Does your sidebar look like a cluttered closet that’s stuffed to the gills with distracting ads, images, and text?
Time to unpack your sidebar, look at everything you’ve put there, and consider whether it’s pulling its weight.
The result of your efforts? A sidebar that’s good for business.
This week on Hit Publish, I’ve invited three Copyblogger experts to share their best advice on cleaning up your sidebar once and for all.
Tune in to hear from Brian Gardner, Rafal Tomal, and Brian Clark as we discuss:
- Why the very best sidebar might be no sidebar
- How your design approach should change depending on where your sidebar is located
- The secret power of an “accent widget”
- Why sidebars are such a minefield, and how to make yours the exception to the rule
Listen to Hit Publish below ...
The Show Notes
- Brian Gardner’s No Sidebar website
- Brian Gardner’s No Sidebar podcast
- Brian Clark’s Further.net website
Clean Up Your Sidebar!
Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at Rainmaker.FM/Platform.
Pamela Wilson: Hi, it’s Pamela Wilson, and you’re listening to Hit Publish, where I cover simple ways to get better results with your online business.
Today, we’re talking about a really important part of your website. It’s a little bit like that closet you use when you have people coming over that you just stash stuff into to get it out of the way.
Then, before you know it, it’s so full that, when you open the door to the closet, things come flying out at you.
OK, wait, that’s never happened to you? Because that has totally happened to me.
Our website sidebars can sometimes look like that closet. We stash all sorts of stuff in them. We put in opt-in forms. We put in ads for our own products. We put in ads for affiliate products. We add an About section that sometimes has a little photo of ourselves. We put in popular post links.
Before you know it, our sidebars look like a hot mess — a hot mess that most of your website visitors work really hard to ignore completely.
In the end, of course, that serves no one because your site looks cluttered. Your sidebar is all distracting. All that stuff you have in it doesn’t really do any good anyway.
It’s kind of like that closet. The longer you ignore it, the worse it gets.
Well today, we’re going to unpack that closet which is your sidebar. We’re going to deal with it.
In today’s episode, you’re going to hear why the very best sidebar might be no sidebar at all, how your design approach should change depending on where your sidebar is located, the secret power of an ‘accent widget’ — and don’t worry, I’m going to tell you what that means — and why sidebars are usually a minefield like we talked about, but how to make yours the exception to the rule.
I want to thank you for downloading this podcast, and I want to thank Rainmaker.FM for hosting it.
Are you ready to clean up your sidebar so it works for you? Let’s Hit Publish.
Hit Publish is brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform, which handles all the technical elements of good online business practices, including design, content, traffic, and conversion. To check it out, head over to Rainmaker.FM/Platform and get started building your online business today.
Why the Very Best Sidebar Might Be No Sidebar
I want to begin our conversation today with Brian Gardner. Brian’s our resident Copyblogger design expert, and he happens to have a new website and podcast called No Sidebar. That sounds like a guy who has a few opinions about sidebars, so I definitely wanted to talk with him! He’s obviously spent a lot of time thinking about this topic.
I asked Brian, “How are the most up-to-date web designers handling sidebars now?”
Brian Gardner: Well, you’re asking me a fun question because my answer to you is no sidebar. Now I say that tongue in cheek. The reality of it is some websites really do have a need for sidebars, so my instance is more metaphorically speaking. As far as web designers and how to handle sidebars, I have seen a reduction in overall content that’s being placed there.
I think designers and web owners have realized that having too much content in a sidebar is distracting, so at the very least, they pare it down a little bit. All of the ads, social media badges, and widgets that are placed into a sidebar really compete for attention and have a pretty substantial chance of counteracting each other.
Now one of the other design trends I’ve seen in sidebars is the use of what’s called a ‘sticky sidebar.’ Sometimes that’ll take place as you scroll down a page — a particular widget in the sidebar may stick. Usually, it’s an email signup form because that’s ultimately what you want your visitors to do.
Pamela Wilson: So what do you think about those floating sidebar widgets? Are they annoying, or are they effective?
Brian Gardner: For the most part, they’re very effective. Sometimes I’ve seen them a little bit overdone, a little bit too flashy, like a big billboard or something like that. A general rule is if it’s subtle, and it accomplishes the goal that you want to accomplish, and it feels natural, then it’s OK.
