Why a Popular Posts Widget may be a Bad Idea for Your Blog’s Sidebar

by Marcus Sheridan

Popular

One of the most common “best practices” or suggestions you read about setting up a blog’s structure has to do with using a “popular posts” widget in the sidebar of your site—thus showing readers the most read/popular articles found on your blog since its beginning.

Sounds like a good idea, right?

Well, maybe, or maybe not.

Like everything else, it depends, which I’ll now explain.

Popular Posts Based on Comment Counts

Over the past year, I’ve had the following “popular posts” widget displaying in my sidebar. Like many do in the blogosphere, this display is based on the number of comments each article has received. Take a look:

Popular Posts Widget Comment

Although these articles have huge amounts of comments, how many would a potential TSL client find truly valuable and interesting?

The obvious reason to put a widget like this in your blog’s sidebar is to show what other readers seem to respond to and resonate with, but going this route can have one major drawback—they do not always reflect your business goals and the type of client/customer you want to have.

I’m not sure if that makes sense, but let me explain my situation.

With The Sales Lion, it is my goal to attract two main types of clients:

  1. Companies that need help with their inbound and content marketing efforts with the goal of building their online brand and attracting more traffic, leads, and sales.
  2. Speaking opportunities.

If you look at this list of the 10 most commented articles in the history of The Sales Lion, how many would you say are targeting these types of clients? (Seriously, look back at the list and think about it for a second, you may be very surprised.)

In my opinion, the only post that could possibly help my clients of today is the blog post scheduling article, which is designated with a red arrow.

The rest, although they may have received a HUGE response, simply don’t speak to my client-base today.

I’m not saying here that those articles don’t have value and don’t help certain individuals, but most were written during a period of The Sales Lion when I really didn’t know what the business goals of this site were—as my main goal at the time was simply to attract readers by writing good stuff.

There was nothing wrong with those goals then, but they weren’t a business model, and certainly aren’t going to pay the bills.

Swallowing My Pride

Over the past few months, every time I’ve looked at those articles in the sidebar I kept asking myself the same question:

If a 50 million-dollar company stumbles upon my blog and immediately starts reading all these ‘popular posts’—are they going to get a better sense of the value I’d bring to their organization?

My answer, as I’m sure you already know, was “NO.”

And if I’m being honest with myself, I think the only reason I may have left them up there that long was to show new visitors how many comments people had left on my blog. In other words, like many times in my life, pride was getting in the way of intelligent strategy and best results.

Page Views as a Leading Indicator

This being said, some of you may be asking if, instead of a popular posts widget that uses comments as the leading indicator, why wouldn’t we use “page views” as the key metric—something that is offered by certain widgets/plugins that  you can easily install on your blog’s sidebar.

But like before, the answer would be, “It depends.”

Here is the thing—if you feel like the most-viewed pages (articles) on your blog represent your ideal client, then by all means, show them. Put them out there for the world to see.

But if you don’t feel strongly about them because they aren’t truly targeting your end-user/ideal customer, then I wouldn’t include the list, and instead would come up with a set of articles/links that you feel your clients would be best served reading.

In the case of my swimming pool company, the “most popular posts” widget is perfect for my client base—those persons serious about buying a fiberglass pool. In fact, here is a screen shot of the top 10 blog posts on my swimming pool website, with a red arrow indicating it has significant value for our target audience.

Popular River Pools Posts

With River Pools, the 10 most popular articles are all VERY applicable to the target customer.

Frankly, the main reason why the River Pools popular posts display is so much better than what I would have here at TSL is because, at River Pools, we’ve had a clear focus for quite some time as to who we are and what we want to teach our clients about—whereas The Sales Lion (as a content marketing/speaking brand) is just starting to truly take off these last 10 months or so.

Hopefully you understand the point of this article. In fact, now that I think about it, the title really didn’t need to be just about popular posts at all, but more about the messaging we want to send to our web visitors and readers.

When it comes down to it, you have to ask the following question with every piece of information/article you display on your website:

Will showing this help me generate more trust, leads, clients, and sales?

If you allow that simple question to be your guiding light going forward, there is a good chance the positive results will follow.

Your Turn:

I’m really curious to hear your thoughts on this subject. Do you have a popular post widget displayed on your blog? Do you feel it accurately represents the customers you’re targeting? And what guides you as to the main information you display on your website?

