Your sidebar is one of the most important elements on your entire website. If your theme uses one, it’ll be on the majority of your site’s pages. But many people treat the sidebar as an afterthought, throw a couple default widgets there and call it a day.
But you’re better than that. And with the help of a few free plugins and a bit of planning, you can build a better sidebar (or a bunch of ’em).
I’m talking about sidebars that your that look great and are actually useful for your visitors. With widgets they want to click on.
WordPress only comes with a few built-in widgets, but there are hundreds of free widgets available via plugins in the WordPress repository. These are the most common types of sidebar widgets & plugins you’ll want.
Search & Navigation Widgets
WordPress’s built-in search function is just mediocre, but you can use third-party plugins to make it much better. One of the best options I’ve found is Relevanassi.
The free version of the plugin is fully-functional and will instantly give you better, more accurate site-search. It also has a visually appealing UI.
Note: Relevanssi isn’t recommended for low-end shared hosting environments, because it uses a lot of space in the database.
Other good Search Widgets:
- Ivory Search – A simple, yet powerful search form that just works.
- Ajax Search (lite) – live updating search that shows the most relevant result as soon as you start typing in the search form.
Posts / Related Posts
Lists of posts incredibly common elements you’ll find in most sidebars. But many webmasters don’t give much thought to the structure or visual appeal of those posts. Usually it’s just a list of the top five or so most-recent posts, with some generic styling.
But we can do better. Here are some rules for better post lists in your sidebar.
- Use a thumbnail image. It draws the eye more than plain text.
- Limit the number of posts. Don’t just throw 15 random posts in your sidebar. Pick a handful that are actually useful and relevant to your user.
- Make them relevant. Don’t just choose the five latest posts. Use a plugin that shows posts from the current category, or use contextual sidebars.
Post Widget Plugins:
- WordPress Popular Posts – Flexible widget with optional thumbnails to show recent or popular posts. Advanced caching for faster page load times.
- Recent Posts Widget with Thumbnails – Displays recent posts from categories you specify. Optional thumbnails and image sizes.
- Flex Posts – This widget includes several nicely designed layouts for post lists and grids. Also includes a handy Gutenberg block.
Social media engagement is an important part of your branding strategy, and your sidebar is a great place to highlight your social channels.
Whether you want simple social icons with links to your profile pages, or highlights from your Instagram feed, we’ve got you covered.
Social Icons Widgets
If you’ve you’re on multiple social media platforms, you may want to use a widget to display stylized links to these channels, usually using icons.
Here’s how WPBeginner does it in their sidebar:
If you want a really custom look, you could use some beautiful icons from a site like Flaticon. But it’s simpler to just use a premade widget.
Free Social Icon Widgets:
- Lightweight Social Icons – Super simple and lightweight. 1 minute setup.
- Social Icons Widget & Block – Highly customizable. Here’s the demo.
- Easy Social Icons – Upload your own or use Fontawesome
Social Feed Widgets
- Feed Them Social (Facebook, Twitter, Insta, Youtube) – All-around social integration, but includes a widget and shortcodes.
- Spotlight Social Media Feeds (instagram)- This highly-rated plugin is the perfect way to embed instagram feeds anywhere on your site (including the widget areas).
- Smash Balloon (instagram)
Table of Contents Widgets
Lots of people sites stick a table of contents at the top of the post, but I personally like using a sticky table of contents in a sidebar widget. It’s really user-friendly and makes it easy to navigate through long posts.
And it’s easy to set up. There are several free table of contents plugins that will automatically generate a TOC for your post, including the anchor links for your headings.
Table of Contents Plugins:
Full setup guide: How to create a conditional table of contents widget
Custom sidebar content
Sometimes it’s best to go custom when you want to highlight something specific in your sidebar. For example, you might want to feature a popular guide, a course, or an affiliate product.
Which means you’re going to have to design the sidebar element yourself.
Pro Tip: The easy method is to use an image (with link).
Instead of trying to hand code something with HTML and CSS, just make it an image. Design a nice call to action in Photoshop CC (or your favorite image editor) and then just add the image to your sidebar.
- Blackstudio TinyMCE Widget – This handy plugin gives you a WYSIWYG visual editor for your widgets (like the pre-Gutenberg editor). Just add an image from your media library and link it. Simple.
- Image Widget – This lightweight widget makes it super easy to add an image (with link) to your sidebar.
And if you want to build something more complex than just an image, try using a theme-builder like Elementor Pro.
You can create a fully custom design with the drag ‘n drop visual editor, save it as a template, then embed it in the sidebar widget with a simple shortcode. It’s an easy way to build beautiful, custom widgets with zero code.
Powerful widget & sidebar enhancements
Some of the best sidebar plugins don’t help your with design at all. Instead, they add powerful functionality to your sidebars. Enhancements that make your sidebar content more relevant, and more useable for your visitors.
Ways to enhance your sidebar
- Multiple sidebars: Don’t have a single sidebar layout. Create multiple sidebars, with content that his highly relevant to specific posts or categories. Recommended plugin: Content Aware Sidebars.
- Contextual widgets: Not every widget has to display on every page. Hook in certain widgets only when they’re most relevant. Recommended plugin: Widget Options
- Fixed widgets or sidebars: Make sure the most important content doesn’t scroll out of view by using a ‘sticky’ widget. Recommended Plugin: Q2W3 fixed widget.