Should your website have a sidebar?

should your website include a sidebar

Let's rewind and think back to the websites of yesteryear. Were your favourite websites around? How did those sites/blogs look? If you can remember those early days, you'll probably recall that they almost all had sidebars. Heck, sometimes there were even multiple sidebars on either side of the page content!

It was a chaotic time, to say the least.

Fast forward a few years and we see that most websites nowadays favour a clean, uncluttered aesthetic.

There's a simple reason for this: the rise of the smartphone and other devices.

Before we dig into the question "should your website have a sidebar?", let's have a quick history lesson.

The rise of responsive design

Back in the day, if you wanted to "surf the internet", you had to do it on a desktop computer. After that came laptops, and then all of a sudden people had iPads and smartphones that they could use to view a website too!

Being able to view a website on different devices was great but it also meant that websites had to change - they couldn't all be set up in the original desktop view. This is where responsive design came in since it was increasingly important for websites to display properly across all devices.

Before responsive design was mainstream, there were these things called mobile sites. Websites would display content the same way across all devices (desktop, cell phone, etc.). These were dark times, my friend, because the entire website design and content was shrunk down to miniature view. it was super hard to navigate, let alone read the text or view everything if you were working off a small screen (like a cell phone). 

When responsive design came on the scene, it brought a new way of viewing websites on different devices.

Instead of showing the web page content in miniature (as if it was a shrunken down version of a desktop screen), the content was set up to shift around and stack instead. No more zooming required! This was a major change because instead of having a desktop site and a crappy little mobile site, you now had a website that would display differently depending on the device. 

Responsive design was a huge step forward but it did add another level for web designers and DIY folks to consider.

Sidebars and the effect of responsive design

Responsive design, it should be known, shifts content to the left. This is important to know because it'll affect which side your sidebar goes on, if you choose to include one. Having a right side sidebar set up means that when you view a site on a small screen, the page/post content will display first followed by the sidebar content. A left side sidebar will be the opposite: the sidebar content is displayed first and then you'll see the page/post content.

Thanks to responsive design, sidebars are becoming less popular since they tend to add unnecessary clutter to a webpage, especially when viewed on smaller screens. Now that menus have increased in functionality and value, it often makes more sense to put sidebar content directly within the page's content or include it as a menu item

What is included in a sidebar?

If you're on the fence about whether or not your website will include a sidebar, I recommend thinking about two things:

  1. What content would you put in the sidebar?
  2. Is that content necessary?

Let's think about sidebars objectively. Most sidebars are just a photo, logo, list of popular content, search box, and maybe social media icons. None of this is necessary because that information can all be presented elsewhere on your website just as effectively (if not more).


Sidebars aren't over

While websites don't need sidebars, they might still be a good fit for you.

Bloggers in particular, for example, still favour sidebars because they are a great way to introduce themselves to their visitors. In this case, they often include a round headshot followed by a brief bio in their sidebars. This can be effective since it helps people know you as a person, builds a connection with you, shows a bit of your personality and the person behind the site, etc.

Related: How to set up a blog on Squarespace (video tutorial)

Let's look at the following popular food blogs that use sidebars effectively for different reasons:

Dana runs the hugely popular food blog Minimalist Baker and as you can see from the screenshot below, she has a right hand sidebar with her headshot and brief bio.

Sidebar example minimalist baker

Sidebars can be a useful place to highlight top content from around your website or business. Using anther food blog as an example, let's see this in action on Lindsay's website Pinch of Yum. She showcases recent videos followed by a dynamic list of popular content.

sidebar example pinch of yum

A sidebar can be used to highlight top content from different sources such as a product, event, popular content, recommended blog categories, etc. It's basically a way to direct visitors to content that you want them to see, without worrying that they have to search through your website to find it

Many websites also use the sidebar as a place to collect email newsletter sign ups. Most businesses and websites are trying to grow their email lists and including an opt-in in the sidebar is a popular choice. Since sidebars are highly visible on the website, they can convert well. See how this is done by looking at this example from Angela's popular food website Oh She Glows.

sidebar example oh she glows

Finally, sidebars are a popular place to include social media links. Not only do sidebars keep the icons nicely grouped together, they also are a well-known spot so visitors automatically know where to go to find that information. See this in action on Deb's website Smitten Kitchen.

sidebar example smitten kitchen

Downsides of sidebars

For every pro there's a con, and this is true with sidebars. 

Sidebars have become less popular or necessary thanks to the rise of responsive design but there are a few other factors as well.

First off, sidebars can clutter a webpage and distract the user from primary content. For example, if someone is reading one of your blog posts, they might get distracted by a video in the sidebar and navigate away from the post. Taking it a step further, when they navigate away from the post, you might have lost the opportunity to add them to your email list if they didn't make it to the opt-in. Bummer!

We've talked about clean web design a few times on my site and this is a great way to see that attitude played out. Websites without sidebars promote open white space and keep the focus on that primary content without cluttering the site with "stuff".

Another reason why sidebars might not be the best choice for your website is that they are often out of date. Here's a truth bomb: most people set and forget the content of their sidebar which means that content isn't always current or relevant. If your sidebar is promoting old content, expired offers, past events, or content that doesn't fit with your current goals, then you should reevaluate.

Final thoughts

Choosing to include (or exclude) a sidebar will depend on your goals for your websites and the best way to serve your audience so there's no "right" way to do things. 

That being said, you should consider several factors before you make your decision so that you are presenting your business' best self online.

One of the best things about web design is that it's always evolving so you can try out different looks and switch things up as you see fit. Feel free to try out a sidebar for a bit and if it's working for you, great! Stick with it. On the flip side, if you have one enabled and notice it isn't serving you as well as you thought, either rework the sidebar content or remove it altogether.

Now it's your turn to tell me if your website has a sidebar? Why or why not? How often do you notice sidebars and do you often click through that content? I'd love to know so leave me a note in the comments!

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