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Goodbye, sidebar: reasons you might want to remove your website’s sidebar

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1. Old-style asymmetric look

Be aware that a sidebar is beginning to look outdated today. This is because sites viewed on mobile have a much more streamlined, symmetrical look which users assume to be the norm. Of course, this issue is a matter of personal taste and opinion, but my prediction is that sidebars will soon start going the way of RSS feed buttons. Please don’t say you have one of those, either.

2. The problem of how best to render sidebar content on mobile

Yes, this applies to almost all sidebars that I have seen. The issue here is that you can’t win, because either:

  • The sidebar contents are moved to just above the footer on mobile, effectively giving your mobile visitors a really, really long footer. Or:
  • The sidebar contents are simply omitted altogether for mobile visitors, meaning that you wind up either having to duplicate that content elsewhere on the page for mobile, or just leave it off completely. If you’re happy with sidebar content not being visible to mobile visitors, is that content really so critical that your desktop readers have to have it inflicted upon them?

3. Your advertisers and sponsors could get annoyed by the way your sidebar advertisements render on mobile

If you as a publisher sell your own sidebar ad space, your advertisers will expect these ads to be visible to all visitors, particularly if the site is a blog or news site where you could not reasonably expect all visitors to be using a desktop. In particular, if your sidebar ads are not visible at all on mobile (and if that fact isn’t disclosed beforehand), I don’t blame your advertisers for being annoyed. Yes, I have seen this issue on some high-profile sites.

4. Sidebar = clutter

Right now, with all of the different social media channels and all the other things competing for our online attention, a sidebar is just extra clutter. Instead, streamline your visitors’ lives and give them a more enjoyable experience where they don’t have to try to block out a ton of extra stuff. They may even decide to stay longer on your site. They are also more likely to engage with your call-to-action: this was found to be the case for Videofruit in an A/B test with and without the sidebar (reference 1).

Reasons you might want to keep your sidebar:

All of that said, every site is different and there are valid situations for where you might want to keep a sidebar:

a) If your visitors are primarily on desktop and you don’t expect that to change. For example:

  • you run a site about coding tutorials, where you’re fully expecting your readers to be using a desktop at the time that they’re browsing your site. Or,
  • you are a wholesaler of a physical product, where your target audience will almost certainly be ordering from work at a desktop and you won’t get many mobile visitors.

b) If your sidebar includes some critical functionality of practical use to the visitor (not to you) that would not work well if placed elsewhere. For example:

  • your site is a web-based graphics software application and the sidebar provides some critical function that users need. Or,
  • the information your visitor is seeking would be expected (by the visitor) to be located in the sidebar.

How to successfully move your sidebar content for a well-designed UX

This all depends on the contents of your sidebar. I speak from experience; I have systematically removed all of the sidebars from all my sites (except for an e-commerce site, and I’m currently working on that).

Ad space

Ads can go into the main part of your site. Instead of ads being on sidebar, they can be just below the header or just above the footer. Alternatively, the absolute best place for them is in the middle of your content – high enough that it gets seen but low enough that the reader has a chance to view some of your content before the ad shows up. The only downside is that in-content ads are less convenient for site owners to implement with most free WordPress themes. This is why I have stuck to the convenience of placing ads just above the footer for most of my sites.

Badges

If you are free to place badges and affiliations at any location on your site, then I recommend they be at the lowest place on the footer. Of course, if you have won some prestigious award in your field, by all means display that trophy much more prominently on your site, but you don’t need a sidebar to accomplish that.

Email newsletter signups

You can collect email subscriptions via a pop-up box that appears after you scroll a certain way down (I use Sumo on one of my other sites for that). Or, move your current subscription link to the footer AND in the main content of the “about us” page.

Other content

Your other sidebar content should be thought of carefully: Is it really essential? Are you absolutely sure? If so, either move it to the footer or add it in as a main menu link or sub-menu link. Or there may be some other area of your site to which it’s better suited. You get to think creatively here.

I have found it’s not always easy to know what’s best to do and whether the content is really critical. If in doubt, get a few opinions from people whose judgment you trust before making any changes. Also, if you are seriously considering making changes, back up your site first! Make sure that whatever you do looks-wise is reversible, and quickly so, on the off-chance that you don’t like the changes you made or want to think about it more before doing anything else.

I’m speaking generally here and across a lot of CMS’s. I’ll explain some WordPress-specific tips and tricks in a separate article coming soon. In the meantime, I have put together a list of the best free WordPress themes without a sidebar.

Conclusion

Remember, the question of a sidebar is ultimately one of personal taste and opinion. If you’re happy with a sidebar on your site, that is 100% your prerogative to keep it. The purpose of this article is to outline reasons that you may want to get rid of your sidebar – and reasons where you may want to keep it.

Cited sources:

1. Bryan Harris “Ditch the Sidebar on Your Website and Increase Conversion Rates by 26%“, 2015 in Videofruit Blog.


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