OK, I'm just going to call it... the blog sidebar is dead. And you should strongly consider just getting rid of it altogether.
I have gone back and forth on this over the years. I have run my blogs both with sidebar and without sidebar. But, recently, I had two observations that just drove the nail in the coffin for me for the sidebar.
Both observations have to do with email opt-in rates. The punchline is...
They SUCK. Opt-in rates in the sidebar just... suck.
Surely, others have seen it, too. There's been an overall trend away from sidebars on blogs. We're in this weird transition time where it is tradition to have a sidebar, yet you're seeing more and more leading blogs send it to the trash bin.
I'm no longer in limbo about it.
I think the blog sidebar is dead.
But, let me make my case...
Reason #1: Poor Conversion Rates In The Sidebar
On the average, email opt-in form conversion rates in the blog sidebar are really low.
Here's what I have experienced in my most recent decision to re-try the sidebar on many of the blog posts here at the Blog Marketing Academy...
Now, I'm not as concerned about the conversion rates on the personalized CTAs. I was using ConvertBox's ability to target specific segments in order to deliver more targeted things to existing members.
But, the conversion rates for regular web traffic (people not already on my list) was pretty pathetic, with 0.58% being the highest.
This is a limited data set, of course. But, I can tell you from past experience that the average conversion rate in the sidebar tends to be 1% or less.
I've read some cases where people have gotten higher opt-in rates than that, but they are the exception rather than the rule. As a general rule, the conversion performance of the sidebar is one of the lowest on the entire blog.
Now, as a comparison, let's compare my numbers above to some lead magnet offers that I was running across the blog on posts with NO sidebar. These forms were coming in as callouts in the bottom right corner. Behold...
As you can see, conversion rates on these callout boxes range from 1.8% to 6.09% during this timeframe. And again, these are running on blog posts that have no sidebar at all.
So, let's see...
0.58% versus (even on the low end) 1.8%. That's 3.1X better conversion rate on the posts without a sidebar. In the case of my other numbers, it is significantly higher than that.
The call to action that got 0.58% CTR in the sidebar was presented in a callout with almost the exact same text and image.... and there it got 5.62% CTR. That's over a 10X performance jump... without a blog sidebar!
And in case you're thinking...
But, Dave. You're obviously making different offers in those callouts than you did in the sidebar. Wouldn't that be a factor?
Astute observation, my young grasshopper. Yes, I was offering actual lead magnets in the callouts versus a more generic free membership offers in the sidebar. Certainly, that is a factor. But, a small one. As I said, in the last several YEARS of doing this and testing different things, I've barely ever gotten a sidebar opt-in to convert much better than 1%.
But, there's more...
Reason #2: Mobile Traffic Makes The Sidebar Useless
One of the contributing factors to the death of the sidebar is the growth in mobile web usage.
Today, over half of all web traffic is mobile.
Here at the Blog Marketing Academy, about 38% of all web traffic is mobile. It is a good idea to check your own site analytics to see what your mobile traffic percentage is.
But, what happens to the sidebar when your site is viewed on a mobile device?
It disappears. If it shows up at all, it is WAY down at the bottom underneath all of the content.
This means that anything you put into your sidebar will be essentially meaningless for anybody visiting your site on mobile. In fact, if your theme shows the sidebar at all on mobile (just pushed down to the bottom), you might as well just hide it altogether.
Nothing will convert down there.
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A Growing Trend Vs Clinging To Tradition
You're seeing more and more blogs lose their sidebar.
Oli Gardner ran a test on the UnBounce blog can found that out of 1,481 desktop visitors and 3,438 total clicks, only 3 people (0.09%) clicked on the CTA in the sidebar. His takeaway...
Nobody cares about your sidebar.
Bryan Harris, from VideoFruit, found that for every 1,000 people who came to his site, only 3 clicked on anything in the sidebar. A whopping 0.3% conversion. He ditched his sidebar and boosted his conversion rates by 26%.
We could go on and on with different numbers from other blogs. The numbers are all rather pathetic. On the high end, you might see conversion rates up around 1.5%. Most are lower, though.
So, if the numbers are so low, why does anybody bother with the sidebar anymore. Well, I think one article from ActiveCampaign sums it up when it said this about sidebars:
You should still consider them. They are good for meeting the expectations of people who expect to see sign-up forms on the side of a page.
I think that's all it is. Expectations. Tradition. People copying what they have seen others do for a long time, despite the fact that pretty much all concrete metrics show it to be rather useless.
Most blog themes come with sidebars. Sidebar widgets are a built-in function of WordPress and people get rather widget-happy dragging those things into their sidebars in an effort to make their site look busy.
But, the numbers don't lie.
So, what we've got is a cycle similar to fashion:
Sidebars rose up and grew into a generally accepted thing more or less with the growth of blogging as a platform. But, things have changed.
Sidebars are now firmly on the decline. And I'm just calling them obsolete now. The cycle is heading toward the end.
When A Blog Sidebar Can Still Make Sense
Nothing is an absolute. There are still valid use cases for a blog sidebar. Let's cover what they are.
But first, in all these cases, you might as well simply hide it from mobile. It is all useless with mobile traffic.
Call To Action (With A Big "But")...
If you're going to insist on trying to place opt-in forms or calls to action into a sidebar, then I suggest you make that the ONLY thing in your sidebar.