Pamela Wilson: Brian’s advice is to think hard about whether you even need a sidebar, but if you’re going to use one, be strategic about it. In other words, don’t turn it into that closet that you shove things into.
How Your Design Approach Should Change Depending on Where Your Sidebar Is Located
Pamela Wilson: Next up is Rafal Tomal. Rafal’s design esthetic is just beautiful. This is a guy who probably doesn’t have a single messy closet in his life. I imagine everything in his closet is lined up perfectly, nice and neat, kind of like a Pottery Barn catalog.
Rafal applies this esthetic sense to the sidebars that he puts together on the sites he designs. I figured we could all learn from his thought process.
I asked Rafal, “What design considerations do you have in mind when you’re adding items to a sidebar?”
Rafal Tomal: When it comes to sidebars, it all depends if the sidebar is on the left side or on the right side. The left-hand sidebar usually gets more attention because it’s higher in the visual hierarchy. Of course, we are talking about left-to-right languages.
The purpose of the left-hand sidebar is a little different than the right-hand sidebar. The elements in left-hand sidebar are more prominent. You don’t need to use too many designs to make them pop. Because they are in the left top area of your content, they will be well visible. All of your items don’t have to be too prominent. You can make them very simple.
Pamela Wilson: So you could use simple text and that would be enough attention if it’s on the left-hand side?
Rafal Tomal: Yeah, that’s correct. Exactly. I would also keep them very short, not too many widgets on the left-hand sidebar just so you don’t distract people from reading your main content. Because it’s on the left-hand side, people always see them first. I would keep them very simple and short.
Pamela Wilson: That makes a lot of sense. Now what happens if you have the sidebar on the right-hand side — how do things change?
Rafal Tomal: The right-hand sidebar is more like a secondary content, and I’ll be very careful with overusing it. People have a tendency now to fill it out with flashy items, and you definitely don’t want to distract your users from reading the main content. Again, the best idea is also keep it very simple. Limit the number of widgets to a minimum. I would make the sidebar font a little smaller and maybe lighter in color than the regular content.
It’s also a good idea to keep all the widgets in the sidebar consistent, so they have all consistent design. For example, if you want to put a signup box or something more prominent, then you can easily break the pattern by using a different color or making it a little bit bigger. If you have all of your widgets the same and then one of them is a bit different, it will be much easier to get some attention.
Pamela Wilson: So the consistent design and the more subtle design — it sounds like it has two functions.
First of all, it won’t distract from your main content area, which is, of course, what we want people to be reading.
Then the other thing is, if you have some kind of call to action in your sidebar, having more subtle, consistent design on most of the widgets and then having that one item that’s different — it sounds like it helps to draw attention to the one thing that you want to call attention to. Is that right?
Rafal Tomal: Yeah, exactly. If all of your widgets are different, then nothing stands out. Everything pops, and they are too distracting for your users.
Pamela Wilson: I always tell people it’s like being in a room with a bunch of people and everybody is talking loudly all at once. That’s what happens when your sidebar items are all trying to draw attention to themselves. It’s just too distracting. You don’t end up seeing anything in a way.
The Secret Power of an ‘Accent Widget’
Rafal Tomal: Yeah, exactly. Now, the same thing, whenever I design a website, I always try to come up with one consistent style for widgets. That’s my basic style for all widgets I use in the sidebar. Then I can come up with one different style, which I call ‘accent widget,’ and I use it only for the most important widgets. It can be like a signup box or call to action. It makes my work much easier.
Pamela Wilson: So the accent widget is the one thing that you want to draw attention to. The idea is to only have one accent widget in your sidebar, right?
Rafal Tomal: Yeah, exactly. You don’t want to have too many accent widgets. Again, if there are too many different widgets, then nothing stands out. They will be all the same.
Pamela Wilson: I like that idea of an accent widget. Now that he mentions it, I notice Rafal uses this technique a lot. It helps give his sidebars a nice visual structure.
Why Sidebars Are Such a Minefield, and How to Make Yours the Exception to the Rule
Finally, we’re ending our discussion of sidebars today with Brian Clark. Now, Brian’s not a designer. He’s our CEO, but he knows how to find and work with designers who create sites that are beautiful, even in their sidebars. I thought Brian’s approach to sidebars was probably influenced by his business goals — as all our sidebars should be.
