Testing the Performance of a Custom WordPress Sidebar

Published in Online Marketing.

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A few months ago I explained that a large part of the traffic that reaches our website lands in our blog posts. For this reason we tried to drive traffic from the blog to the pages of our products through the use of banners within the content. You can read our experience in detail here, but the tl;dr is that banners within content are often ignored by readers; something known as banner blindness.

Since there is no giving up, we continued to think about trying to monetize the traffic that reaches the blog in some way. And we have come up with an interesting idea to apply. But, as always, before seeing if that idea is good or not you have to test it with an A/B test. And here I am going to explain what we have done in detail.

Adding a Custom Sidebar to Blog Posts

Our blog has no sidebars. We use a single central section with the content. The idea of using sidebars has never excited us, because although you can put promos and other widgets within them, when you scroll down the content the reader stops seeing them and you also lose the space that the sidebar occupies leaving an empty space on one side of the window and reducing the space that the content can occupy.

However, in many blogs you will find sidebars that remain fixed on one of the two sides when you scroll down and include social icons for sharing content on social media. We came up with the idea of implementing this type of solution including both social icons and a couple of calls to action to do a little promotion to our premium plugins.

The first version of this type of fixed floating sidebar is the one you can see to the left of the content in the following screenshot:

Banner on the left side of the posts that links to our premium plugins and includes icons to share the post on networks.
Our custom sidebar on the left side of the posts that links to our premium plugins and includes icons to share the post on social media.

In this bar we have included a link to the Nelio Content video (which, upon click, opens a modal overlay to watch it), along with a button that takes you to the plugin page. Below we add a title along with an image related to A/B testing and an action button that takes you to the Nelio A/B Testing main page. Finally, we have 4 icons to share the post on social networks.

The sidebar appears when you start to scroll through the content and is always below the header, which is the space reserved for the post title and the featured image. In addition, it remains fixed when you keep going down. And if there are wider images in the post it always appears above them (the z-index in CSS is your friend). The idea is that it bothers as little as possible, but it does its job.

Since we want this sidebar to appear only in blog posts, we have modified the specific template for posts on our WordPress theme. In fact, we’ve created a duplicate of this template and that’s where we’ve added the custom sidebar.

A better solution would have been to create a widget area and add the content that I have mentioned before as widgets, but since the idea is just to check if the bar works, we have opted for a quick solution by editing the PHP of the template directly. Better done than perfect!

With the new template ready, we just have to do an A/B test of templates using Nelio A/B Testing (you can download it for free from here) to test whether the sidebar works or not. You can see the definition of the test in the following screenshot:

Template test edit screen to test the side banner in blog posts
Template test edit screen to test the custom sidebar in blog posts.

As a control version we have the default template for the posts, and as an alternative version, the one we have created with the sidebar duplicating the previous one.

As for the goals that we want to track, we have three. The first counts the visits from the blog to the pages of our plugins, both by clicking on the buttons in the sidebar and visiting the page directly through links or the main menu. We want to see if the template with the sidebar helps drive more traffic to these pages.

The second goal counts the clicks that are made to the video that appears in the sidebar. It is clear that the original version, which does not have a sidebar with the video, will not have results for this goals (there will be no clicks), but we thought it’d be interesting to see if people clicked on it or if the banner blindness hit us again.

Lastly, we added a third goal to see if the share icons are clicked. The reason is the same as I just explained for the previous case.

Analyzing the Test Results

One month after the test started, these are the results we have obtained. For the first defined goal, you can see them in the following screenshot:

Results of the side banner test in terms of visits to the pages of our plugins.
Results of the sidebar test in terms of visits to the pages of our plugins.

The version of the template that includes the sidebar works almost 20% better than the version without it. Therefore, having the sidebar helps a little more visitors to see the pages of our plugins. The statistical confidence achieved by the results is greater than 90%, so we can keep the winner and, therefore, the sidebar.

Regarding the clicks on the video, we see in the results of the following screenshot that the number of clicks is very low. Although obviously the version with the sidebar wins since this is where the video appears, it is debatable if the video really has an important role there. Seeing this, a simple image could do the same job with a lower page load.

Results of the side banner test in terms of video clicks.
Results of the sidebar test in terms of video clicks.

What is quite surprising are the clicks on the icons for sharing on social media. After analyzing more than 11K visitors, only 3 of them clicked on these icons, as you can see below:

Results of the side banner test in terms of network entry sharing.
Results of the sidebar test in terms of social sharing.

Either they are not relevant enough, or visitors are no longer in the habit of sharing content on their social networks. This topic is suitable for many interpretations and for an in-depth study in the future.

Conclusions

Looking at the results, we conclude that the sidebar helps a little to drive traffic to our product pages. It is not a silver bullet, of course, but having it on the blog is not a problem and benefits us in some ways.

Now what we should try is new designs of this sidebar with different content to find a content and format that works even better. Since we are going to use the sidebar, let’s try to find its best possible version. But we will see that in future articles…

Finally, the low interaction of visitors in terms of sharing content is surprising. In my opinion, we use social media to consume more than to share anything. Hence the importance of sharing content ourselves on networks, since if you expect visitors to do it for you, you are dead.

Don’t forget to leave your opinion in the comments. Do you share the content that you find interesting on your profiles on social media? How do you do it?

Featured image by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

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