Note: This post has been updated from an earlier version posted on April 24, 2014 to reflect changes and advances in industry best practices.
Creating a website can be difficult. There are a lot of decisions that you will encounter throughout the entire process of development and design, but few are more important than which layout you will choose. While there are a large number of layout options, one question that leaves people baffled—or so it seems—is whether to use a left or right sidebar.
The placement of a sidebar, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, can have any number of effects on your website. Whether you’re building a new website or updating a current one, have a specific reason for your choice to place a sidebar on the left or right. To help with your decision, consider the following scenarios:
Why Use Left Sidebars?
While the left sidebar could be used for any number of purposes, there are two uses that seem to be the most common: navigation and a place to show more content.
In the last few years, the navigation menu of websites has changed. What used to be a fixed piece of a website, destined to stay at the top of the page, is now a more functional part of a good website. Menus now will flow with a page, both at the top of the screen and along the left hand side within the sidebar. When you find a menu in the left sidebar, it may be in two forms:
- Fixed Sidebar Menu: The fixed menu in the sidebar is similar to a fixed menu in your header, but now it will follow you down the page on your left hand side. It’s that simple. This is a valuable resource when you have a handful of pages that you would like website visitors to see. As the user’s eye is directed to the left-hand side of the screen—thanks in part to “F-Pattern” design—they should be more inclined to keep clicking as the menu is easily accessible.
- Hamburger/Hidden Menu: Depending on how you refer to it, a hidden or “hamburger” menu has become a popular choice for the left side of the screen. In order to clear out any clutter on the page, hiding the menu can help website visitors focus on the page content. When users want to move on from the page, they can click a simple button either near the top of the screen or in the form of a tab on the side.
There are a number of websites today with blogs that exist separately as their own content hubs. This separation often creates a need for quicker content access, and the left sidebar is often the best place to put the most recent and relevant pieces of content.
As a leading source of news in the world (they have been in print since 1923), Time chose a left sidebar to dedicate to its “latest” content, making finding specific stories simple. With this, readers don’t have to go very far to find what they want to read or watch. This should ultimately keep more readers on the site for longer.
What makes HubSpot’s decision to use a left sidebar better is that the remaining three-fourths of the page are filled with the content you’ve decided to read. This keeps your eye moving from what you may want to read to what you do want to read.
Why Use Right Sidebars?
Seen as the more “traditional” choice, the right sidebar has a lot of different uses. But, like the left sidebar, the right sidebar usually displays one of two things: a social sidebar or additional company information.
Not to be confused with a social sharing sidebar, which you could find in any number of places on a page, a social sidebar will show recent updates from social platforms while also giving website visitors the chance to follow your company on those different platforms. Adding this piece to your sidebar opens up the opportunity for more people to see what you share.
This can be a big deal, especially if the majority of website visitors are bypassing a newsletter sign-up to follow your social profiles. In some cases, they will receive similar content to what is in your newsletter, which makes the missed chance at a newsletter sign-up have less of an impact.
More About Your Company
With additional space within the right sidebar, you are given more of a chance to tell website visitors more about your company in the event that they don’t enter your site through the “About” page. With a short bio or list of offered services placed in the sidebar, each website visitor has the opportunity to learn more about you without having to leave the page they are on.
If in the event that they do want to learn even more, you can place a link to the “About” or “Meet the Team” pages. This will make it easy for anyone—on any page containing this sidebar—to get to know you and your company better.
Is There a Best Choice?
While it would be nice to answer that question with a simple, yes, there is unfortunately no simple answer. But that’s a good thing. With no perfect choice of which sidebar you should use, there’s an opportunity to test different things and find out what works best for you. That’s primarily why when you search different websites, you’ll constantly encounter new designs and different uses of the sidebar. Some choices work better than others for a specific audience and industry.
With so many options and a growing number of pieces of information to place in a sidebar, the possibilities for what you can do on your website will continue to change. And when it comes to design, changes and advances are always encouraged.