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Many ad-driven content-based websites have rich right hand columns, used primarily to cross-promote content from other parts of the site or to extend the user journey. The Daily Mail is the classic example.

There seems to be a common assumption that users do not often click on content in right hand columns - a phenomenon that is similar to that of ad-blindness.

My question is:

  1. what is a proven method to make visitors more aware of the right hand column (in a positive way) without distracting them from the main content, and
  2. in particular, whether a consistent right-hand column - i.e. the same content shown across different pages and section - actually helps or hinders the likelihood of user engaging with this content
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It's not just an assumption--it's an observation. Time and again I watch users miss things on the right-hand side of the page. –  Alex Feinman Jul 3 '12 at 15:29
    
Unfortunately I can't find it right now but there was a study claiming that people expect related content in the right hand column and only look there when related content is relevant to them (for example when they're on a product page but the product isn't exactly the one they're looking for). –  Phil Jul 3 '12 at 16:02
    
Is the problem actually to do with the column being on the right, or is it more that people don't tend to look at the tangentially-related/metadata stuff (whether it's on the left, right, top or bottom of the page)? –  Kit Grose Jul 4 '12 at 1:57

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

A few ways:

  1. Make the content consistently relevant and helpful.
  2. Actively work to counter ad-blindness, that is, don't show any ads at all on the right column.
  3. Weight the right column visually with color, font, sizing etc so it feels like an important part of the page.
  4. Have other parts of your site refer to the right column - in the main body, include arrows or text that refers to it, much the way that lots of YouTube videos tell you to check the additional info 'in the bar' under the video frame.
  5. A good clean design will set your site apart from the older generation of ad-heavy sites and will engender trust in many users that will help you gain better attention from them.

Note that most sites who have succeeded with dominant right columns do so only because those columns are critical to how those sites work. Make yours critical, don't penalize users for trusting you with their ad-averse attention, and you should be fine.

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I've edited the question to make it more in line with our guidelines because it asked for a list of suggestions. As a result, your answer should be edited, too. –  dnbrv Jul 3 '12 at 6:20
    
+1 for #3, making the column look like something other than ads. –  Alex Feinman Jul 3 '12 at 15:29
    
The only thing I could think of to add to these points is a little ferry that pops up and says "Hey, listen!" youtube.com/watch?v=lCjyiEOZP44&feature=fvwrel –  Matt Lavoie Jul 3 '12 at 20:41
    
@MattLavoie, don't ruin a good suggestion with annoying pop-ups. –  Danny Varod Jul 3 '12 at 22:30
    
@sscirrus Re: Don't include ads in the RHC... Unfortunately, advertising standards tend to force ads to be positioned in standard positions, and the most popular position is (go figure) the top of the RHC. The situation is aggravated by the introduction of expanding ad units, which require a pixel-perfect lockup of MedRecs and side skins. –  Justin Jul 5 '12 at 0:24

I have always thought this was not only a product of the frequency the right-hand column is used only for ads, but also the ways in which people consume content. Specifically, people in the Western world are used to consuming content from left to right. With a large left-hand column full of content, users will begin consuming there. This makes them much less likely to move to the right-hand column, which usually consists of (if not ads) supplementary information to the left-hand column. For instance on StackExchange, where it is full or related links, etc. for further reading.

Because of this, my thought has always been to either a) make both columns of equal size as to emphasize both equally and force users to choose either to start with instead of defaulting to the left, or b) remove the smaller right-hand column in favor of a small left-hand column and a large right-hand column containing the bulk of the content.

As an exercise, think of the ways in which you would browse StackExchange if the right-hand "Related" and tags sections were on the left-side of the answers, and there was nothing to the right. It may not change the way you use the site any (functionality would be no different, after all), but it, in my mind at least, changes the way I look at the articles, and the way that I would seek to supplement the current answer with additional information, as well as what my eyes would come into contact with first upon page-load.

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Have you A/B tested your layouts? –  dnbrv Jul 3 '12 at 19:28
    
+ 1 for the left to right reading order observation. And not all cultures read left to right. –  PhillipW Jul 3 '12 at 21:33
    
People are used to looking at the related videos on the right in YouTube. I think that since the column is not a part of the content or navigation, but rather suggestions for similar content, it should go after the content (e.g. to the right in LTR layouts). –  Danny Varod Jul 3 '12 at 22:34

I think it all depends on the content. Sidebar is usually meant for secondary actions that might be needed by the user. I wouldn't try to emphasize sidebar elements more. It should always stay secondary compared to main content.

If you're specifically talking about the ad blindness, instead of using common ads such as 300x250 or 150x150, try to use other alternatives such as 300x100. I found out that with a little bit of treatment, this ad size performs way much better than the others.

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Some designers believe that the right-hand column is expendable because of it's negative connotation. One argument is that the English language is responsible for our reading patterns (it is read from left-to-right, therefore we observe things from left-to-right; relevance first), another is that it's a learned behavior because of ad-vomit. However, I strongly disagree to be honest. It's all about how we present the content to them and how easy it is for them to adapt.

As a user experience designer, it is your responsibility to control the... ahem... experience. While you are suppose to be the biggest advocate for the end-user, you are also suppose to present things in a manner that guides them. I routinely like to use the right-hand column as a place to put commonly-used tools. Believe it or not, it appears to have worked out for the better. Here's why I think so:

  • 70-80% of the world's population is right-handed
  • Right-handed people tend to drift their mouse-wielding hand towards the right side of their screen

I'm not aware of any particular studies that supports my cause here, but I do believe a design is what you make of it regardless of certain 'rules'.

Consider Stack Exchanges right-column, do you use it? I rarely avoid it myself.

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