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{ 68 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason Hull November 19, 2012 at

The Lion talks about a pride. Punnish irony.

I’ve seen several sites that have a “new to [Name the Website]? Start Here!” link or something similar. It’s a pretty simple way to guide the user in what you want him/her to do next. Naturally, internal linking helps the curious as well to discover via serendipity. I’m much more likely to click on a link inside a post/article than I am to click on a most popular post.

You could always test and learn. Track who’s clicked where and on what. Do you get more engagement and longer time on site (and more signups to your newsletter) via a more directed approach? In the end, it’s all about client acquisition and retention; just make sure you give yourself enough time to actually measure the results in a statistically significant manner rather than getting something which is “directionally correct” but has a r-squared of some ridiculously low number.

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Marcus Sheridan November 21, 2012 at

Yep, a “start here” is a very good way to do it Jason, and that is actually something I should have added a long time ago…but it appears I’m a slacker ;-)

But your points about measuring is very, very well said my man, and I’m sure I’ll be addressing this again in the future.

Have a great Thanksgiving sir!

Marcus

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Bob Reed November 19, 2012 at

It’s amazing how a “best practice” can show how it’s possibly not. Great piece, Marcus. The lesson: analyze everything.

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Marcus Sheridan November 21, 2012 at

Appreciate it Bob. I guess I’m going through a “Now why am I doing it that way????” stage of my career. ;-)

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving my friend,

Marcus

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Jon Loomer November 19, 2012 at

We have similar issues with our websites, Marcus. I started mine without clear focus, but during the past six months or so I’ve shifted almost exclusively to Facebook marketing topics. So such a widget would not be beneficial to me. For a while, I was doing two things: 1) Creating a static “Popular” widget that I could construct manually, and 2) Customizing this widget based on category.

It actually became too much to keep up with since it would get outdated and I’d need to find the time to update it. I’ve since restructured my site a bit, which has helped me with this widget. I now only have a “Most Popular” widget that pulls from the “Facebook Marketing” category. This assures that the content in there will be relevant, and I don’t need to worry about updating it.

So you’re right, Marcus. But there are widgets out there that help scale away the content you don’t want in that widget. For my site, there’s a Genesis widget. An even better solution would be tagging posts you feel do fit your target customer’s needs and using a widget that only pulls the most popular posts from that tag.

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Marcus Sheridan November 21, 2012 at

Jon, smart move with categorizing your most popular. Makes a ton of sense, especially considering you’ve done an absolutely AMAZING job branding yourself as a Facebook expert this past year bud. Seriously, I’ve been amazed at what you’ve done and how you’ve done it—unrelenting bro.

And have a wonderful Thanksgiving my friend,

Marcus

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Jon Loomer November 21, 2012 at

Thanks so much for the kind words, Marcus. This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for your blog! You’ve taught me tons over the past year+, and I really appreciate your hard work. You set the standard!

Jon

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Tom Treanor November 19, 2012 at

Marcus,

I agree with you. I used to have my home page structured partially with popular posts based on comment counts. I found that a) those posts weren’t always the most relevant posts for my audience and b) they were often the oldest posts when I actively cultivated more comments. I’ve been thinking about either creating pages that hold some of the best posts by category and/or to put a customized set of suggested reading in the sidebar. This way I can steer the readers to the best spots.

If there were a “most popular” widget that used social media shares data, I would consider that more useful than the comments one. Not sure if that exists…

Thanks for writing and I’ve had the same “swallow my pride” moments when I take a fresh look at my site!

Thanks for the good discussion you’re starting here!

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Marcus Sheridan November 21, 2012 at

Tom, well said my friend, and nice job handling this on your site as well.

Yeah, I think we’ve got to swallow our pride often in this industry–as there as simply too many changes, unknowns, and daily developments that don’t make “standing in the same place” acceptable.

Hope your Thanksgiving is a great one sir!

Marcus

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Rob Skidmore November 19, 2012 at

Marcus you are absolutely right.

I think it is awesome that you took down the popular posts and that you don’t accept guest posts. Having all that stuff gives away a lot of your control. It’s like driving to grandma’s house except the car is being steered by a stranger in the passenger seat. You might get somewhere but it probably won’t be grandma’s.