Don't get widget happy.
Put an optimized call to action into your sidebar all by itself so it is right there at the top. Then, I suggest you make it "sticky" so that as the user scrolls, the CTA stays right there in place.
This will at least increase the changes of conversion. But, even despite that, don't expect magic. You're unlikely to buck the trend and find your numbers just blow everybody else away. There's a reason even the best opt-ins in a sidebar usually fail to convert greater than 1%.
While I am not a massive fan of banner ads as a blog monetization method, it is the best option for blogs in many niches.
If you are running banner ads, then a sidebar is undoubtedly important real estate for that ad inventory. If I were running banner ads, there's no doubt I would have a sidebar. Hell, I'd probably even keep it active on mobile traffic just for the additional ad views.
The considerations for a blog monetized with advertising versus a blog designed for conversions are quite different. One is all about the eyeballs... and other is trying to get them to DO something specific. Sidebars suck for real conversion and they just clutter up the site and distract. However, if you're running banner ads, site clutter isn't really your concern and you're not really trying to get them to convert. You just want more ad views.
Now, one thing to bear in mind even here that lends itself to the death of the sidebar...
More and more, people are blocking banner ads in their browsers. Publishers that rely on banner advertising for revenue are having to think differently. Some are even heading toward subscription-model membership sites in order to get around this trend. But, point is...
Even when it comes to banner ads, the trend will slowly head toward the sidebar becoming rather useless.
Table Of Contents
If you are posting big, long posts (like redwood posts), then a solid potential use of a sidebar is a table of contents navigation aid to the post itself.
The best post navigation aids will:
- Stick in place as the reader scrolls through the article
- Highlight individual sections in the list as the user scrolls, kind of like a "you are here!" visual aid in the post
With Theme Builder, you can set up post templates with built-in table of contents. You can position them into the sidebar and make them stick in place. There are a number of templates to choose from. AND... you can have it highlight sections of the TOC as you scroll!
It is very professional and easy to use and requires no plug-ins since it is all built right into the theme.
Plus, using Theme Builder, you can have multiple post templates for different uses. So, you can set one up with a beautiful table of contents and use it when the post warrants it. If your post doesn't really warrant a TOC, then don't show one. It is all up to you.
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Will You Miss The Screen Space?
If you get rid of the blog sidebar, won't you miss the screen real estate? Where will you put things?
This is one of the (dumb) things I was thinking, too, that made be go back and forth on this whole sidebar dilemma. I would go for awhile without one, then bring it back again in some places because I needed a place to put things I thought were important.
For instance, my video post template on this site had a sidebar for awhile. In fact, the numbers I showed you above were mostly only from the video posts because I wasn't running the sidebar on my standard written posts. For video posts, it began with wanting a place to put my Youtube subscribe button. The thing is...barely anybody even clicked on it anyway. 🙂
So, I think it comes down to 2 important points:
#1 - Question Everything You Would Usually Put In A Sidebar
Almost every widget built-into WordPress or added by a plug-in is useless. On a conversion-focused blog, most widgets have no place.
So, the first thing you must do if you're feeling like getting rid of the sidebar is going to present a huge problem is to go through what's in your sidebar and ask yourself: Is it really necessary?
Does anybody really ever use it or do you just think they do?
#2 - Can It Be Re-Positioned?
If something in your sidebar actually seems pretty important, then ask yourself:
Could it go someplace else or worked into my theme in a different way?
For the important things, the answer is usually "yes". Not only that, it will probably be far more effective someplace else, anyway.
For instance, the email opt-in form is pretty much the most important thing on your blog. And you can vastly out-perform a sidebar opt-in by using in-content calls to action or simple slide-ins.
As shown above, I am using ConvertBox to deliver targeted lead magnet offers using slide-ins. They look like nice little chat invites. At a minimum, they were converting 3X better than the sidebar. This kind of format works better because...
- It appears on-screen in an animated way, therefore drawing the eye.
- It works on mobile just fine.
But, it goes beyond opt-in forms and CTAs. What if you're displaying a menu of categories to your blog in your sidebar? Well, 2 things to consider...
- Most people don't navigate a blog by category, especially if your category list is long or in a dropdown. People usually come into your blog directly to an article from Google.
- Your category list will be more effective in your top navigation menu, or perhaps on your blog index page.
In the end, I think most important stuff from a sidebar could easily go someplace else and be far more effective.
Keeping a sidebar just so you have a place to stuff crap is not a good reason to have one.
In Conclusion: Sidebars Are Dead
Sidebars are dead.
If you are running a conversion-focused blog, I think the sidebar is a relic of the past that is generally a waste of space. In fact, it just clutters things up. Your readers are likely paying it no attention at all.
Sidebars need to be used only strategically and intentionally. There will be some environments where it is needed (like inside a membership site or other web app where it is used for navigation). For some web content, a sidebar can still be handy (i.e. for table of contents). But, it needs to be done with a strategic reason.
Most blogs that are still running sidebars are likely doing it because it is what they see other people doing. I don't think there's much actual thought put into it anymore.
But, the trend is real.
The blog sidebar is dead.
Overuse killed it. Increase in mobile usage finished it off.
The sidebar is redundant on most blogs now. People just pay it no attention. So, time to move on and add it to the trash bin of history alongside Flash menus, Frames and blinking text.
Sidebars are the weakest link. Goodbye!