Continuing the Website Essentials series, we’re next going to look at your Sidebar.

When people land on your website, they have a lot of things to look at. There’s your logo and tagline in the header. There’s your navigation links. There’s whatever is on the page right in front of them. There’s the sidebar and there’s the footer.

That’s a lot of stuff to take in all at once.

With all that information delivered in one shot, how to you keep your visitors on your site and how do you get them to do what you want?

The answer to that question is not simple, since why someone will stay or go is wrapped in a number of factors (such as your overall branding, tagline, logo, look of your site and the business you do), but assuming that the visitor in question is already looking for the type of art you do (or the type of product you sell), your Sidebar is a good way to help orient them and share what you do.

Why is my Sidebar so important?

If your website were a physical public location, your Sidebar would be the big rack with pamphlets in it showing visitors all the fun stuff to see and do there.

We’ve all done this. We’re visiting a city we’ve never been to before and while someone else is doing the paperwork to check us into our hotel room, we drift over to the pamphlets, pick them up, open them and see if there truly is anything here we actually want to go see.

We may or may not have chosen to come to this place. Maybe we were forced here on business, or maybe we did a ton of up front research because we have always dreamed of coming to this place. Regardless of the reason we’re there, little pamphlet rack can give us direction on things we didn’t even know we wanted to do until we saw it.

This is what your Sidebar does for your visitor. Maybe they arrived at your site because they were specifically searching for the type of art you do (or the product you sell), or maybe they landed here by clicking a link from another website they were reading.

Regardless of how they got there, now they need to know what to do – and if you’re the right person for them.

When Sidebars go bad

Despite their importance Sidebars are often so crammed with random things that people look away. Worse, when sidebars don’t change – or look exactly like every other website’s sidebar – they just stop seeing them altogether.

And yet, your sidebars can turn surfers into fans and looky-loos into buyers.

Sidebars frequently suffer from “I needed to fill the space on my page and this button that organization I’m a part of sent me looked like a good thing to put there, plus I thought that all of my tweets and my Flickr feed would really help people understand me better.”

This is by far the least effective way to fill your sidebar.

Instead, you want your sidebar to act as a little pamphlet stand that says “Hello! Welcome to My Wonderful City! Look at all the great things you can do here.”

In the coming weeks we will look at what can go in your Sidebar to satisfy different types of visitors, so stay tuned.