I recently saw someone suggesting removal of the recent posts widget also. Because all it is really doing is duplicating your blog’s home page on the side bar. This is the article –> http://wpmu.org/wordpress-blog-sidebar/

I don’t have either a popular or recent posts widget on my blog. Maybe I’ll do featured posts once I get a little more content.

Great post as always.

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Marcus Sheridan November 21, 2012 at

Rob, thanks my man, always appreciate your thoughts.

Yeah, regarding guest posts, lots of people have told me they didn’t think that was too cool. But honestly, I’ve never understood why it would bother anyone.

Plus, I simply don’t have the heart to tell people that something they’ve put hours into writing “isn’t good.”

We’ve got to be who we are my man. :-)

Hope your Thanksgiving is a great one bud—and please know I’m thankful for your support here.

Marcus

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Susan Oakes November 19, 2012 at

Hi Marcus,

I went through a similar analysis a few weeks ago and wrote an article about it. I found the popular posts did not relate so well to the topics I offer services for. So I scraped the popular posts and now just have 4 topics in the sidebar. Since doing this visitors are staying longer on the site.

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Marcus Sheridan November 21, 2012 at

Great move Susan and nice job analyzing the situation instead of just accepting it as it was. Keep that up!

And Happy Thanksgiving :-)

Marcus

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John Lemmon November 19, 2012 at

G’day Marcus,
Great post as always and very timely for me.

I have just been rebuilding the front page of my website & decided to add a “most popular posts” based on page views. Although I have to say when I looked at the posts people are most interested in I was a bit puzzled (y’know…”Why that one???)

I may re-think that strategy and add a “Most Valuable” or something as well/instead based on where I believe the post adds value to the reader.
There’s another dimension I looked at in my stats too which others may find useful & again I am thinking of including. I noticed there are some posts that have high entry but low exit rates, indicating people stay on the site and move from those posts to other parts of the site. I’m thinking about promoting those on the front page to see if I can capture more “deep dive” readers and reduce my bounce rates.

Anyway, thanks for the post as it has triggered a few ideas to look at, especially not to do something just because everyone else does it.
God bless,
John

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Marcus Sheridan November 21, 2012 at

John, so glad this article made you think and question my friend, that’s what it’s all about.

It’s funny how popular posts can work. Some of my most viewed articles have ZERO to do with my core message, it’s just that they somehow ranked for some odd term in Google and “presto”–now they’re popular ;-)

Thanks for stopping by my friend and hope you have a great Thanksgiving.

Marcus

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Daniel Oyston November 19, 2012 at

It is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. Promote popular posts and drive people tot them. Those people comment and hey presto, more comments makes them more popular! So you promote them again …

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Marcus Sheridan November 21, 2012 at

And again and again and again….Yep, a self-fulfilling prophesy it certain is Daniel.

Thanks for your thoughts bud, and happy Thanksgiving.

Marcus

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Owen McGab Enaohwo November 19, 2012 at

Marcus I agree with you on this one. So what do you suggest? Should one create resources posts and feature those on the sidebar instead? Posts catering to different mindsets or levels of potential customers? (<<<— ideas on this will be nice!)

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Marcus Sheridan November 21, 2012 at

Yep, great question Owen. Tom Martin, in another comment, said he uses a customized “related content” widget, which is more appropriate for shooting folks down a funnel.

Clearly, I’m looking into this one bud.:-)

Thanks again,

Marcus

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Michael Taylor November 19, 2012 at

Marcus, as I was reading this article my thoughts were: as a blogger, am I writing to get a response from my fellow bloggers or to educate my potential clients? We should definitely be focused on the needs of our clients and potential clients! :o)
Good article…..

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Marcus Sheridan November 21, 2012 at

Exactly Michael! And we really need to remind ourselves of that again and again my friend!

Have a great Thanksgiving,

Marcus

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Jens P. Berget November 20, 2012 at

This is very interesting Marcus. I’ve been using a similar plugin in my sidebar, and even though I haven’t thought about who my targeted clients are for my blog like you have, I have been looking at the top posts and thinking that it was something wrong. That was mostly because the top posts didn’t reflect my best work. And now that I have started to turn things into business and I’m focusing on a certain type of clients, I’m installing a different plugin :)

Thank you.

