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I see a lot of blogs that seem to have really cluttered sidebars, with a ton of additional widgets, navigation, etc, that I never find myself using. What are some tips for things that make good additions to the sidebar, and some things that are unnecessary?

One example that springs to mind are Tag Clouds. I see these everywhere, but how often to people actually use them?

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8 Answers 8

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Sidebars are great! you just have to use the right widgets.

I use sidebars for sub navigation, or to promote certain pages on a site, or to promote an activity (like register here, or buy now).

Many people use ready made templates and don't know how to setup the sidebar widgets, but those who do get a lot of use out of them.

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Just like anything, you want to make sure you are adding elements because they are useful, not just for the sake of having them. I recently did a site for an internet-based sports radio show and I included a widget for listening to their current/archived broadcasts. I also included a spot for their current poll. Both get quite a bit of use so they are good additions to the sidebar. Elements like tag clouds may not be as useful because they are only duplicating functionality that exists elsewhere on the page. I could probably find a search box a lot faster than a tag cloud to find what I need. –  LoganGoesPlaces Aug 10 '10 at 18:16

I never use the tags cloud. Vote up if you do not use them as well ;-)

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I use em when I have just found an interesting blogger and I want to see what else the person has of interest to say. –  Mongus Pong Aug 10 '10 at 16:29
    
+1 never could get the hang of them, always looks like a banner ad so my eyes can't even scan the friggin tag cloud anyway.... –  Oskar Duveborn Nov 5 '10 at 17:12

Be careful about what you put in the sidebar. Most often people just throw stuff in there that they are used to seeing. Drop the archive links (who browses by date?), especially if it's a calendar, drop the tag cloud, etc.

Put things that people are likely to click on, a list of recent posts, if they liked your post, they will probably want more like it (a list of related posts is even better, but usually put below the post). A search box (if it's not already somewhere else) is necessary. Then give people options for being notified of new posts from you, an RSS feed, an email subscription box, etc.

You can also put links to other things you do that people visiting your blog might be interested in (other blogs, link to communities you participate in, etc.).

Usually, just thinking about what you really use in a sidebar is enough to know if a widget makes sense.

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Maybe it's just me, but I like when a blog has a tag cloud. It lets me see at a glance what kinds of things the author talks about, and gives me a really easy way to browse the content that I'm interested in. I also like the archive links, if I've just discovered a blog that's been around for a while and I want to go back to the beginning and get caught up.

I agree, though, that a lot of extra widgets in a sidebar make me not want to visit certain sites that I may otherwise frequent. All of those things have to load and initialize, and that takes time and resources I'd rather not spend.

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Personally, I think that a list of tags with the number of posts for each one is much better. A "cloud" with varying sizes of words is visually cluttered and gives you less information. –  Zifre Sep 1 '10 at 23:07

+1 to the points about making it context sensitive.

+1 to the idea that tag clouds are a bad idea - they just aren't very meaningful.

A further point is to avoid using graphical banners, as many users confuse these with ads and will reflexively avoid them.

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I'd say that the cleaner the side bar is - the better.

My personal preference is to have there some info about the blog or the blogger, plus maybe a blog roll, which most people expect in the side bar.

I think tag clouds are usually useless and I'll explain:

  • The context is too wide (the whole blog). It's much more effective to use the tags in each post to follow through to the topics that interest you.
  • Often the most prominent word is the topic of the blog and since it appears on almost all the posts, it becomes redundant.
  • Sometimes tags are abused for SEO purposes, so some might have weak connections to the actual content.
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I like the point of "The context is too wide." I've never really thought of it like that. It would become more important as the blog matures and more content is added. –  Tim Meers Nov 9 '11 at 1:21

If you think of sidebars in the case of blogs, it's a good guess the majority are set up by people who are not strong on UI, UX or usability. Often, they want everything they are linking to visible all the time or they simply do not know how to add context to their sidebar implementation.

With a platform like Wordpress for example, there are now plugins which will help you contextualize your widgets and customize them right down to the page/post level.

Overall, many sites now implement a global navigation horizontally in the header and then more granular navigation in the sidebar. My own preference is for sidebars to be contextually sensitive. It's generally not helpful when a user has drilled down from a homepage, to the specific post, or even lands directly on the post, to have the main content littered with mostly irrelevant meta data or secondary content.

Ideally, if the site is well-designed and a user is interested in exploring, the information scent presented in the global navigation (even if that appears persistently in a sidebar widget), then they'll discover the other information where it's contextually relevant.

Usually free-for-all over-widgetized sidebars are useless and some of the heat map types of applications will often show that a lot of that stuff will not get clicked much.

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Avoid using chat boxes on the sidebar of your blogs. An example is the Cbox, etc. This will only take away comments on your blog posts and is a magnet for spam messages.

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