Author Blogging 101: Widgets, Sidebars and You

by Joel Friedlander on April 4, 2012 · 22 comments

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At some point in the mythic past, soon after blogging itself was invented, some enterprising web designer married the blog to a sidebar.

Sidebars—the narrow vertical area next to the text of a blog, on one or both sides of the text column—seem to be intrinsic to blogs.

Over the years, fashions in sidebars change like the length of women’s hemlines. Some years lots of bloggers have only one sidebar. Other years, the 2-sidebar look is in.

When I started blogging, my original design had one sidebar on the right. Now I’ve got sidebars on both sides.

These sidebars seem to be like a “junk drawer” or “utility closet” in some odd way. Everything you don’t know what else to do with gets thrown in there, and pretty soon you’ve got a right good mess on your hands.

Don’t get me wrong, part of the fun of blogging for a lot of people is being able to show their passions, their affiliations, and their activity.

Just from looking at the sidebars, you get a feeling for the blogger and what engages her, and you also sometimes get a feeling of what her refrigerator looks like, too.

Before you can make good use of your sidebars, here are a few terms we’ll be using to discuss this area of your blog:

  • Widget—A WordPress feature that allows you to drop a piece of HTML code into a special box in the WordPress interface. Once you save it, magically, a box or badge or list of posts will appear. These are widgets and you can get access to them on WordPress blogs through the “appearance” menu in your dashboard.
  • Badge—A graphic that indicates an award, or membership in a group or network. These badges are usually displayed by widgets in the sidebar, and typically contain a link to another site.
  • Display Ad—Also a graphic placed in a widget to show in your sidebar, with a link to the advertiser’s site. There’s no real difference between ads, badges and any other graphic you put in a widget to display on your sidebar.
  • Feed—Any kind of automatically syndicated posts. For instance, every time you publish a new post to your blog, it’s added to your blog’s feed. You’ll frequently see Twitter posts in a sidebar widget, and they come from your Twitter account’s feed, and so on.

The Many Roles of Blog Sidebars

There are lots of things you can do with the sidebars on your blog. Some of these uses are intended as community building, since they will attract people with similar interests, or as evidence that your blog is worth reading.

Another use is “social proof,” and it can be a powerful motivator. If you show the number of people who subscribe to your blog, for instance, it can have an effect on people browsing your site. A large number suggests that a lot of other people find your content interesting. A small number might be “negative social proof,” implying that not many people were moved to want to be on your subscriber list.

This is a pretty good reason to hold off on some of these sidebar items until you’ve established yourself well enough to show browsers that you’re the real deal.

Here are some of the things you’ll find in bloggers’ sidebars:

  • Memberships—Badge or graphic that shows you belong to a network or group of some kind.
  • Awards—Badges issued by whoever gives out the awards, like Alltop or AdAge.
  • Counters—Show how many followers, likes, or subscribers you have, these widgets typically update in real time.
  • Opt in form—bloggers use these to invite people to join their email list, and the forms are usually provided by the email company you use to maintain your lists.
  • Recent/popular posts—another common widget that can keep readers on your site longer by displaying links to some of your best content.
  • Social media activity—widgets that display your Twitter feed are particularly popular.
  • eCommerce—if you have a product for sale, showing it and linking to a sales page is a natural use of your sidebar.
  • Internal links—if you have special pages on your blog, like a big resource list or contest you run regularly, you can link to them from your sidebar, making sure that the link shows up on every page of your blog.
  • Surveys/polls—there are widgets that will allow you to run a real poll, and change the poll often, from your sidebar.
  • Video—many bloggers have a “welcome” video, and this is ideally placed in your sidebar.
  • Pay-per-click ads—millions of bloggers make money from services like Google’s AdSense, and most of those ads go into a widget on your sidebar.
  • Blog roll—a common feature of blogs from the beginning of blogging, most bloggers run a list of favorite blogs in their sidebar.

I think you can see how each of these items helps to create an immediate impression on browsers who discover your blog. You’re giving them information about your network, things you like, who has recognized you and what kind of audience you have.

All this will help people to figure out if this is a blog they want to visit, explore, or forget about.

Later in this series we’ll talk about how to use all these elements to make the impression that will advance the aims you have for your author blog.

And I’ll show you step by step how to create your own widgets that can be placed in your sidebar, or given to other bloggers to place in theirs. These placements can have a great effect on your site’s search engine ranking and traffic, so watch for it.

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    { 19 comments… read them below or add one }

    Turndog Millionaire April 4, 2012 at 3:41 am

    ooooo i look forward to you post on creating your own widgets. That should be very good

    I’m currently creating my new site (moving over to a self hosted wordpress one) and my mantra is ‘simply elegant’

    Every time i do something i ask if it’s so, and if not, i get rid

    I want my whole site to be simple, clean, and bare essential only

    That’s the plan anyway :)

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 4, 2012 at 10:23 am

    That’s great, Matt. But it can be pretty hard to resist throwing stuff into the sidebars. Let me know when your new site is up.

    Reply

    chris April 4, 2012 at 6:46 am

    You don’t need no stinkin’ badges!

    Badges eat up precious space and unless the badge is from a high-profile site that EVERYONE recognizes, then it’s not going to do any good.

    Whenever you add something to your sidebar, ask two questions;
    1. Does it benefit the user?
    2. Does it take them away from my site?

    For example, let’s look at a minimal sidebar configuration.

    You want social proof that you have a high-quality site. This can be done by showing twitter follower count and newsletter/rss subscription counts. Here’s a huge tip; don’t show that counts until you’ve reached over 1,000. If your twitter count is 50 people, that is a negative reflection, to the visitor, on the quality of your content.