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Marcus Sheridan November 21, 2012 at

Isn’t it funny how we do things without much thought Jens and then all of the sudden we’re like, “Hey, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense??” :-)

Anyway, great seeing you my friend and I hope you have a great one.

Marcus

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Tom Martin November 20, 2012 at

Couldn’t agree more Marcus.

That’s why I elected to use a “Related Content” widget instead on my ConverseDigital.com site. Now instead of an algorithm or popularity contest selecting which posts or pages readers see, I hand select the content.

This way I get to control the user experience, help them find obvious “next step” content AND design each page to funnel the RIGHT prospect to a goal page like hiring me for consulting or speaking.

Like you I realized, the popular widget can be a great ego boost, but it doesn’t really help the site do what it’s supposed to do…funnel the right folks to a goal page.

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Marcus Sheridan November 21, 2012 at

LOVE the way you’ve laid that out Tom. I’m actually going to look into the Related Content widgets now that I read this comment.

And hope your thanksgiving is a great one buddy,

Marcus

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Owen McGab Enaohwo November 21, 2012 at

Thanks Tom for this suggestion. I already have a related content widget at the bottom of each of my blog post with thumbnail pictures and the title. Is that sufficient? Will placing the related content on the sidebar again not be overkill?

Thanks

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Tom Martin November 21, 2012 at

Owen

Don’t think it overkill especially on longer posts. What I like a out the related content widget I use is that I can manually select every link it displays and make it unique for each blog post.

It also allows me to include website pages as well as. Log posts. So if I write about creating better digital sales funnels I. An link not just to other blog posts about that BUT ALSO to my painless prospective g page that describes my ser ice offering and I can also link to testimonials from clients about that service.

It’s the perfect one stop widget IMO.

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Ryan Hanley November 20, 2012 at

Marcus,

The last point that you made is by far the most powerful and something that I’m dealing with on my own site currently…

Focus.

Clarity of message.

Your redesign here at TSL was a start and now you’re diving deeper into what each individual item on your blog adds to the value proposition TSL makes to each prospective customer.

Not easy. Even with what might seem like small things like a Popular Post widget.

Clarity of message bro, so much harder than one would think.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Hanley

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Marcus Sheridan November 21, 2012 at

Thanks my man. You’re right, this is a developmental process that never stops—always in search of more clarity for our message and for our readers.

Appreciate your support brother and hope you have a great Thanksgiving.

Marcus

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Jason Diller November 20, 2012 at

Ugh, I wish I could A B test different widgets in that space based on the “tipping point” of that visitor. Different widgets for different people based on their actions.

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Marcus Sheridan November 21, 2012 at

Dude, wouldn’t that be nice?? Sounds like an app is in order ;-)

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Tony Hastings November 20, 2012 at

What an interesting thought Marcus. Like many others I’ve had the standard Woo Tabs with most commented posts at the top which at least seemed more relevant than most visited.

You are quite right and it’s made me realise that I’ve just slipped into the habit of having it there and in fact it’s pointing visitors away from the content I would like them to read. I already use the Nrelate plugin at the bottom of the post so have put it in the sidebar too and restricted the categories so it will display my more relevant and recent content. It will be interesting to see how it goes.

Thanks for letting me see the ‘wood through the trees’ Marcus, sometimes it’s just so easy to follow the perceived wisdom and while it might work out for a while it’s not necessarily the right approach for all time.

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Marcus Sheridan November 21, 2012 at

That’s exactly it Tony. It’s so easy to become blinded by this stuff that we lose track as to why we show what we show and why we do what we do. :-)

Anyway, glad it helped bud and great seeing you.

Marcus

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Ana Hoffman November 20, 2012 at

I am with you, Marcus. Besides the reasons you already pointed out, the most popular posts gain even more comments because they are in the sidebar, so they tend to stick around for much longer than they should.

That gives little room for other epic posts to move us simply because they got buried in your archives too quickly.

Personally, I update my Pop Posts widget according to the category my newly published post is in.

That way, those posts constantly change and my regular readers are not tired to see same old posts in my sidebar.

