Sidebar Widgets

photo by Mike Licht,

In class this week, we made a big mind map on the whiteboard to brainstorm blog post ideas. I’m looking forward to reading about “Global Warming Gone Mad,” “If Cows Could Fly,” and “Dragons vs. Machine Guns.” Next week, I’ll try to remember my camera so I can take a picture of our web of ideas.

Then we talked about how sidebar widgets can make our blogs more reader-friendly. A couple of comments before I post our notes:

  • The following descriptions assume you are using a blog theme with a single sidebar. If you have two sidebars (as I do here), then you can divide the widgets however you like between them, as long as the most important ones are near the top somewhere.
  • Not all themes handle widgets the same way, so you may not see all these options on your theme. Just do the best you can with what you have to work with.

Now, imagine a reader has found your blog and liked it. What might he or she want next?

(1) Give Me More!

The reader might want to read more of your posts. In fact, he might not want to miss a single thing. But he doesn’t know when you are posting, and he doesn’t want to come back every day to see if you’ve written something new. Solution: He wants to subscribe to your blog. There are two widgets for blog subscriptions, and both of these should go right at the top of your sidebar.

  • RSS Links Widget
    This widget displays links to your blog’s RSS feeds. The most useful settings are to display Posts (but Posts & Comments also works), formatted as Text & Image Links, and then choose the image color to match your blog theme — or pick the traditional orange, if you prefer.
  • Blog Subscriptions Widget
    For readers (like Grandma!) who don’t want to know what an RSS feed is and would rather subscribe by email. The default settings are fine on this, though you may change the wording if you like.

(2) I Know I Read That Somewhere. . .

What if the reader has read your blog for a while, and now she wants to go back and find a story she remembers, but she’s not sure of when you wrote it or what it was called? Solution: She needs a search box. This should also go right at the top of your sidebar, where it is easy to find — usually just under the subscription widgets, although you could put the search first, if you prefer the way it looks.

  • Search Widget
    The default settings are usually fine for this widget. But if it shows up on your theme as a blank box with no explanation, then add a title like, “Search This Blog.”

(3) Who Is this Blogger, Anyway?

If your reader enjoys what you write, he will usually want to know a little more about you. Solution: An About page and a small blurb in your sidebar. These should go near the top, but under the subscriptions and search.

[Note to the boys in my class: “Blurb” means a small amount of text. It has nothing to do with throwing up.]

  • Gravatar Widget
    This is a great way to display your picture (or symbol) and a little bit of information about you and your blog. Tweak the settings, then check how it displays on your blog. Keep making little changes until you have it just the way you want it.
  • Text Widget
    If you don’t want to upload an image for the Gravatar, then you could just write a little blurb in a text widget. This is the widget I use for the quotation at the top of my left sidebar.
  • Pages Widget
    I hope you have written something on your About page by now. (Remember, that was an assignment for Week 2.) If your theme does not have built-in links to your pages, you should put this right below your blurb — or you may use it in place of the blurb, if you like.

(3 1/2) And How Can I Contact You?

Your reader may want to say something to you privately, either to comment on your blog as a whole or to ask you a question. But you don’t want to give out your personal email address over the Internet for every spambot to find. Solution: You need to add a Contact Form to the end of your About page.

  • Contact Form
    Go to Pages and click on the About page to edit it. At the bottom of whatever else you have written, skip a line and then add something like, “If you want to write me a private message, you can use this Contact Form. If you want to add a public comment, scroll down to the Comments section below.” Then add the Contact Form by typing:
    Be sure to click the Update button!

Whatever the reader types into the Contact Form will be sent to your email address. Remember, you do NOT have to respond to Contact Form emails. If anyone ever sends you a message that makes you feel uncomfortable, simply delete it.

(4) What Else Have You Written?

The reader loved your post, and she wants to read more, more, more! She needs an easy way to find a few of your favorite blog posts. Solution: A list of posts, either recent ones or favorites.