I asked Brian, “What are the business and strategic considerations you keep in mind when you’re deciding what goes into a sidebar?”
Brian Clark: I’ll tell you. I think the sidebar is the area of most disaster for a lot of bloggers, for people trying to do content marketing. It’s just the place where you stick everything. You’ve got your email opt-in form — well that’s good — but then you’ve got badges, widgets, lists, and this and that.
Now, I will say that the more mature your site, the more you need that real estate to offer the value proposition that you built up with your content. Looking at the current Copyblogger sidebar, definitely, top thing is opt-in to email, general list. Then we’ve got our content library of all those free ebooks next. Then we have an actual list of popular content, which serves a very important function for us in that it keeps people on the site longer.
Those articles are chosen by how well the audience responded to them in the first place, so you know they’re going to be winners. They’re going to be valuable. The longer someone stays on your site, the more benefit you generally have as far as getting them in your audience or getting them to check out your products or services.
In contrast, I have an email newsletter called Further at Further.net. There’s no sidebar on the homepage. Even the content pages do not have a sidebar because all I really want to do is present the information. There’s an email opt-in box at the very top of the page, in-line with the content, and there’s another one at the bottom — very, very focused.
I don’t want that sidebar over there distracting people. Will that change later? Perhaps. I would guess so, but again, don’t just stick things in a sidebar because you think you’re supposed to. In fact, the answer may be, “I don’t need a sidebar.”
Pamela Wilson: Right, so it can be a minefield, but as long as we’re strategic about what we put there and why we’re putting it there, it sounds like it can work to your advantage — depending on where you are in your business.
Brian Clark: Yeah. If it provides more value to the audience, put it there. If it’s just you trying to brag about how you got this, you got that, or you’re doing whatever — which may be the wrong time to introduce to a visitor — then you should probably leave it out.
Pamela Wilson: Brian Gardner, Rafal Tomal, and Brian Clark all agreed on one thing — the best approach to your website sidebar is to be intentional.
When you’re deciding what to put there, you want to be strategic about it. Keep your business goals in mind. That will help you decide what should go there and what you should leave out.
Here are my questions for you.
What are you going to take out of your sidebar?
Look at it with fresh eyes today. Ask if it’s meeting your goals.
How will you emphasize the most important element in your sidebar to draw attention to the one thing that you want people to do?
I want you to take a good look at your website sidebar in the week ahead. Strip it down to the bare minimum. Emphasize the elements that will make a difference to your business’ bottom line.
This is Pamela Wilson. I want to thank you for being a super smart Hit Publish subscriber.
Today, I especially want to thank everyone who has left a rating and a review for Hit Publish on iTunes. Because of you, Hit Publish was recently featured in the New and Noteworthy category in the iTunes store. You made that happen.
It’s not easy at all to be featured in that category. It’s kind of a big deal when it happens.
I’m so grateful to you. If you haven’t left a rating and review for Hit Publish on iTunes, now you know that those few moments make a big difference. They help others to find this information.
Head on over and let me know what you think about this podcast on iTunes.
Thanks for listening. Bye until next time, and remember to take action, and Hit Publish.
Mark Gandy says
Enjoyed the podcast and additional insights as they relate to minimalist website design. Brian’s, Rafal’s, and the other Brian – their sites are beautiful.
Brian Clark hit on this indirectly as he was addressing the sidebar on Copyblogger (opt-in, e-books, popular posts) – I’m curious about the category widget.
Most blogs hit on 5 to 6 prominent categories. If that category widget is removed, what’s the best approach to getting your visitors to check out all content related to Category XYZ?
I’m thinking about going back on some of my posts and adding links to similar posts. Another option is to create a category page with intro content on the category page – then link to that category after posts.
I’d be curious about your thoughts on blog categories.
Pamela Wilson says
There are a few options.
One would be to do what you said: link to similar posts. If you’re using WordPress, there are several plugins that do this automatically.
You could also create category pages, as you said: pages that feature every post that has been tagged with a specific category. Then you can link to this page, which becomes a valuable resource over time.
And finally, you could create a navigation menu item and link to category pages there. For example, your navigation menu item might say “Learn More About,” and under it, you’d like to major category pages.