Just wrote about it at TGC: http://www.trafficgenerationcafe.com/traffic-boosting-popular-post-idea/

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Marcus Sheridan November 21, 2012 at

Hmmm, that’s a great strategy Ana.:-)

Great seeing you and hope your family has a wonderful Thanksgiving,

Marcus

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Ramin November 21, 2012 at

Good food for thought. We’re in the early stage of getting our blog running, and I assumed with certainty that we’d soon have a “Popular Posts” feature on our site. But after reading your post, I think we’ll hand-pick posts to feature on our site.

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Marcus Sheridan November 21, 2012 at

I think that’s the best route to take–customized content that truly shows what you’re all about.

Thanks again Ramin,

Marcus

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Jon Birdsong November 21, 2012 at

Wow, Marcus. You must of been reading our minds. We just put a popular blog post on our blog this past week.

Two things. Don’t the other popular posts prove your credibility to the $50mm company?

Also, your clients and your consumers seem to be diverging. As you get more popular, bigger clients are looking for your services vs. the smb consumer.

Very interesting post as always.

Love it!

Best,
Jon

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Marcus Sheridan November 25, 2012 at

Jon, you’ve made an astute observation here. Yes, my client base, and main target marketing is changing–moving in an upward direction. I hope this blog remains applicable to all, but I’m clearly changing the focus of my services towards the big boys and not the mom and pops.

And btw, to answer your question, I’ve never had a client mention those other popular posts. Never.

So although they may have gotten something out of them, I certainly wouldn’t know it.

Thanks again,

Marcus

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Davina K. Brewer November 21, 2012 at

I’ve got a ‘You Might also like’ widget running, but nothing for most ‘popular’ via page views, comments, shares. I’m planning to do something to better highlight other posts for my – whenever I get off my slacker rear and get to it – Extreme Website Makeover: Blog Edition. But I think I’ll be more like Tom, others.. try to have more control over what’s there and why; maybe think more about the ‘similar’ posts too – if you get someone there, want to keep them around w/ right content. FWIW – and you have yourself a good holiday.

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Marcus Sheridan November 25, 2012 at

Hahaha Davina, “Extreme Website Makeover Blog Edition” —that gave me a good laugh. :-)

Great seeing you, as always!!

Marcus

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Wade@Make Money Blogging November 21, 2012 at

Marcus, I really feel that you make a strong point on this topic. This could or could not hurt your blog. I guess it depends on if you are writing all over the place, having different topics and all that.

For me, it has helped my traffic immensely! People see other “Popular Posts” that I have written(my widget also shows a small image) and tit prompts them to check something else out.

If you are writing relevant content to your blog, then this can definitely help you in regards to more page views in the future. But I believe that you have to learn to write with the reader in mind.

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Owen McGab Enaohwo November 28, 2012 at

@Wade I agree with you. I think the main thing is for us as Entrepreneurs (<<<— notice I did not say Bloggers) to focus on writing only content that answers the questions our potential clients/customers have in their mind. As in writing content that appeals to the different stages of the buying cycle. This way the most popular content will have no choice but to be content that helps us to meet our business goals (<<<— getting more leads into the marketing funnel to convert into paying customers/clients)

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Trent Hand November 22, 2012 at

Marcus,

This seems so obvious for sites seeking a particular client or niche, yet we seem to always miss it. I find when I try an “always do this!” approach things never work out well because I am blindly following advice without understanding the why behind it. Taking a step back and deciding “does this fit with my overall goal and vision?” helps immensely in decided what to place on my website and what to leave out. Can’t be everything to everyone, right?

Thanks for the insight on the “popular posts.” I will be using that on my site, but our target audience is very different :).

Trent Hand

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Marcus Sheridan November 25, 2012 at

I understand what you’re saying Trent, and ultimately, the only “advice” that’s good advice is the stuff that works for you.

Best of luck my friend!

Marcus

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Joe LaMarr November 23, 2012 at

I COMPLETELY agree! I’ve had one installed, and for those reasons you talk about, it’s proven to be a bad idea indeed. It’s good that this information is out there for others! :D

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Samar @ The Writing Base November 23, 2012 at

While I’ve been vaguely unhappy with the results my Popular Posts plugin brings up, I never thought about what prospective clients would think when looking at it.

Now that I have, I think it’s only fair to give the prime real estate side bar property the importance it’s due.

