve got rid of a bunch of small banner ads on my blogs recently because they don’t even convert, so what the use? I do have a free download on all my 3 blogs.
By the way, your Tweet link above has 3 extra characters when we try to tweet 🙂 Thought you might like to know. I’ve taken off the first two words when I tweeted.
I think every single piece of content, when focused on helping the user, ultimately helps the host. Even contact information is helpful if that’s what people are specifically looking for.
A free download is an excellent one – as long as it’s presented in a way that shows how the user will benefit from downloading it.
Thanks for the heads up about the Tweet link. I’ll be more careful about counting my characters!
There is nothing worse to me than going on a blog with a gazilioon ads on the side bar. Anything that serves the reader is fine, but I like when it is simple and not too crowded. I have a free opt-in that is building a strong list. I used to have my “best comments” section, but it was slowing down my blog.
Sidebars are a great place to make a buck, but I like it simple.
Hi Donna – Clutter is bad enough, but when that clutter is mostly ads, that’s even worse. Good point about “best comments” as anything that slows down your blog is doing more harm than good. Thanks – Scott