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Use a WordPress custom sidebar to complement content

6 min read
Bob Dunn

Using custom sidebars in WordPress can create a better user experience, which will, in turn, help boost time visitor retention and ultimate website conversions. Creating custom sidebars is easier than you would think. Let's explore your options for customizing WordPress sidebars and make sure you know how to take advantage of this technique.

Let’s talk about making a custom sidebar in WordPress

When you created your first WordPress site, you likely found some useful widgets and added them to the sidebar. Maybe you also added them elsewhere, like in the footer. You figured out what worked without too much clutter and you went on your way. Depending on your theme and how you set it up, it’s possible that your site visitors see the same widgets over and over, no matter what page they land on.

Is this really effective?

There are a variety of theme builders, page builders, and plugins that let you create a WordPress custom sidebar. These sidebars change depending on the content of your page or post. Why use them?

You want the sidebar to complement your post, rather than distract the reader.

For example, if you are writing a post about the release of your latest book and your sidebar is showing the Top Ten New York Times Bestseller list, this information, though interesting to your reader, can be an unnecessary distraction. Oh, look at that book, she says. I didn’t know Stephen King wrote a new one. I need to check that out. You’ve lost your audience.

That bestseller widget might work with another page, but on this post, where you have a call-to-action to purchase your new book, it defeats the purpose of your post.

Where custom sidebars work well

You are a photographer. Your specialties are portrait, wedding, children and pet photography. On your blog, you share stories about all four: the people you work with, the fun experiences you create with children, the crazy and challenging times shooting photos of pets, and tips and advice for working with a wedding photographer.

You also published four books: a couple of coffee table books on children and pet photography, a how-to book on creating a successful wedding photography business, and a book on how to take memorable business portraits. You advertise all four books in your sidebar. How can you personalize the ads?

Consider putting only the coffee table book about pets in the sidebar of your pet photography posts. The same with the others. Only focus on what people are reading about at the moment. They’ll be more likely to purchase a related product.

Maybe you are a graphic designer who does web, print and logo design. You blog about those topics a lot. Every time you write a post about logos, use examples of logos you have done for clients in the sidebar or include a link to a logo gallery. You can even take it a step further — let’s say you design logos for the healthcare industry. Next time you write a post about best practices in logo design for healthcare providers, you can highlight some of your best work in that field in your sidebar.

We aren’t only talking about blog posts here. How about your sales pages? If you are showing a sidebar on a sales page, think through this same process. Remove the widgets in your sidebar that distract people from your sales message.

Are you seeing an opportunity here?

How to create custom sidebars in WordPress

Now that you have wrestled with this strategy, how do you create custom sidebars? You have several options:

Website and page builders

If you are using a website or page builder, you should be already taking advantage of this. They make it very easy to do, especially for specific pages on your site. But I don’t recommend switching to one or the other just for custom sidebars. There are simpler options.

WordPress plugins

There are several plugins that create custom sidebars. Here are just a few:

Jetpack Widget Visibility. This is sometimes an unknown, even to a lot of people who use Jetpack.

Within your widgets, you can set where you want that widget to show. It can be done by category, author, user and tag, just to name a few.

Taking the case of our photographer, it’s as simple as assigning certain posts to the category of portrait photography and then choosing that category for the widget with that particular book in it. You can even do multiple criteria, such as assigning the widget to only show with a particular category, tag, and author. If you want to learn about this plugin in greater detail, check out this post.

WooSidebars. WooThemes created this plugin, but it doesn’t just work on their themes. Instead of setting up the widgets individually, you can create custom widget areas using an interface where you can choose specific pages, posts, categories and tags. These custom widget areas will now show up with your other widget areas. You can add the specific widgets you need, just as you would for any other sidebar. Here is another post that shows you how to use it.

Genesis Simple Sidebars. This one works specifically with the Genesis framework or any Genesis child theme. Though it doesn’t have as much flexibility, you can create your custom sidebar, add the widgets, and on your individual posts and pages, select one of your custom sidebars to show and which sidebar or footer area to replace it with. Here is a tutorial to walk you through it.

Remember: Don’t just focus on sidebars

As I said, this isn’t only for WordPress sidebars. Consider the widget areas in your footer as well. If you have a widget area after your blog posts, it will work with those as well.

Think about how you can use custom sidebars in creative ways.

As with any plugin, these may not work with your specific theme, so you will want to test. Once you find one that works and start thinking through the process, by simply putting on your marketing hat, you will discover other ways to convert your readers into customers and maximize their experience without all the distractions.