Take the time select your 5 most relevant posts (for prospective clients) and link to them. Then go to each post and edit them. Either rewrite them with the client in mind or add a little blurb at the end inviting them to get in touch.

Every time I’m on your blog Marcus, you give me something new to think about. Thanks! :)

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Marcus Sheridan November 25, 2012 at

Thrilled to hear that Samar, and let me know how the changes go for you!!

Smiles,

Marcus

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shan@techtonicsinfo.com November 24, 2012 at

Helpful blog post and thanks for sharing. Some things in here I haven’t thought about before, I would like to try that “page views” you’ve mentioned. It has been a great resource of knowledge for me. Thank you so much!

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Shalu Sharma November 25, 2012 at

Good post. I have thought about this one long and hard and I decided to get rid of it in the end. Although the concept is a good idea and once the reader has finished reading a blog post, they might wish to go on one of the popular post hence spending more time on your blog. But the way some of the plugins bring the popular post results are not very good, I am yet to find a good one.

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Tash Hughes (@TashWord) November 29, 2012 at

I have never used a most popular post widget – it just never felt right and I know I personally pay little attention to what is most popular – I want to use what is most relevant to me whether 1 person or a billion other people have read it.

But your post, Marcus, and the comments following it have got me thinking about my blog strategy and perhaps adjusting my related posts settings, which is excellent. Thank you :)

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Marcus Sheridan December 2, 2012 at

You’re very welcome Tash, and good luck analyzing your site, I know that in and of itself is a never-ending project!

Marcus

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Racing Pigeons December 15, 2012 at

Very informative idea you have i appreciate your research but now these days many popular blogs are using this widget!

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Kris @ Detailed Success February 14, 2013 at

Great post Marcus!

Sorry if I’m a little late to the party, but here’s an idea for you – why not pick the posts that YOU think are the best and list them under Best Posts?

This way you can hand pick the best content that you think represents you and your company the best.

Have you considered that?

Thanks

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Owen McGab Enaohwo February 14, 2013 at

@Marcus since you make use of Hubspot, I am assuming it tells you which of your articles convert prospect into leads the most. So instead of have the most popular widget just list whatever it wants. What if you replace it with the top 10 blog posts which converts the most prospects into leads.

This way you know that folks who click on any of the links in the widget will most likely convert into a lead.

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Marcus Sheridan February 15, 2013 at

Actually Owen, that’s the best way to do it, without question. And I should probably get that one set up ;-)

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Owen McGab Enaohwo February 15, 2013 at

I can’t wait to read your follow up blog post showing the results that you will get.

Cheers!

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Sidharth March 9, 2013 at

This is exactly what I was searching for. I thought it’d be a bad idea to remove Popular Posts, but now I know it’s better for me to remove Popular post widget.

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Timothy @ Best gas grill July 10, 2013 at

I’m using popular posts for my several websites. Why I still keep it? Because I had a little experiment to test my bounce rate when I removed popular post and it showed that the bounce rate getting higher. Then, I decide to still use it until right now.

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slamet riyadi September 12, 2013 at

After reading this article, I will re-evaluate the widget on my blog, whether beneficial or detrimental, as far as this widget is one of my favorites. Almost all of my blog using this widget.
Thank you for sharing ..

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Ekendra September 21, 2013 at

The trend now has been shifting to not having sidebars at all, or maybe to have a couple of them at the end of the page. However, showing popular posts or most visited or whatever param specified widget might now disturb the browsing habits of readers (unless and until they are curious – and again a personal flavor.)

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Malcolm November 25, 2013 at

Hi

Thanks for this article – I know it’s a bit of a while since the last comments, but I hope you’re still monitoring them:-)

So I have had this dilemma about popular posts for ages and it’s doing my head in! I’ve realized that including it as well as recent posts and categories increases my audience retention. But on the downside, the popular articles are the the least likely to lead to sales as they are all giveaways…

I also read that changing your navigation structure can lead to loss of search rankings. Do you know if this also applies if you experiment withe sidebar categories, or is it only with the main nav?

I also wanted to ask – and I hope you don’t mind the questions – people talk about using related posts to manually select your own most popular posts. But is there no widget which allows you to just select your best posts and have them appear permanently on the sidebar, regardless of what post or page someone is on?

Thanks!

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