Most of the websites I have produced over the past five years have a sidebar, that narrow column to the right and/or left of the main content area that is visible on every page of your website (except perhaps the Home or Landing page). For business websites, it’s almost become a given for me although I admit that there are times when I question the value of the sidebar.
Sometimes, when I do an initial wireframe sketch for a new site, I automatically include a sidebar. As I begin to collect data and assets for the website however, I realize that the sidebar would be a waste of space. In fact, as mobile web browsing has increased, sidebars are becoming unnecessary. If your website is “responsive” (set up to reformat for tablets and smart phones based on a particular browser width), your sidebars will be pushed to the bottom, beneath the main content. For this reason, it’s often better to disable the sidebar feature for mobile devices. People looking at your site on their phone are looking for quick, basic info and cannot afford the real estate needed to display sidebar info. On a desktop or laptop, people have more time and space for sidebars.
There is room for debate as to whether sidebars are even useful or if they are simply a distraction. Some uses for sidebars are no longer recommended (e.g. external links). But every website is unique, so this is a question that must be explored in the early stages of new website development. Like any aspect of a website (design, navigation, copy, images, forms, etc.), each part must contribute to the overall purpose of the website. Keep your target market in mind as you plan a new or renovated website.
In general, however, sidebars are still very useful and in fact, a very important element of a WordPress-based website. Here are six ways your business can benefit from having a sidebar (in no particular order):
1. Social media links
If your business is active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or any other social media, having links to these pages will provide a quick invitation to visitors who also frequent similar social media sites. Some people think that social media links on a website are a distraction or even harmful to a website’s effectiveness because they give visitors the option to leave. However, visitors who click on social media links have either come to your site looking to connect with you via social media or, since they use social media more than the web, they prefer to connect with you in that way. So I maintain that social media links do more good than harm.
2. Recent Posts, Popular posts, Related posts, Recommended posts
If you blog, links to Recent Posts in the sidebar will help keep your site content fresh. You might think this a redundant feature since the most recent posts are listed on your Blog page anyway. But for a business website, the Blog page might not be the main page that people see. Visitors may be looking for information on your About page, Products page, or your Contact page. Having Recent Posts listed in the sidebar could spark their interest in learning something about your business that they did not know before. It will also provide another way of attracting visitors to read your blog and perhaps sign up to hear from you regularly.
Popular Posts can be generated automatically based on the number of views a particular post has had in the past. This is a nice feature, especially for sites that have hundreds of posts. Usually Popular Posts are important to your business but if not, there is another way of listing what you think should be most popular: Recommended Posts.
Some people suggest having “Recommended Posts” which can be manually selected or generated via a plugin. I would suggest doing this manually to avoid an extra plugin (you really only need about 3-5 post titles in the sidebar). I like the “Recommended Posts” idea because it allows you to select key posts that you want visitors and potential customers to read first. Your latest posts might not be the most helpful ones, but you likely have some foundational posts that will appeal to your target market.
Another option is Related Posts that can be automatically linked via tags and categories. Related posts often appear at the bottom of a post instead of a sidebar. It’s like saying, “Hey, if you liked this article, you might enjoy these ones too!” If you blog often, this is a great option to feature in your sidebar but might be better suited after your posts.
3. Signup forms
If you have a regular newsletter that you email out, a simple signup form in the sidebar can help generate leads. You want to be able to reach as many potential customers as possible and a newsletter can help do so. You can also have a brief Contact form in the sidebar so visitors can quickly contact you with questions. I admit this is a bit redundant if you already have a form on your Contact page, but people browse differently so the sidebar is another option, making a visit to your Contact page unnecessary.
If you have more than a dozen posts or pages, a simple search option is almost a necessity, and the sidebar is a great spot for it (the header is another great option for a search bar, but sometimes a search bar adds clutter to a clean looking header). If someone is in a hurry to find product information or an answer to a technical question, the search bar might be the way that keeps them on your site rather than forcing them to search elsewhere.
Some websites have a dedicated Testimonials page, but I think the sidebar is the perfect spot for them. There’s really no need to put all your testimonials on a single page, especially if your navigation menus are already busy. There are plugins available to automatically cycle through your customer testimonials (so they appear randomly in the sidebar), a nice feature that keeps your sidebar looking a little more unique on every page. You might also consider manually placing testimonials that relate to a specific page – visitors can read about a product or service and then see a directly related testimonial in the sidebar.
6. Custom sidebars
Rather than having the same sidebar on every page, you can have different sidebars on specific pages. For example, if you have a long application form on a page, you might want to include instructions in the sidebar, making it easier for visitors to fill out the form. Of course, on a mobile version of your website, this sidebar would disappear. Nevertheless, it can be useful if many people visit your site via a desktop computer or tablet.
Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list of possible options for a sidebar in a business website. Hopefully it helps generate some thinking as to what you might be able to add. We could add sponsor and PayPal donation links for non-profits or fundraisers, advertising buttons, and many more. WordPress makes it so easy to add sidebar options.
What else have you added to your sidebars?