Should Your Blog Have a Sidebar? A Contextual Approach
What has always seemed like a silly debate to me, the sidebar vs. no sidebar debate, the arguments from both sides bring up interesting approaches to building blogs as well as showcase the limits we place on ourselves by conforming to “best practices”.
When it comes to learning something new or receiving advice, it’s easy to follow a path of extremes; that when a new idea hits us in the right way we go all in and dismiss value of the “old” idea.
In the landscape of building blogs (maybe in the WordPress world anyway), nothing fits this mold better than understanding where the value of the sidebar lies.
Speaking in Absolutes: Sidebars Have a Place, or They Don’t
The sidebar has been around as long as blogging has and is still around today, maybe more than not if you look at the blogosphere at large.
Its become more common to find blogs that have removed their sidebar in favor of just displaying content at the forefront. Simply put, a sidebar just isn’t necessary for some blogs.
Others remove their sidebar on the premise that it distracts people from reading their content which I think speaks more on the authors perception of their own writing than it does the “distracting” effects of a sidebar.
That, and minimalism is just all the rage right now.
From a marketing standpoint you’ll hear conflicting claims that a sidebar can both increase and decrease conversion rates.
Neil Patel makes some compelling points about how his sidebar increased conversion rates and helped build his audience while Impact Branding showed how they were able to increase conversion rates and create an easier reading experience by removing their sidebar and placing their offer at the end of posts.
Both accounts show that you can find success with or without a sidebar so long as you frame your message properly.
Maybe it’s just a matter of better strategizing your offer, as Impact Branding did, or it’s an awareness that some pages benefit from the extra information a sidebar holds best while other don’t, as Neil pointed out in his article.
These accounts show the question “should my blog have a sidebar?” isn’t a complete question in the same way answering with a “yes” or “no” isn’t a complete answer.
A sidebar guarantees no end result.
The only thing we know is the context in which we’re asking which is a consideration the sidebar we know doesn’t account for.
Where does a sidebar belong and how does it improve the overall message of the page? With context in mind, the next question that comes to mind unravels this even further.
What is a Sidebar?
In the blogosphere, a sidebar is simply a space that sits aside your content to help navigate readers to handpicked content and pages throughout your site.
You’ll commonly see email signup forms, an about the author section, popular posts, social media links, and a search form, amongst other things, in a sidebar.
While this information is generally related to navigation, it doesn’t add specific value to an individual page.
Results Page vs. Result Page
On results oriented pages such as a blog homepage which lists latest posts, or a search results page which lists posts for a specified keyword, the navigation sidebar can helper a reader find what they’re looking for by adding more results to sort through.
However, this kind of sidebar may be unnecessary for a result oriented page such as an individual blog post or an “About” page; any page that would be the result of a search or a listing.
Note I did not say a sidebar will distract a reader from your writing, I simply said that having one may be unnecessary relative to the purpose of your page. That is for you to decide.
I’ve never bought that a sidebar distracts people from your writing. I’m of the belief that if your writing doesn’t appeal to who’s reading it, they’ll turn to your sidebar to find something that may interest them, if nothing else. I say this from my own experience, not analytics.
That being said, I would always advise removing a navigation sidebar from any kind of sales/checkout page, newsletter subscription page, or anywhere it’s critical the reader should take action.
The Sidebar in Context
Thus far I’ve tried to paint you the picture of the traditional sidebar we’re all familiar with: the general all-purpose sidebar we have on every page.
Above I said how this kind of sidebar may be unnecessary on a result oriented page, but does that mean we should dismiss the idea of a sidebar for these pages altogether?
What if we could find some of the value Neil Patel talked about in his article with a sidebar built within the context of the page?
Instead of having a navigation sidebar in a blog post, what if we built a sidebar specifically for the blog post? A sidebar that piggybacks off the purpose of the page to enhance the blog post?
A sidebar that is part of your content rather than separate from it.
Imagine This Scenario
Let’s say you’re starting a new post series on your blog and you plan to split it into 3 different posts. First you write a post introducing it to your readers.
In this post you wrote a quick description of what to expect from each post in the series. To help you come up with ideas, you ask your readers to leave a comment with what they’d like to see from the series.
While setting up the post you realized you didn’t want a sidebar full of unrelated content because you wanted the main focus of this post to be about the upcoming post series. Plus, you’d rather they leave a comment on this post than go elsewhere on your site.
So you remove the sidebar from the post. This was a great move because now the focal point of your post is the upcoming post series.
But what if you could make this information about the series more quickly accessible and easier to scan?
Sure, sectioning your post with headlines and bullets is great… but what if a sidebar could help you here?
So, you go ahead and add a custom sidebar to the introduction post.
In this sidebar you add 3 descending blocks that each have the title of each post in the series with short description text underneath the title.
Underneath those blocks you add a simple email signup form letting your readers know they can get an email when a new post in the series is published.
Another great way to make your posts more interactive is to give readers a “next step” at the end of the post. Generally you’ll see email signup forms here, but since you already have one in your sidebar, you create an Action Box asking readers to leave a comment and link to your comment form.
As you start publishing the posts, you realize that you can then link to these new posts from your sidebar. So you go ahead and add a link to each post in its respective sidebar block.
Just like that, you’ve created a useful landing page that acts as a hub for your new post series and created an easy way for your readers to navigate the series.
To further refine this post, you remove the menu from your site’s header as well as your site’s footer because, well, they’re not really necessary for promoting the post series either.
How Marketers Delight Makes Creating Custom Sidebars Easy
With most WordPress themes you’re either stuck with one extreme or the other: a sidebar or no sidebar layout. There’s not much of an in-between.
…and if you’re anything like most bloggers, this serves as a major limitation to the way you want your page to be setup.
With Marketers Delight bloggers like you have been able to free themselves from this limitation by being able to easily add, remove, and create a custom sidebar on any post or page with the click of a button.
From the screenshot to the right, you can see how easy it is to create a custom sidebar (amongst other things) right from your post editor in Marketers Delight.
You can even fill your sidebars with powerful built-in Widgets like the Email Signup Form or Content Spotlight, also included with MD. Tailor any Widget to match the context of your page and you’ll finally have a sidebar that helps enhance the message of your post, not take away from it.
To see an example of a custom sidebar in action, check out the introduction to my own post series, Build With MD.
You know how I feel about sidebars! Awesome job describing something I am passionate about too. I love the new options panel you have for menus and sidebars!
I know you get it Seth! I can say I fell into the “sidebars are evil” mindset when the idea first came to me but once you start thinking about the intention of your pages, it’s easy to see how a sidebar can actually benefit them.
Awesome post Alex… I appreciate the honesty about the sidebar issue… As far as I am concerned they are fine depending on the context of the site…