How to Create Custom Sidebars on Your WordPress Site That Complements Your Content

Six years ago on our other blog my first post about custom sidebars on your WordPress blog or site. Since then, I have written several other posts, and it’s not going to stop anytime soon.

The reasons:

  1. Custom sidebars give you more creative freedom with your WordPress site.
  2. Contrary to what you may have heard, sidebars on your WordPress site are not dead.

Some people say that sidebars are useless, distracting, and no longer useful. But comments such as these are short-sighted. As with anything, if done right, this feature can be valuable— to you and your visitors.

When Custom Sidebars Work and Don’t Work

It all depends on your goals. Ever since I launched our other site, I have done pages and posts both with and without sidebars. It always about I intended to deliver on my site. I tested, switching them in and out, and it was a constant process.

But the biggest tip I can give you is this:

Make sure your sidebars complement your content.

Then Along Came the Content Aware Sidebar Plugin for WordPress

A few months ago I was testing my sidebars again and playing around with using the widget visibility feature on Jetpack. In a nutshell, it let me use logic to show widgets on certain pages and posts. It worked great, especially if you already have Jetpack installed.

But things got a bit messy. My primary sidebar was becoming unmanageable.

If you look at the screenshot here, several of these widgets are set to show:

original primary sidebar

But unless I had an incredible memory, I would need to open each one to see where it was being placed. Not very effective.

old widget setup

I needed to find a solution. But even when I did, this feature in Jetpack did not go away from our site.

With Content Aware Sidebars, I Got What I Needed

Now I have used Genesis Simple sidebars, WooSidebars and a few others, which have done me well. But this time I needed something more powerful. I not only found this with the Content Aware Sidebars plugin, but with their Pro version there were some sweet options as well.

Adding a New Custom Sidebar

Note that the Schedule and Design features only come with the Pro version. In the upper right,  you can see if the sidebar is active or not and also view widget revisions.

add new sidebar

On the side, you will choose the action of the new sidebar, what sidebar it should replace, where it should be merge ( if that is the action you choose), and the visibility, which can come in handy for membership sites, etc.  Note that when choosing the sidebar, it will show all widget areas, including any new ones you have created with this plugin.

new sidebar options

Conditions

When you set up your sidebar, in order to get it to work like you want it to, the first thing you will need to do is create the conditions. As with most plugins that use conditional logic, you can add several conditions based on your needs.

sidebar conditions

In this example, I have set up two conditions. The first being that the sidebar will show is if the post is assigned to the category WooCommerce and the tag payment gateway. If you use and, it must meet both of those criteria.

It will also show if the category is WooCommerce Plugins and Extensions and the tag is checkout. Those two are required. But if you use or between the first condition and the second one, it will show in either case.

sidebar conditions example

For each set of conditions you set up, you have more settings for display.

condition settings

As you can see, based just on conditions, you have total control over when and where the sidebar shows.

Schedule

There may be times when you want a sidebar to show for only a certain amount of time. This could be based on a sale, an event or something else that is time-sensitive. I like it that I have this option if I need it.  I didn’t install this plugin anticipating this need, but I who knows when I might be using it down the road?

With the combination of dates and day of the week filtering, you can determine when you want it to appear.

Note that the status toggle will make your sidebar active or not active, even without a specific schedule. So make sure it is activated in order for any new sidebar to start showing on your site.

schedule sidebars

Design

This takes your sidebars to a whole new level. I have yet to work with this, but see some opportunities here for some interesting options.

The one warning I might interject here. Be careful with this feature. You don’t want to suddenly go design crazy and make your sidebars a mishmash of colors on fonts. The styling of your theme is there for a reason, to give you consistency. Experiment with this carefully and use sparingly. There will be times you want a sidebar to stand out more and this may just be the opportunity. But don’t make it conflict with the look and design of your site.

design options for sidebars

Advanced

Here you will find two options. You can set the order for the sidebar and also move it to the trash.

advanced settings

Your Sidebars on the Widget Page

As you create your sidebars, they will now show up on your widget page. As you can see, they stay organized and are noted by the blue bar. When I explained at the beginning of this post how it was hard to find what went where, well, it’s much easier now. Instead of opening each one under the primary sidebar and seeing where I had placed it, now I can choose a specific sidebar to edit. And you will see that within each sidebar, I have links to revisions, conditions, scheduling, design, sidebar edits and the option to toggle it active or inactive.

new sidebars in widget area

You also can assign sidebars on specific posts and pages as you create them. It will list only the widget areas specific to a single post or page. This is good for a lot of reasons. You may have those conditions set up for a specific category. You want to use the post with that sidebar, but don’t want it to show up on that category archive page. This is your solution.

sidebars quick select on pages and posts

And you have all your sidebars listed here as well.

list of sidebars

Disabling Widgets

The last Pro version feature I want to show you is the ability to disable widgets. For me, this was a very useful option and has made life much easier.

As you know, many plugins have their own widgets. And the more plugins you install, the more widgets pop in. That is the case with our site. If you have two favorite plugins of mine, Jetpack and WooCommerce, you know what I mean. And although most are very useful, the odds are you aren’t using them all.

This plugin lets you disable widgets to clean up your widget page, which makes it easier for you to use, by  toggling them on this page.

disable widgets

You can see what I mean here. On the left is before we were able to disable them, and on the right, I now only have the ones I use often show up. And if I need one, it’s easy to toggle it back on.

comparison of display widgets

What About Jetpack Visibility Widget?

By itself, this will do good for some basic sidebar customizations. But as I hinted earlier, I have not quit using it because it can add another layer of control over your sidebars. It’s really simple and here is an example.

I have a new sidebar called Woo archives. This sidebar works great for the category of WooCommerce archives. It would also work great for the Do the Woo podcast archive page. But on the podcast archive page I would like to show an Apple Podcast Subscribe option and a Support our Podcast widget. So I add those two widgets in that sidebar, and, using Jetpack’s widget visibility option, I put in the condition to show only on the podcast category.

content aware sidebars plus jetpack widget visibility

Having assigned both WooCommerce category and Do the Woo category to this sidebar, you can now see the difference, with the podcast one being on the right.

woo archives comparison

You could do the same thing with a few widgets. This combo lets you create new sidebars and display specific conditions as needed.

Making Your Sidebars Work For You

Over time we have used and removed sidebars on our other site. No matter what I needs called for, I have always been a proponent of controlling your sidebars and encourage you to find what works best for your site and, always, test. This plugin is all about the personal approach: making it work best for your site. Don’t just think about your goals, but also keep in mind your visitors’ needs. The Content Aware Sidebars plugin will go as far as your strategy or creativity takes you.

I recommend that you check it out.

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