The #1 Problem With Images In Your Sidebar (and Why You Should Avoid Them)

by Derek Halpern · 68 comments

One of the most important aspects of your blog design is your sidebar—after all, it’s on almost all of your pages!

When you’re looking to promote some of your content, you may be tempted to create a fancy image for your sidebar. I know I did…

…But I’ve recently discovered that using an image in your sidebar is a HUGE mistake.

And now I’m going to tell you why.

Let Me Set The Stage…

Here’s the deal:

On Social Triggers, I have two separate cornerstone content pieces. One is about building an email list, and the other is about generating more sales.

Instead of using simple text links in my sidebar to promote it, I created some graphics to promote them. Here they are:

Social Triggers Sidebar

Overall, it looks pretty good.

But when I looked at my conversion goals, almost none of my traffic hit those pages.

It made no sense to me, so I decided to run some heat map tests using Clicktale.

And that’s when I discovered the major problem with these images.

The Power of Tracking Mouse Movements On Your Website

There’s a few different heat maps available. There’s attention-based heat mapping, mouse movements, mouse clicks, and scroll reach.

I won’t go into detail about these four types of heat maps today, but for this test, I decided to focus on mouse movements.

After all, if you want someone to click on something, their mouse needs to hover over the section that needs to be clicked, right?

Right.

When I ran the mouse movement test, I recorded 455 people and here were my results:

Social Triggers heatmap

As you can see, the mouse pretty much went everywhere… but over those images.

As a matter of fact, the mouse went NEXT to the images, and then scrolled downwards, which means that people saw the images and decided to ignore them.

Why Did People Ignore Images In My Sidebar?

Heat maps are rarely conclusive because there’s a lot of things that affect mouse movements.

So I decided to take this one step further…

I reached out to a bunch of people and asked them about my resource pages.

And what did they say?

There was an overwhelming amount of people who said “I didn’t realize that those were resource pages. I thought they were advertisements.”

And they’d be right.

One of them was an advertisement, but the other two weren’t.

But the truth became apparent.

Images in sidebars are viewed as ads.

And if you’re using an image to promote some of your great free content, you may be losing out on potential clicks and conversions.

“But Derek, I Want To Use Images. What Can I Do?”

Luckily there’s a solution, and I plan on implementing it real soon.

When you want to use an image to promote some of your content, you must ensure that people don’t view it as an advertisement.

To do that, I encourage you to mention that you’re promoting content in your image.

However, you can also simply include a picture of yourself in the graphic, and I’m betting that will gather a ton of clicks.

(Pictures of people draw attention, and when you’re using your picture, it should gather even more attention).

Personally, I plan on working some images of myself into my sidebar images and testing the results.

Now I’ll pass it to you. What are you experience with images in the sidebar? Do you view them as ads? How do you help people understand that they’re not ads?

About the Author: Derek Halpern ran marketing at DIYthemes, and is the founder of Social Triggers. To get more tips on how to be confident, sign up to his list here.

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{ 68 comments }

Bradley Gauthier

Great point, I’ve seen similar traffic patterns with my clients, but never really thought too much into alternatives. I like the idea of a self-shot or something that will clearly differentiate it from an advertisement.

I’m interested in seeing what you’ll be testing with the sidebar going forward!

Thanks for the insight man!

Brad

Meg Geddes

You’re probably on to something there, and the reason I believe this is that prior to this year, I had put a Facebook button image in the sidebar for one of my sites, and it got a handful of clicks, nothing special. It was roughly the size of a button ad.

So this year I had some extra room and I went with the Facebook Like Box (the one with all the faces of people in it) even though I think it’s ugly as sin, and am opposed to it on principle and all that. Can’t argue with results though; got literally *thousands* of Likes on my FB page. I think they have some algorithm in place to display your own friends when you run across one of these.

People like to see faces they recognize. Even if they’re only avatars, like me.

Derek Halpern

You’re right. Those Facebook like boxes do show pictures of your friends first (assuming you’re logged into Facebook).

