Placing Sidebars: Do You Lean to the Right or the Left?

Written by Hirsch Fishman

To most people, where the sidebar navigation is on a website seem like something pretty insignificant. Chances are if you’re an average website user, it’s not something you give much thought to. But in the web design world, it’s something of greater interest, and it brings up some larger ideas about how people look at and use websites that are worth mentioning.

Whether to place the sidebar on the right or the left is an ongoing debate, so there are no right answers to this (no pun intended). At the end of the day, web designers have to take into account many things when determining where to put the sidebar – including how it fits in with the overall look and feel of a website. Placing the sidebar on one side versus the other might just feel like the better choice, so it should go where it feels more comfortable visually.

So here are some reasons for putting the sidebar on either side:

Put Your Sidebar on the Left

On most websites where the main purposes of the sidebar is to help people navigate through the website, you will find sidebars on the left-hand side of the page. What are some reasons for why navigational sidebars appear on the left?

  • It lets you emphasize on the content, not the navigation – When you go to a website, your eyes tend to naturally drift towards the center of the page. Several usability studies have confirmed this by examining how people actually look at websites – check out usability guru Jakob Nielsen’s article “F-Shaped Pattern for Reading Web Content” in particular for more information on this. So if the sidebar is on the left, then what people will see in the center of the page will be the beginning of your headline, paragraphs, sub-headers, etc.
  • People look for, and even expect, navigation there – Most prominent websites, with the exception of blogs, tend to have some form of primary site navigation on the left. So if you’ve spent any time browsing the Internet, it becomes natural to start looking for, and even expecting, the navigation to be there.
  • We read left to write – This should be obvious, but it’s one of those subtle things that you don’t fully realize the impact of when you’re looking at a website. Don’t believe me? Just look at a website in Hebrew, a language read from right to left, and you’ll notice the difference right away. (Here is a good example of one of Israel’s leading newspapers.)

Put Your Sidebar on the Right

An argument can also be made for why you should put the sidebar on the right. Blogs are the best example of websites that tend to have the sidebar navigation on the right, and it’s something that is being seen more and more on newer websites. So what might be some good reasons for putting the sidebar on the right?

  • Blog sidebars go on the right. Period. – People have the same expectations as mentioned above when it comes to blogs. If you look at blogs with any regularity, you come to expect them to be there. But other websites are beginning to put their sidebars on the right as well; prominent newspapers such as the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune already format articles on their websites in a blog-like fashion with the content on the left and the sidebar is on the right.
  • It’s (arguably) more search engine friendly – Search engine spiders read through your web pages in the order that the HTML presents your content. So if you put the content on the left, that means that search engines will see your content before your navigation, and might weigh that more when determining your website’s position in search engine results. (I say arguably because there are a ton of other factors that determine your placement in search engine results, but that topic is too broad for discussion here.)
  • We read left to right – That’s right, you did read that correctly. The same trend mentioned above can apply here in reverse too. Since we scan a page from left to right, putting your content first means that people will see it first when their eyes scan through a web page. I don’t necessarily buy this reason though, primarily because there is no getting around the fact that most people’s eyes tend to move to the center of a web page at first glance. Why fight against that natural movement?

Why I Lean to the Left

When you look at this website, one of the things that you might (or might not) have noticed is the position of the sidebar. Throughout all of the pages on my website, it’s on the left-hand side of the page, with the main content area on the right side of the page.

Although most blogs put their sidebars on the right, I found that having the layout this way just felt better and was more conducive to having the sidebar on the left instead.

How does this work in action? Well, when you take a look at my blog page, at first glance did your eyes will tend to go to the center of the page? If so, then putting the sidebar where I did worked as I had intended. But where your eyes first moved to isn’t solely a function of where the sidebar is. There are other things I did to help guide your eyes there, like using some subtle visual cues to your eyes notice the center of the page first, such as:

  • Using a much darker color for the post titles
  • Putting a bright red calendar icon next to each post title
  • Making the main content area wide than the sidebar

Which Way Do You Lean?

So what’s your take on this? If you have a website, where did you put your sidebar, and did you put it where it is on purpose?

About Hirsch Fishman

Hirsch Fishman is a professional web designer who has worked with synagogues and organizations in the Jewish community since 2006. Originally from Albany, NY, he has previously lived in New York City and Chicago, and currently resides in Raleigh, NC.

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