  • Recent Posts Widget
    For small blogs like ours, this widget is the easiest way to give our readers a few quick links to past posts. Tweak the settings to display however many posts you wish, up to a max of 15 — but don’t make it that long a list. You want to offer a taste of your blog, not the whole meal at once!
  • Top Posts Widget
    If your blog gets big and starts to have a lot of traffic, this widget will be more helpful to readers. I use it on my math blog because it keeps some of my popular posts visible, even if they are two years old. But that blog gets between 1,000 and 3,000 visits per day. If you don’t get a lot of visits, this widget won’t have enough stats to work with, and then your list will look wimpy.

(5) Who Else Reads this Blog?

Blogging is a social game. It’s the interaction between blogger and readers that makes it fun. So your reader wants to know, “Who else is reading this blog, and what do they have to say about it?” Solution: Reward each commenter by displaying his name and a link to his own blog.

  • Recent Comments Widget
    Tweak the settings, save, and check how it looks on your sidebar. Repeat until you like how it looks. [Note: If you do not get many comments, you may want to leave out this widget until your traffic picks up a bit. I didn’t have it on this class blog until this week. I put it on because we were talking about widgets, but I will take it off again if I don’t get new comments soon.]

(6) Who Are Your Blogging Friends?

If a reader likes your stuff, then she might like what your friends write, too. As I said, blogging is a social game, and we bloggers like to support each other and share traffic. Solution: A list of links to all your favorite blogs.

  • Links Widget
    This has your blogroll, which we worked on last week. Usually, you will want to only Show Link Name, but you may experiment with other settings if you like. Remember to edit your Blogroll to delete the WordPress links!

(7) I Love Your Blog! I Want To Read Everything!

Okay, most readers won’t be quite this enthusiastic — but when you do hook a real fanatic, he needs to be able to find your past posts. Solution: An archive, which is like a filing cabinet that holds every post you’ve ever written. This should go near the bottom of your sidebar, since most readers will not use it, but it is important to have it somewhere for the few who want it.

  • Categories Widget
    We will talk about Categories in a later week, but I wanted to mention this here, for the sake of being thorough. After you have written enough posts to be able to sort them into a few categories, this widget will give your reader an easy way to find the type of story he wants to read.
  • Archives Widget
    A simple list, by month and year. Leave the default settings, or change them however you like.

(8) Widgets You Should Delete

As you can see, a sidebar gets crowded very fast. You want your reader to be able to find whatever she wants without getting lost in a mess of irrelevant information. Solution: Get rid of useless widgets. I do NOT want to see these on any of our class blogs: Akismet, Authors, Calendar, Platial MapKit, Top Clicks, or Meta.

Most of the other widgets that I haven’t mentioned are more of a nuisance than they are a help to most readers. Do not feel like you need to add a widget just because it is there. Think about what your reader would want, and make it easy for her to find it — that’s the point of a sidebar. Everything else is just clutter.

(9) Can We Have Some Fun?

Finally, at the bottom of your sidebar, you may want to add a few things just for fun. You can display your badges for contests or show off any awards you may get — for instance, Kitten has posted her NaNoWriMo badge. You can also post your Blog Stats, or post the Funny Quote of the Day feed from BrainyQuote, or whatever else you like.

You can add a second (third, fourth, etc.) Links Widget to list different categories of links — not just the Blogroll. For example, see the “Useful Websites” links in my right sidebar. Whatever you are interested in, there are probably LOTS of pages on the Internet about it. Can you find the best ones and make a list of links you would recommend? Or maybe you would like to share a list of your favorite books, or tell what you are currently reading.

Pay attention to other blogs as you browse the Internet, and you will find plenty of ideas. But show some restraint! If you try to do all of these things, they will clutter up your blog and make it look messy. Remind yourself: What is the point of a sidebar? To help the reader!

[PS: If you decide to add a Quote of the Day feed, you may need to contact me for instructions. does not allow Javascript, so you can’t do it the way BrainyQuote tells you to. You need to use an RSS Widget.]

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