Like the rest of your blog design, the content placed in your sidebar should be unique to your site and suited to further your Blog Goals.
But there are 5 must haves for a blog sidebar that every blogger should incorporate into their blog design.
This post is #3 in my series of 4 posts on the best practices for designing your blog sidebar:
1. How to Choose the Best Layout for your Blog Sidebar
2. How to Pick the Best Sidebar Widgets for Your Blog
3. 5 Must Haves for Your Blog Sidebar –> YOU ARE HERE
4. 10 Rockin’ Blog Sidebar Examples
I’m going to share with you the widgets I always look for in the sidebar of any blog I visit.
While the last post in this series (#2) was about helping you choose the right widgets from among the many, many available and encouraging your to think in terms of your blog goal, this post is my flat out recommendations for elements every blogger should have in their sidebar.
I look for these 5 sidebar must haves because they’re the most useful for helping me, the Visitor, find more great content on your blog. And if I really like your blog, they offer a way for me to follow your blog and keep up with what you’re doing on your blog.
So, here are my 5 Must Haves for your blog sidebar:
1. Search widget
A surprising number of bloggers skip this sidebar widget. I’m a baffled as to why they opt not to have a search widget in their sidebar.
If you don’t have a ton of content…maybe, I can see foregoing a search widget. Maybe.
But if you want to have a successful blog, one of your key goals should be to reduce your Bounce Rate and Increase your Page Views per Session. To put it in Google Analytics terms. Or in basic terms, you want to encourage your readers to stick around and read more posts.
The best way to keep readers around for more than a single post is to make your other content easy to discover. There are many ways to do this, but a search widget is an easy, compact way to do this.
Plus, I cannot tell you how frustrated I get when I can’t find a way to search a site.
For pages that don’t use a sidebar, add search in the header or even the footer.
2. Auxiliary Navigation
I am a menu minimalist.
RELATED POST: The Right Way to Organize Blog Menus
I believe in reserving your main menu for a few very important links.
This means that your blog sidebar is an important place to add what I like to call “auxiliary navigation” – other ways for readers to navigate around your blog.
As with the Search widget, the purpose of Auxiliary Navigation in the sidebar is to help your readers discover more content and encourage them to stick around for a while.
There are different ways to add auxiliary navigation to your sidebar:
At Love Taza, Naomi (aka Taza) uses her main menu for her blog categories and adds a beautifully styled menu to the sidebar with important page links including her About Page, FAQ and more.
I also like how she combines her Archive widget and Search widget for a very compact sidebar search center.
Another great way to add navigation to your sidebar is Category menus. Forget the tag clouds of yesterday (although, I have not issue with tag clouds that are well done and not out of control with 300 tags). Category menus, when done well, can really add to the design of your site.
Of course, I’m going to use my category menu as an example. I’ve combined icons for the “parent” categories plus a simply styled secondary section with other popular categories.
Category menus/widgets are something I see many blogs moving away from. Maybe they’re afraid of the ugly tag clouds. Maybe they have too many categories and can’t figure out the right ones to feature in the sidebar.
Many bloggers are using their main menu for their their categories. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as your main menu doesn’t get out of control.
But if you want to reserve your main navigation for a few important pages and highlight a larger (although not too large!) number of categories, a well-done sidebar widget is the way to go.
3. Popular/Featured Posts Widget
A Popular or Featured Posts widget is another great way to help your readers discover more of your content and stick around a while longer (totally seeing a trend here, aren’t we?).
You’ll notice I didn’t include a Recent Posts widget. Since the traditional blog layout is to display your posts in a reverse chronological order, most recent posts first, displaying your Recent Posts in the sidebar is a bit redundant.
The reason I like a Popular or Featured Posts widget is because you can display posts that have a proven track record. Your past visitors have read those posts the most. This is your best stuff. Put your best foot forward and stick your best posts in a sidebar widget to encourage readers to read more posts.
And Popular/Featured Posts widgets with a thumbnail can be designed in any number of attractive ways. The thumbnails will are a great way to encourage your readers to click.
The blog of Sara Donaldson at Harper and Harley has a dramatic, black and white design. And her Featured Posts widget matches her blog design perfectly and adds its own dollop of style to the site.
Danielle at Fig & Thyme showcases her Popular Posts in a very minimal sidebar grid-style widget. A food blogger with amazing images, this style works really well with her great Featured Images.
If you visit their sites, you’ll notice both of these bloggers place this widget near the bottom of the sidebar. This is a great place for it because you want readers to read your whole blog post. As they near the end of their read, they’ll see those popular posts and click to keep reading.
I am passionate about using every inch of your blog in a functional and productive manner. Make. It. Work.
Unlike post content or page content, your sidebar content is repeatedly displayed to your visitors. This is important.
Did you know it can take up to 21 or more exposures for a person to decide to follow a Call-to-Action?
A Call-to-Action, aka CTA, is an element on your website that asks, prompts and encourages your visitor to take an action like follow your blog, visit your shop, buy your ebook, connect with you on social media, etc.
The most often CTA elements used are a button or image link.
An ad is another obvious example of a CTA.
Less is more
There is one really important thing to consider when it comes to adding CTAs to your sidebar. Less really is more with CTAs.
If you have social icons, a newsletter signup form, 3 affiliate ads and an ad for your own product in the sidebar this is too much. It causes dilution of the signal.
What do you actually what your visitors to do? Sign up for your newsletter? Follow you on social media? Visit your shop? Leave your site to shop at another site?
Many highly successful blogs have 1 or 2 CTAs max. Most commonly, their only CTA is their email list signup form.
The next most common are social icons and ads, but an increasing number of bloggers seem to be skipping the social network icons in the sidebar.
This makes sense because research shows that an engaged subscriber list is more valuable than a large social media following.
If you do use your social icons in the sidebar, stick with the networks you’re most active on. Don’t just add every icon for every network you belong to.
To increase impact and conversions with your CTA, make sure your CTA element really pops. It shouldn’t just blend into the rest of your sidebar.
For social icons, use icons that are colorful and really stand out. The same with your subscriber form. Add a contrasting background to the widget and a button color that contrasts with the rest of your site.
5. White Space
My final Must Have isn’t a widget. It’s white space – empty space between elements.
Some bloggers seem to feel that white space is wasted space. This is so not true!
Yes, you don’t want huge, gaping holes in your design that makes visitors wonder what’s wrong with your site.
But you do want a little bit of space between each of your sidebar elements.
Well, in my opinion it makes your site more organized and it feels less cluttered and more “clean”. White space gives a visual break between elements without using a harsh separator like a line.
White space can also help:
Focus the Visitor’s attention on a CTA
Don’t let your important Call-to-Action be lost in a cluttered side bar.
Keep elements organized
Using a consistent block of white space between each sidebar element, give a very organized, tidy look to your sidebar. Avoid irregular spaces as this can look sloppy instead.
Have you ever noticed that sites that are easier to read use larger text line heights? This means each line of text has more white space between the lines.
So, make sure you keep some “open spaces” in your sidebar to prevent a cluttered mess.
Sum It Up
There you have it, MY 5 Must Haves for your Blog Sidebar.
This post is a bit more of an “opinion” piece than I usually dabble in, but as usual, I try to back up my suggestions and tips with the “whys” behind my principles.
Stay tuned for the final post in my series on sidebars, 10 Rockin’ Blog Sidebar Examples. I’ll be sharing my favorite sidebars (yes, I have favorite sidebars, ok) and discuss why they’re so brilliant.