I haven’t tested that yet mainly because I don’t care about my Facebook page yet, but it’s something I want to test both here on DIYthemes and on Social Triggers

Himanshu Chanda

If the facebook box starts showing images of friends who are close, we as an audience start taking the blog/website seriously. That is another instance of social power it also tends to attract more likes on your page…

Gregory C.

Great point and very pertinent to this topic, as you mentioned you were getting more clicks with the ‘like’ box, and what does that have?

Faces. Faces of people that they know.

Could be a big part of conversions on images, I’d like to see Derek follow up on this piece when he makes the changes on SocialTriggers.

Blake Waddill

Interesting. I’ve also heard before that people ignore images in the sidebar.

That said, just because people aren’t clicking the image doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. I also read an interesting article about branding. While banners may not get clicks, they do have a top of the mind marketing effect.

Also, the images may be helpful for finding the right balance between text and image. A wall of text is a little scary for those of us with ADDDDDDDDDlookatthebirdyDDDDD.

I wouldn’t put images in the sidebar for click through, but I would for cosmetic reasons (to break up the text with something other than white space). What do you think?

Martyn Chamberlin

I swear this is the most helpful blog I know of. I’ve been wondering deeply about this sidebar issue. Practically nobody clicks on my images.

Interesting. I’ll be snooping you closely. 😀

Chris Harris

Hi Derek,

I received your email today with this post. I have seen a high number of impressions, but no click through action. I would not have thought images would be seen as advertising. But your heat maps are pretty convincing to me and seem to be showing me that I have the same problem as you.

I think I will experiment with text instead since I am not concerned about using images.

Thanks for the insight- a very valuable post.

Derek Halpern

You’re welcome Chris.

I think images can be done right, but just whipping together a simple image is a fail for sure.

Annie Sisk (Pajama Productivity)

Interesting thoughts, Derek. (And I applaud the use of heat maps – very cool results.) The graphic you use in the post (as opposed to the ones in the sidebar examples) is visually compelling *and* it communicates critical information. I wonder if that’s part of the problem with sidebar images – they might be visually attractive but do they actually communicate critical information to the topic of the page (which is, at least theoretically, why the reader’s there in the first place)? I have no idea if it has anything to do with it or not, but the thought did occur to me – “this image works in this place and in this context – what’s different between this and the examples that got glossed over visually and … er, mouse-ily?

Derek Halpern

You’re right. The image text could be improved, and the image itself can be improved. I plan on testing some of this for sure.

Michelle DeMarco

I really appreciated this article! It will make me rethink what I put in my sidebars for sure! I never thought that the idea something could be an advertisement would be a deterrent! I’m going to revamp my opt in to include my photo so people know it is not an advertisement!!! Thanks for this info!

Derek Halpern

you’re welcome Michelle.

Would love to see what you come up with, so make sure you share a link here.

Roscoe Hix

Thanks Derek, you just helped me realize something about my own habits.
This is a great article and your emails continue to be a favorite.
Would you offer some advice on where to go to learn how to use Clicktale, I would like to try it out on some of my clients sites.

Roscoe

Derek Halpern

It’s relatively easy. You just include the code on the site, and then log in to your account to see what’s happening.

Crystal

Great information about the sidebar image. I’m looking forward to finding out the solution. Come to think of it, I do not pay much attention to sidebars either.

Cristina Ansbjerg

Another great post, Derek.

I was aware of this problem already and I was wondering if someone would call people’s attention over it.

Now, I have a question, if people tend to ignore images on the sidebar because they think they are ads, it means people are ignoring ads. Do you think people are getting blind about sidebar ads? (It happens to me. I just don’t know if it’s a common thing)

Cristina

Lance Pederson

Derek,

As a frequent visitor of your site, the only one of those buttons I’ve ever clicked on was the “Webinar Bridge” button which of course is the one that is the advertisement. The reason I clicked it though was because the copy includes a direct benefit (Integrate GoToWebinar with Aweber…).

