THE JURY’S OUT ON WEBSITE SIDEBARS
If you’ve ever been in a courtroom or seen the hilarious movie “My Cousin Vinnie,” you know that a “sidebar” takes place when two lawyers (and sometimes their clients) have a meeting with the presiding judge over some key issue, outside the earshot of the courtroom jury and other attendees. In legal terms the sidebar is not the discussion itself, but the special place something unexpected happens.
Well, today we’d like to have a brief sidebar with you on electronic sidebars which are used primarily in website design and development to help visitors find information faster or highlight some key differentiator about their goods or services. We will argue neither for nor against the use of sidebars. Fact is, no one has jurisdiction over what‘s right and wrong when it comes to sidebars. What we’ll do is to present the evidence, so you can judge what’s best for you as you implement website best practices.
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A BRIEF HISTORY OF SIDEBARS
Just to put things in historical context, evidence from the earliest Egyptian hieroglyphics indicate that a bold perpendicular bar was used to highlight the thoughts of the great pharaohs. (OK, we admit that we made that up!) Seriously though, sidebars have been used for decades, originally in the print media to attract the attention of commuting readers who may not have time to wade through an entire article. Sidebars, positioned largely on the right side of the page, where the eye naturally goes, included quotes, captioned graphics or even special offers, including subscription discounts.
Fast forward to the digital age and the basic content of the sidebar hasn’t changed that much. The difference is that links to offers and more information make it even easier for website visitors and blog readers to go where the marketer wants them to go. Of course the most obvious argument against sidebars is that they don’t hold up in a state of mobility. Google was a major arbiter in 2016, when it went to mobile-first design. The biggest changes Google made to its search text ads included:
- No text ads are served on the right rail of the search results on desktop.
- There are four text ads instead of three in the mainline area above the organic listings.
- Three text ads will show at the bottom of the SERPs.
- The total number of text ads that can appear on a SERP was reduced from as many as 11 to a max of seven.
- Product listing ad blocks and Knowledge Panels (sometimes with ads) replaced the text ads in the right rail on search queries.
Why did Google do this? Likely because mobile offers smaller screen compared to desktop and more people are accessing Google search from mobile devices. Google wants to offer one view and user experience on mobile and desktop. That said, let’s explore both arguments.
SIDEBAR PROS AND CONS: MAKING THE CASE
It’s really important to consider how the use of sidebars may impact SEO. From Google Partner seminars and conversions with our Google Partner consultants, we’ve learned that improved search rankings is based on a number of factors but maybe the biggest is the user experience. Google’s algorithm measures time on site/page and content sharing along with other user activities to determine if the website provides a valuable experience for the visitor. The sidebar can play an important role in the user experience. Depending on where and how it is used on the mobile view of the website, it may be viewed as an annoyance or provides quick links to important information. Here are some user experience pros and cons for you, the jury, to consider…
- Better content organization (media websites)
- Promote related products (e-commerce)
- Provide quick links to related articles (blogs)
- Increase email registrations
- Provides defined space for advertising or calls to action
- May stick out or block the viewability of other page content
- Clutters mobile page with a lot of information
- Visually unappealing mobile UX (user experience)
- May not be compatible or available with mobile templates
What else are the experts saying about the value of website sidebars? Here’s a sampling:
UsabilityGeek writes that we should “ditch the sidebar,” because some sidebars are so cluttered, they hinder rather than help the website visitor. The biggest offender, they say, are the news websites that use sidebars to list way too many stories. They feel that the trend is towards
minimalism. They also feel there’s too much redundancy with the primary site navigation. Still (and somewhat ironically), they use sidebars to promote their UX design courses!
CrazyEgg posits the notion that sidebars may actually hamper profits because they are not properly optimized. Like the UsabilityGeek, CrazyEgg sites studies that show a very low click-through rate for sidebars. Hmmm. Why? Again, a redundancy of information, repetitive offers, and unapplied optimization. On the other hand, they say there is vale in sidebars that do the following:
- Provide an opt-in form (which is usually relegated to the bottom of the page).
- Offer links to valuable resource pages
- Provide links to great articles
And a few more words of advice on what to do with sidebar info. “Remember those sidebar elements that your users found most helpful? Find a way to preserve the elements that readers use most, either by including them in the header, the content, or slightly before or after the content. Test that again and you could further improvements.”
WPMU DEV, while definitely in the minimalist camp of web design, is a bit more optimistic about the much maligned sidebar. They say,”…your sidebar is an excellent way to display extra information and an even better way to display page-relevant details that don’t really fit into the “content” area of that page. Better still, using targeted content in your sidebar that is relevant to the page will make sure the user pays attention to it. And attention is certainly a good thing.”
THE SIMPLY180 ARGUMENT: WEBSITE BEST PRACTICES FOR SIDEBARS
As a cutting edge website design and development company, we are primarily focused on results from website usability best practices. When it comes to website sidebars we are neither on the “ditch’em” or “love’m” side. We base our judgments on what’s best for our clients based on generating leads and sales. It truly depends on where the majority of their website traffic are accessing the website from; mobile, tablets, or desktop. With that said, are a few examples of website sidebar best practices:
YOUR COMPANY COULD QUALIFY FOR A COMPLIMENTARY WEBSITE AUDIT
For a limited time – and for a limited number of companies – Simply180 offers a free website design audit or consultation every month. Of course, we’d be taking a look at your use (or lack thereof) of sidebars on your website (desktop and mobile) and make some recommendations.