    Next, you want a subscription section (newsletter, rss feed, whatever). The visitor can benefit by getting your free guide to writing and/or getting article updates. You benefit by getting a person who trusts you with their email.

    Next, if you sell your own product, show it below the subscription box. This would be a link to a sales page. The visitor benefits because they see a product based on your web site (which they likely found when searching for a topic you discuss).

    Finally, have a section on popular posts / recent comments. This helps both you and the visitor because they will look at more content on your site and therefore build their trust in your brand and you benefit when they make comments and of course the more trust, the more likely to buy your product.

    I’ve listed all of this for two reasons;
    1. I’ve had too much coffee.
    2. I’ve seen too many bloggers fill their sidebars with every possible widget from local weather forecasts to non-related advertisements.

    Before adding a widget, ask yourself how it relates to your visitors and who benefits.

    Chris

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 4, 2012 at 10:26 am

    Chris,

    Nice article. I tried to cover some of that with the idea of “negative social proof” but thanks for the additions. Look, I agree with you and have worked hard to keep the sidebars here pretty clean.

    But many bloggers don’t use your criteria, their blogs mean something different to them and, frankly, I celebrate that too.

    A blog is an intensely personal space for most bloggers, and, as you can tell, many want to decorate, announce, claim membership and all the other things we humans like to do when we announce ourselves to others.

    Stay tuned, because there are also ways you can use those impulses to your advantage.

    Reply

    chris April 4, 2012 at 6:55 am

    Wow, didn’t realize I typed that much. I’m sure you’ll cover a lot of this in your future blogs. I’ve just seen too many blogs with too many widgets.

    Reply

    James T Kelly April 4, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    Sidebars and widgets are, as you say, a very personal thing. I think what works for one person just won’t mesh with the personality of another. Having said that, badges do absolutely nothing for me, nor does “positive proof”. If the content is good, that’s all that matters, and badges and proof don’t always equate to good content.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 5, 2012 at 9:13 am

    Good point, James. The thing with badges and other sidebar displays is that some are intended for visitors, but others are really more for the blogger. For instance, I’m not too interested in badges that show membership in a blogging network or other association, but if I see an AdAge Top Sites badge, or an Alltop badge, or something similar where I know the issuing authority and recognize that it’s pretty exclusive, they will cause me to pay a bit more attention at first. Then the content has to stand on its own.

    Reply

    London Crockett April 4, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    Chris, I like your method of thinking about widgets and the other stuff that fills sidebars. Ultimately, I agree with Joel that to each blog his own. However, when I did my recent redesign, I got rid of almost everything. I have pull downs for past posts and categories, a list of latest tweets to keep content updated between posts and a tag cloud, which I think makes it easier for people to find content than category or monthly past posts. I should add some follow options. Probably this weekend.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 5, 2012 at 9:15 am

    Sounds good, London, and very much like Matt is doing on his new blog (first comment).

    For most bloggers it seems to be a challenge to keep to that aesthetic, but good luck with the redesign.

    Reply

    Terri Hall April 6, 2012 at 7:35 am

    Launching into this world of blogging via the “My Name is Not Bob” April challenge, this article has created a bit of excitement and well as panic as I continue to realize just how much I really don’t know. Would you recommend jumping in, experimenting by widgits and such? Or perhaps I need to wait for your step-by-step instruction…

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 6, 2012 at 9:27 am

    Hi Terri,

    No reason not to experiment, it can be alot of fun. One of the reasons I like WordPress so much is that it makes it easy for even non-tech types like us to fool around with things like widgets without risking a meltdown or crash, so get in there and get your hands dirty.

    Reply

    Mary Incontro April 17, 2012 at 6:06 am

    And sometimes the sidebars disappear! I’m using the Twenty Eleven theme on my new site which displays the sidebar on the home page but if you provide the post’s shortlink (on Twitter, for instance), the reader is directed to a clean blog page without the sidebar. I like the look but unless the readers click on Home, they don’t see the widgets for signing up, etc. A lot to learn for a new blogger like me. Look forward to your posts.

    Reply

    Sierra April 21, 2012 at 10:44 am

    This isn’t anything I don’t know, but it’s still awesome. :] Lookin forward to what the rest of the series has to offer (especially since I’m an author with a WordPress blog).

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 21, 2012 at 11:15 am

    Sierra, thanks for that. Check out this category link because there’s a ton of articles in this series already posted: Author Blogging 101

    Reply

    Julia Johnson May 4, 2012 at 8:09 am

    How did you get your theme to have a 2nd sidebar? I don’t want to change my theme, I know there are ways to add more sidebars, but I cannot get it to work.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 4, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Julia, it all depends on which theme you are using on your blog. I’m running on WordPress with the Thesis theme. This theme has a lot of settings to control things like how many sidebars and where they are placed, it’s pretty easy to change from inside the Thesis settings. If you can’t change the sidebars and you’re using WordPress, look at the many many free WordPress themes available from wordpress.org for one that looks more like what you want.

    Reply

    Rinelle Grey February 21, 2013 at 10:53 pm

    Great article, and timely too, as I’ve just been updating the widgets in my sidebar! I’ve gone for minimal at this point, especially since I’m just starting out. But I suspect that it will grow. Maybe I need to make sure I have the occasional sidebar declutter day?

    Reply

    JLOakley February 21, 2013 at 11:23 pm

    I’m using Mystic Lake. I can’t figure out how to put a badge at the top. An award I got. Frankly, would like to see my book there to.

    Reply

    Ken E Baker February 22, 2013 at 12:16 am

    Hi Joel – great advice and definitely something most blog users need to know. Which question – do you ever test the effectiveness of a new widget (e.g. you mention giving a widget to another blogger for their site, to help drive up your search engine ranking)

    Reply

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