The other two buttons both contain very vague benefit copy. In my opinion, which doesn’t mean much, if the copy on those buttons was written more like you write your blog posts headlines you’d probably see more click throughs on them.

You would probably also have to move or eliminate the Webinar Bridge button because if they click that first the visitor will assume the other two are ads as well.

Lance

Michael

Very valid point well worth testing…

Chris

Very good article. It also tells me I’m a bit behind the curve regarding heat mapping software / programs. I’m going to go get a bit educated on what’s available, select one, and thereafter check all of my sites.

Awesome!!

Sreejesh @techgyo

I think I have the same problem, its time to remove some. Facebook like box suites best in sidebar, others like recent posts and random posts also suits the spot.

Mel the Dietitian

I’ve noticed this, Derek.

I actually just removed an image to a ‘resources’ page last week.

However, I had an image of a person in it, and it didn’t seem to make people click.

Chris Pearson

I absolutely love information like this, primarily because it reveals just how much people “follow the herd” with design rather than relying on data and testing to guide them.

After reading through this article, I couldn’t help but return to the fact that image captions are one of the most commonly-read items on web pages (after headlines and sub-headings).

Based on this data, I’m encouraged to try adding captions to sidebar images.

Imagine a scenario where a user sees an image in the sidebar followed by a caption that says, “Hey, I built this product to help you gather more email subscribers; check it out here!”

I’m betting that the engagement on this image would improve, and thanks to the specific call to action, I’m betting that clickthroughs would improve dramatically as well.

At any rate, this is a fantastic article—it’s simple things like this that make the biggest difference between engaging, successful websites and the throng of also-rans.

Cheryl

Chris, after reading your comment I THINK you answered my question. Since the side bar gives the option of a title, and since I’ve personally USED the products in my side bar ads, I’ll add my own ‘captions’ aka testimonials. That should do the trick.

Chris Johnson

LOVE the fact that you admit when you’re still finding the solution (you’re never wrong).

Starting to put my own website together “for real” instead of the placeholder it is now.

Mr. Kimberly Smith

Excellent article! Thanks! I almost never click on anything that looks like an ad. But I do click on videos and pictures. I have a feeling, according to the mouse test you shared, that the key to gaining lasting attention is authenticity.

The mouse test shows people spending most of their energy reading the post and then the log in window. That tells you people want to be part of something. You have to decide up front what type of thing it is you want to invite people into. This is what you talk about in your posts. This is where the pictures, video and sound have to live – inside your posts. Keep the side bar clean and functional. A table of contents or archive of posts and a store are all you need there because that where people clearly expect to do business.

For all of this to work properly, you also have to write well, sing well, video well, or talk well. What I mean by that is be a good story teller. Whatever medium suits your strength as a communicator stick with that and practice as if your life depends on it. It does. Bury your hooks and links in your posts. I’m guessing most of the people will enjoy the experience more.

Oh! And by the way, if you already have a product people are looking for, make it easy for them to buy. Please make it easy for them to find your product and click “add to shopping cart”. That’s what tags are for. But you knew that already.

Cheryl

Appreciate your articles!

Wow, I am two days away from my site launch and have (what I consider to be) visually attractive ads in the side bar. My ads are selected with my audience in mind and I think I know them pretty well. I want to do the right thing in terms of my content and generating sales, but now I’m a bit confused as to the best thing to do.

Jay Litchfield

Derek, I think you are absolutely correct. I think we need to tell people where to click, so that they will. That’s my 2 cents.

Mr. G

There’s something I don’t get here… You’ve been talking about how great your content buckets are for traffic, but you were hardly able to make people navigate there… How do you explain this?

Gary B

Traffic to the content buckets can come from sources other than the sidebar images – such as contextual links within posts, referral traffic from other sites, or organic traffic from Google.

Derek Halpern

Content buckets rank well in search engines. I also link them throughout every single one of my articles (thats where most of the traffic comes from).

And one more thing… Just because I’m unhappy with the click-through rates of my images, doesn’t mean it’s not getting great traffic. They all get several thousands of people every month from various sources.

