10 tips for creating a blog sidebar that informs without overwhelming the reader

This is a post by Novel Publicity President, Emlyn Chand/ Each time a blogger applies to become a Novel Publicity blog tour host, I break out my handy evaluation worksheet and go to work assessing this new blog. I look for what the blogger is doing right, what she’s doing wrong, and what she could be doing differently. The purpose of this evaluation is to help the blogger achieve 100 hits per day (on new post days), so that she can host our authors on her blog, which means free books, introductions to emerging authors, and the chance to win prizes.

I’ve done close to 50 of these evaluations now, and I’ve begun to notice some patterns. One striking consistency across all blogs is an ineffective sidebar. Some blogs have far too many features, making their sidebar overwhelming and chaotic. Others have such a bare-bones sidebar that it might as well not even be there.

Today, I’m here to tell you that there is a way to do a sidebar right and there is a way to do it wrong. Here are 10 tips for crafting a sidebar that is functional, clean, and effective:

1. Only include content that is relevant to your blog—Don’t include every widget in the world just because it exists. So you really like Margaret Atwood, you took a quiz that said you are Charlotte from “Sex in the City,” you found an inspiring new soup recipe, and—yay—there’s a pretty button available so that you may share the news with your blog’s readership. Don’t do it! Unless these topics are extremely relevant to your blog (i.e. you run a “Sex in the City” fan blog or blog exclusively about soup), don’t clutter your sidebar by including this info. A blog’s sidebar should enhance the reader’s experience, allowing them to connect with you through additional social media venues or to jump straight to the desired content. If wading through your sidebar muck becomes tedious, you’ll lose potential readers.

2. Put the most important content at the top—Chances are that the countdown to the movie release of “Twilight: Breaking Dawn” is not the most important feature of your blog, then why include it straight away at the top of your page? Similarly, your blog roll is not the most important feature, your tweet stream is not the most important feature, your blog tour host badge is not the most important feature—if you want to include these elements, push them further down the page. The prime real estate should be reserved for the links to follow your blog, RSS feed, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. These are the most important features of any sidebar, so put them front and center.

3. Don’t clutter your blog by including redundant content—I see this all the time! If you have a Google friend connect feature for your blog, do you really need to include a Networked Blogs box? If you have a GoodReads bookshelf, why do you need Shelfari also? We don’t need a bookshelf for your current reads, previous reads, and upcoming reads—one would suffice. We don’t need six million widgets that declare you’re a Muggle or a Ravenclaw, we just don’t. Examine the content of your sidebar and think critically. If anything seems redundant, get rid of it.

4. Use a simple drop-down category menu rather than an archive—Hmmm. I just discovered this great new blog. I wonder what this blogger wrote about in December 2010. Oh, good, the archive. That will help. Does this ever happen? No! More likely your new reader will want to know what great writing advice you gave or what news you posted about the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition. She doesn’t want to have to sift through the dusty archives, she wants to do a quick search to find exactly the kinds of articles she needs. In this way, a drop-down category list is far more useful than an archive. If you’re on BlogSpot, you’ll need to include a list of labels, which is less aesthetically pleasing but still functional.

5. Make sure the widgets fit in the designated sidebar space—Nothing is more off-putting than a sloppy blog, yet I see this fairly frequently. When widgets spill out of the designated sidebar space, it makes your blog look unprofessional and it makes it look like you don’t care. If you can’t take the time to resize your widgets, who’s to say that you have the time to run spell check on your posts or to write content that is even worth reading in the first place? The internet is a highly visual place, and I’ve seen far too many good bloggers receive limited readership because of these issues. A few minor tweaks and your blog will look so much better! NOTE: This is an issue I see on BlogSpot frequently but not on WordPress.

6. Make sure to include links to subscribe to or follow your blog—This is so easy. Why doesn’t everybody do it? If a reader finds your blog and enjoys it, chances are she’ll want to come back for more. Why would you make this difficult for her? Do you think she’s committed enough to type in your URL daily to check-in on your bloggerly happenings? Even if she does, why would you do this to your devoted fan? It’s so easy to allow your readers to subscribe—there’s no reason not to do it. On WordPress, add in the “Blog Subscriptions” widget, which allows users to subscribe by email and to receive a new email every time you post to your blog. On BlogSpot, include the “Followers” box for Google friend connect. Easy and very worthwhile.

7. Include a visible link to your RSS feed—Many people choose to follow blogs by using Google Reader or a similar application. An RSS feed displays the title of your post along with a text preview, it gives your readers enough to peak their interest and to pull them into your site if they’d like to know more. Make sure to give this option to your readers. The more ways you have of allowing people to stay in touch with you and your blog, the better.

8. Include buttons to follow you on Twitter and like you on Facebook—About a month ago, I wrote a cutesy analogy called Grandma’s old-fashioned social media pie, claiming that ¾ of this gooey deliciousness belongs to your blog, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. Their affects are cumulatively reciprocal, which means they build off of and enhance one another. So, yes, you should have a Facebook fan page (in addition to a personal account), and you should have an active Twitter account. And, yes, you should connect all three of them. Set-up an RSS feed from your blog to run on your Twitter and Facebook accounts. Get your best twiends to head on over and like your Facebook page. Include links to connect on your blog sidebar and include them near the tippity-top. For more advice on Twitter, go here. For advice on Facebook, go here.

9. Include a copyright—This is just a precautionary measure. If you blog using an advanced theme or a self-hosted domain, chances are the copyright is inbuilt in your site’s footer. If you use a free domain, you’re probably going to have to manually add-in a copyright. For my author blog, I use the following: “© Emlyn Chand, The Ambitious Ambigue 2010-2011. The content of this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.”

10. If you include a blog roll, keep it minimal—I don’t even include a blog roll, although I always appreciate it when people include me on theirs. In case you didn’t know a blog roll is a list of blogs that you like and decide to list and link to on your blog. I’d recommend listing no more than ten in your blog roll to give your favorites the attention they deserve. If you include fifty, that’s pretty overwhelming and really clutters your sidebar! If you have a hard time narrowing your list, try writing a blog post highlighting blogs you enjoy. You can include the link with a description or you can interview bloggers you like or even write blog reviews—this method would probably get your favored bloggers far more attention than a simple listing in a blog roll.

I hope this advice helps and that you’re able to use it to the betterment of your blog. I wish large readership numbers upon you.

 

Additional Notes:

To see an example of a blog that includes everything it needs in its sidebar and nothing it doesn’t, go here to view the blog that Novel Publicity created for literary adventure novelist, dk LeVick.

If you’d like to receive your own free custom blog evaluation, in which I assess your sidebar, general layout, posts, subscriber interaction, and social media effectiveness, submit your application to become a blog tour host here. If you’re fed up with your blog and want to hire us to restructure it for you, you can learn more about there here. You can also read our full series of bloggerly advice here.

As always, happy blogging!

 


Emlyn Chand, President of Novel PublicityEmlyn Chand was born with a fountain pen grasped firmly in her left hand (true story). Novel Publicity’s mascot is a Sun Conure, thanks to her obsession with birds–and she gets to decide anyway since she is the company’s founder and president. Although her first novel Farsighted won the prestigious Writer’s Digest Self-Published Novel of the Year award in 2012 for the YA category, she now writes most of her fiction under her “real” name, Melissa Storm. Learn more or connect with her (or her Sun Conure, Ducky!) on either of her author websites:  www.emlynchand.com or www.melstorm.com. You can also friend her on Facebook, tweet with her @novelpublicity, or send her an email via [email protected].


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