Well, of course the main section of your blog is the content area but the sidebar gives you the opportunity to display some really useful information to your visitors.
The sidebar should not be underestimated, it is a key element to your blog that should be aligned with your goals.
I want to share with you a little list of elements that you should consider having as well as some you should get rid of for different reasons. I hope you find it helpful…
Let’s start at the beginning then:
Your Blog’s Main Goal (And Sub-Goals…)
The first step to decide what goes on your sidebar should be to get reminded of what the goal of having the blog is. For example, if you are an independent consultant maybe your goal is to attract potential clients. Let’s not lose focus of that when we jump into the design phase and start getting widget-happy, we don’t want to add a bunch of unnecessary items.
Your goal should be pretty obvious, if it isn’t maybe you need to rethink the whole thing. Let’s now jump into sub-goals, how are you going to get to your main goal. Let’s stay with the same example, a good idea for a sub-goal will be to gather some emails for a database, maybe through a give-away like an eBook. Another idea could be to offer a free consultation to establish relationships. Get creative on how to get closer to your main goal.
Establishing some priorities will make it easy when deciding the order of the widgets on the sidebar. Whatever is most important should stay above the fold. Your main offer should probably go at the top while your Twitter feed should take the backseat. Yeah, it’s obvious but the other day I saw a published author promoting his book at the bottom of the sidebar…
1. Subscription Options
Give people options to get your content delivered and a way to stay connected. RSS and Email subscriptions will do, some people like to add the Twitter icon here too, makes sense. Don’t go crazy promoting your RSS, after all it is better that people visit your blog. Email is a different story, people are giving you their address in exchange for your content and you can probably start building a database this way.
2. Social Profiles
If there are other relevant networks such as Facebook or LinkedIn then you should add them but if they are not important, just leave them out. One thing for sure is to avoid adding a bunch of networks you belong to, keep it short. Don’t confuse people. Also, if you are planning to add a network widget, decide if it is necessary to have the icon too. If there is going to be a Facebook Fanpage Box, perhaps you don’t need to have the icon.
3. Personal Brand
Having your face displayed on your sidebar is like having it on your Twitter profile, people feel comfortable seen who is behind the business upfront. If you have an About page to tell your visitors a little more about yourself, you should add a link to the sidebar with your picture, make it a little preview. I have said before, your prospect is more likely to make the decision of hiring you over the competition based on your relationship, start building this from the first visit.
4. Blog Organization
Some widgets like “Popular Posts”, “Categories” or “Archives” are key to provide some organization to your content and also to encourage the user to visit other posts. I’m currently building a blog with quite a number of contributors writing content, we are adding a widget that displays these authors with an avatar and the option to subscribe to individual RSS feeds.
5. Search Box
Pretty obvious too, although I ignore the percentage of people that actually use the search function on a blog… You should have it. It doesn’t take much space and if you keep it simple it’s light too.
Paying your bills is totally OK but unless your blog is a magazine or the main goal is to sell ads, you should keep it short. Make it a couple of ads and be sure they are relevant to your readership to improve performance. A good starting point if you’ve never done it is AdSense. Where should ads be positioned in the sidebar? It’s up to you, depending on how important it is, just don’t annoy your visitors.
2. Social Widgets
Sure, why not. Having a Twitter feed or a Facebook Page box can be useful to expand your network on those sites. You should be careful in not adding to many things, don’t go crazy.
I’m in favor of badges that give you some kind of credibility in front of your visitors, if you are a big deal on the AdAge list for example then you should of course display the badge. Think of what the badge is telling your visitors, make sure it’s relevant.
I don’t think counters are very useful unless you have a hundred thousand subscribers on FeedBurner, that will also build some credibility but showing off how many followers, friends, subscribers and all that stuff is pretty useless. Also, some of those little badges can be pretty ugly.
2. Google Friends Connect
Let me ask you this, what does this thing do for you? when was the last time this ugly widget do something for you? I read last week that this widget is known to slow down your site. Decide if it’s worth keeping.
3. Huge Lists
Avoid big lists. If you have been blogging for 5 years or have a million categories on your blog, consider using dropdowns instead of displaying the whole categories or archives lists, you don’t want this to take too much real estate.
4. Embedding Media
You gotta be careful also with adding too many sources of other media, using a YouTube video as introduction is not a bad idea but adding 3 or 4 videos can really slow down things on your blog. Same thing with adding other forms of media such as Flickr feeds or SlideShare presentations. Ask yourself if your Flickr account is relevant to this blog.
5. Other External Widgets
Choose wisely. Let’s say you want to add a book section to your blog, is this important enough to display a Shelfari bookshelf on the sidebar? Can you go with Amazon instead? Why not making a page on your blog and just display a link? While Shelfari can be very attractive, it can also be very distracting.
The other thing you need to consider when bringing external widgets is that some of them could really affect your loading times. A slow blog will definitely make you lose some traffic.
To leave you with one final thought, it would be to focus on simplicity. A sidebar with too much clutter is confusing and it can be get in the way of successfully getting your key messages across. Question every single widget on it and make wise decisions.
What are you doing with your sidebar? Share your experiences…
Photo Credit: lilit