Mr. G

Thank you both for your replies and great explanations.

Colin Storm

I have wondered about this a lot, and have actually not understood why the graphic approach is so widely accepted. My assumption is not only that the graphics are ads that my be external links, but that those area’s are a bloggers “sell”. Though I do tend to ignore them, I know they are there, and tend to know what they are, and if my interest or actual business is earned I will click on them. However, that is me, another blogger. I feel that the general public assumes they are ads, and we are well conditioned to ignore ads. So much so that, as you see in your heatmap, we avoid ad areas so that we don’t even click them by accident, let alone on purpose.

PeterB

Thank you very much for the useful and TIME saving information,I look forward to hearing about your next results.

Regards PeterB

Paul

Hmm, … I use lots of thumbnail images in my sidebar (probably far too many) pointing to previous content and they drive traffic to those posts. I use both an image and a caption. I sometimes follow back incoming traffic to see where it came from and it’s often been forums where a story on my site was referenced and the following comment in the forum was, “Hey, did you see the other article on that site about … ?” which they found specifically as a result of a sidebar image.

I also know they work because whenever I add images to the sidebar, those posts get a lot of new traffic. I have not run any heat map tests so maybe a lot of other visitors pass those images by, I’ll have to run one and see.

If the page you’re pointing to had a photo or drawing and you put a thumbnail of it in the sidebar, that draws attention. Maybe my experience is unique or maybe an interesting photo is more compelling than a text style graphic, but images do seem to work for me. Your mileage may vary.

Francisco Rosales

Hey Derek,

A picture of yourself on the sidebar is guaranteed to get a lot of clicks, I know it works for me. I think when you get new visitors through a post, if they like it they get curious to see who you are.

I did quick tests on other kinds of images on the sidebar including affiliate ads and I never got any clicks…

I think you’re right on the money here.

Ivan Walsh

Careful… as the wrong type of pictures will turn people away, do more testing on what headshots (and bground info) work best.

It’s not always what you think, is it?

Ivan

Geoffrey Gordon

Hi Derek

Extremely insightful this may actually answer why I am not getting any clicks on my blog either. Its viewed as an AD. Your posts are always bang on the money. Super impressed.

Dr. Alan Weinstein

I’ve seen these patterns previously and they are of great value. Has any one compared the advantage of having all navigation of the right rather than the left?

Dr. Al

Craig ,

Derick,
I use banners to affiliate products in my sidebar. It’s obvious these are adds for products but I can track the CTR through Maxbanner ads pro. When I see a banner isn’t working or has low CTR I change them up.

My blog gets very limited traffic at the moment,around 400 per month, so I will be watching your broadcast tonight.

Thanks for all the great info.
Craig

Rod Swan

Thanks for your post Derek, I do the same thing, avoid going near adds so I don’t click on them accidentally. Most sidebars are full of adds

Rod

The Nerdy Nurse

You’re a smart cookie!

I’d never thought of it, but you’re absolutely right. People do assume images in sidebars are just generic ads.
Great insight.

Tyron

Just wanted to drop by and say thanks for all the great content you are sending out. This was another fantastic post.

Almost every email I receive from DIY themes gives me a new way of thinking or improving my site.

Images in the sidebar are seen as add…. When you spell it out is appears so simple. Plus you provide a great solution. (much better than marketers who tell me what I’m doing wrong but not how to fix it!)

These regular educational posts have multiplied the value of using thesis ten fold!

Now, whenever I subscribe to a new email list I always compare the quality of the emails to DIY themes. Very few make the cut.

Thanks again.

Brittany

Really good point and I hope that you post about your results with using images!

What I am wondering is would it help if you were to create a section (possibly with a title) for ads, and a section for your offers, that way they are separated and people will visually be able to see that you have an offer vs when you have ads?

Great read!

Maria Killam

I just have a pretty image with the headline right below it, so it’s obvious that they are just my most popular articles. And they are the most well read. I think if it’s designed to look like an ad (like yours kinda are) then obviously people will relate to it like one.
great post,
Maria

Brett Jarman

Derek
Are you sure you can draw conclusions about images just from this? Amazon still uses them and they seem to be doing ok.

Could it just be that the words in the graphics don’t sing with your audience?

Perhaps the bulk of your readers might be past the ‘101’ stage of list building or increasing sales so are looking for something a bit more compelling – list building ‘secrets’, online sales ‘accelerators’ and so on? i.e. just as words in headline have a big impact on blog readership, words in a graphic have a big impact on click through rates.

Having said that, totally agree with the notion of personalizing the images – along with some compelling word play it could make a world of difference.

Derek Halpern

Hey Brett,

Amazon is a completely different case… They’re an e-commerce site, and I’m a marketing blog.

With Amazon, you NEED images. Product pictures often increase conversion rates when you’re selling products.

However, in my case, many bloggers use images to highlight content, or free resources, and what happens is, if you do that wrong, they are viewed as ads instead of content.

For more information about images, you can read this:
http://socialtriggers.com/how-images-affect-conversions/

ESM

Derek I have a slightly different take on your mouse movement test. Your visitors are for the most part webmasters and marketers. When I go to a site I pay as much attention to the layout and design as I do the content.

I will hug the shoulders by habit to keep from hovering over a popup I don’t see as I cruse down the page. I hate the hidden in plain sight pop-up’s that stop you cold for 3 to 5 seconds or worst while I am trying to read the article. If I do not hover over your images it means I am reading them and checking the design opportunities for my own sites.

I like the simple design of your trigger site and it does not have any of the pan caked tricky sections I spoke of above. Some sites when I use the mouse arrow as a reading guide are setup to catch you if you follow straight down as you read, then POP, brain stops as I wait for the screen to clear.

So this is just my take on the subject particularly from a fellow marketer’s site. Your testing is sound and does make sense, but maybe re-think the habits of your visitors. If I click on your right column images, I will do it in one fast movement. I hover on the left side as I’m deciding on the click.

As always, your articles make me and others think and re-invent. Keep it up and thank you for the effort.
ESM

Jean-Luc

I confirm, readers seem not to see images on the sidebar, because they’re used to not pay attention to ads…

I have images too and nobody clicks on it, gonna make a change ^^

Rob @ Atlanta Real Estate

Sidebar images just for images (non clickables) are ok though, right?

Craig grella

I use one image in my side bar and it is by far my highest trafficked page on the site. I preface the image with lead in text saying it is a new humor series. You can see it here http://daddybydefault.com. I also use a left side sidebar, which converts better for me than when it was on the right.

Charity Hisle

Fantastic discovery! I never thought about it like that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Lisa Felisky

Hi Derek,

I’m not completely buying that no one clicked on your sidebar images because they were images.

I think if you would have worded them differently, like “How to Increase Online Sales 101” they would have been interpreted as resources/articles.

Image text is just as important as headline text – it’s gotta make the people want to click!

Lisa

Mitchell Allen

Derek, I saw the original comment where the point was made that those blocks looked like ads.

For some reason, was shocked. No offense, but they look horrible as ads. They look like a page from Powerpoint. 🙂 Therefore, they looked just like the links you intended them to be.

Cheers,

Mitch

mark williams

They say a picture says a thousand words. So what thousand words does your reader now have running through his head? Apparently the mind can process visuals fast – reported up to 1 million images in one second (within the field of view). I think these might be 2 reasons why it’s an art form to choose the right image to go with text. Web designers do it just to ‘break it up’ so it looks more visually appealing to the client. Bloggers are more thoughtful when taking into consideration what image to use. It comes as no surprise to me that this is a difficult combo to master. Good food for thought your article Derek.

Lowell Christensen

I don’t disagree with Mark’s comment above, but the biggest misconception in regards to the phrase “a picture is worth a 1000 words” is that it implies that a picture is sometimes more important. In fact, pictures lie.

The truth is, you can paint an elaborate picture in the mind with just a few words and get a more powerful response. So the copy is always more important than the image. But I know you guys at DYI know that because I read your ebook about online conversions.

Not arguing with you, just agreeing with Lisa that if the text was stronger on the image, would they have converted better?

Pat Bloomfield

Wow, thank you for that information Derek.

I was about to implement images in my sidebar as you do on socialtriggers.com. Now I’ll have to come up with a another strategy 🙂

Elena

Great info… adding your picture can be a brilliant idea… or even a short, few second video ;)?

Dawn Abraham

You are right on here. I absolutely think that images on the right side are ad’s. Even if you say they aren’t what happens is we tune them out altogether so reading them wouldn’t work for me.

I like the put your picture instead although I’m not sure I would click on that either. 🙂

David Glendinning

I came to this post 2 weeks ago and didn’t really agree with your conclusion. I regularly use images in the sidebar so I thought I would put it to the test.

I inserted tracker links on my images and I had a banner image in the main content area and a square “advert” style of ad in the sidebar. Here’s the results I got on one of my clients sites.

Out of 18 total clicks on the 2 images, 14 of them clicked on the sidebar image. That’s 78% clicked on the sidebar image.

So my conclusion is that your generalization that sidebar images are ineffective is wrong.

Here’s my point. The sidebar image must have a clear call to action on it… such as “Click Here To Get…”. So to me, it’s the content of the graphic image that’s important for a response. The images you showed in your example had no such call to action. You need to TELL the visitor what to do when using a graphic image.

I’m all for images in the sidebar.

Peter Downs

Great stuff guys – very interesting. While I’m no expert – having read through all these comments and applying my experience as an educationalist, a personal image, that is interesting and contains a call to action would work best. Of course, the results of any test are dependent on the match between content and the visitors interests. Always tricky.

Kath

I think you were too quick to jump to this conclusion, “Images in sidebars are viewed as ads” and that they should be avoided.

I think the problem is your copy (text) – not because they are images.

In the example you provided, the heading for your image reads “Resources” which commonly means links to other sites or ads. When I look at that, I would expect to be directed to another site . The copy (text) also suggests this. Improve your copy on those images so that it’s clear to your visitors. Try different versions to see which one works best.

chris

That is a very interesting test. Perhaps the reason the facebook like with everybodys faces works so well is that it does not look like an add. Where as the blocks you used for testing, looked like adds for another product.

Bijuterii argint

I would be interested in seing a pic rather than “click here to see”. Even if its a fake picture, if i like it i will click on it. But depends on the text too, if the text is what i might be interested in, i will clik too.. Depends on the picture and on the text too.

Erik

I’m revisiting this article as I remembered it froma while ago and am thinking of adding an image to my sidebar today.

As well I always get excited when new articles from ditthemes arrive in my Inbox. Each one is well written and Im always learning something from them.

I think the caption idea is something to test and will try this first. As well to somehow personalize it with a might be a good idea too.

Maybe a good ol link is best but sometimes lost in the page – another experiment might be to use a “lightbulb” or a “bubble” to draw attention to a link.

Josh Sarz

This is so true. I do it myself. I make sure my mouse isn’t hovering on anything that could be considered an ad. Most likely because we were told in high school that ads bring you viruses, and even though that’s not completely true today I still have that tendency in me to avoid ad-like things.

On my own blog I have one image ad on my sidebar, but I don’t think it will ever get clicked if other people react the way I do when it comes to images or ads.

Need to do a little remodeling again. Thanks for the great info Derek.

karen

Hi Derek,
love your stuff.

Do you have more information on content buckets please? How these are best created, length words and anything else useful.

Your time appreciated.

Karen

Sandy Cormack

Well then, what about Youtube? It has tons of images in the sidebar. In fact, the presentation of related video thumbnails is one of the main reasons for Youtube’s stickiness. Could it be that the MANNER in which you place images in your sidebar matters? Maybe Youtube has it right?