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Use a Custom Post Type for Your Sidebar Content

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

I often use the text widget to add custom content to sidebars on the sites I develop. These are useful widgets as they accept both text and HTML, so if you can write HTML, you can use them to add all kinds of content.

However, if my clients will be editing the sidebar and aren't familiar with HTML, it's very easy for them to break things, especially if I've included images or links.

An easy way around this is to replace the widget areas in your theme with a custom post type, using WP_Query to output posts of that custom post type in the sidebar.

You do this in two steps:

  1. Register a custom post type for your sidebars.
  2. Create a function to output the content of your sidebars and add that to the sidebar.php file in your theme.

We'll also create some sidebars in the WordPress admin, check how they look, and add some styling for them.

What You'll Need

To work through this tutorial, you'll need:

  • a development installation of WordPress
  • a code editor

I'm going to create a child theme of Twenty Fifteen to do this, but you can add the code to your own theme, or you might prefer to use a plugin to register the post type and create the function, and then add the function to your theme's sidebar.php file.

Creating a Child Theme

If you're working with your own theme you can skip this part, but if you're starting from scratch the easiest way to try this technique out is by using a child theme. I'm going to create a child of the Twenty Fifteen theme.

In your themes folder in wp-content, create a folder and give it a name relevant to your theme. I'm calling mine tutsplus-sidebar-custom-post-type.

In that folder, create two empty files: style.css and functions.php. Make a copy of the sidebar.php file from Twenty Fifteen in your child theme as well. You'll edit this later and WordPress will use the template file from your child theme to display the sidebar, instead of the one from Twenty Fifteen.

In your new stylesheet, add the following:

You'll need to edit the theme and author details as it's your theme, not mine, but this gives you the idea.

Now activate your new theme for your site, via the Themes screen in the WordPress admin.

Registering the Custom Post Type

The next step is to register the custom post type for sidebars. You do this in your theme's functions file (or if you're creating a plugin for this, create a new file in your plugins folder in wp-content).

Open the functions.php file in your theme and add this code:

This registers the sidebar_post custom post type. Note that I've deliberately called it sidebar_post and not sidebar. This is because a lot of themes already use the .sidebar class for their sidebar, which could lead to a conflict with the CSS classes output by the post_class() template tag when we come to create a loop later on.

Now if you refresh your admin screens you'll see the custom post type displayed:

WordPress dashboard with Sidebars included in menu

Now add some sidebars in the same way as you would add a normal post. Here are mine:

WordPress admin page with two sidebar items shown

One of my sidebars consists of nothing but a featured image. This is deliberate, as the loop I'll create shortly outputs featured images.

Creating a Function to Display Sidebars

At the moment your sidebars won't show up in your site because you haven't added them to your theme. So the next step is to write a function that uses WP_Query to output the sidebar posts.

Creating the Function

Again in your functions file, add the following:

Let's take a look through this code to identify what it does:

  1. Firstly, it creates a function called tutsplus_sidebars(), which we'll later add to the sidebar.php file.
  2. Inside that function, it defines the arguments for WP_Query, namely that the post type is sidebar_post.
  3. It checks that the query returns posts and if so, starts a loop.
  4. It opens an aside element using the_ID() and post_class() to generate an ID and classes in CSS.
  5. It adds an h3 element with the post title in it.
  6. It checks if the post has a featured image and if so, outputs it.
  7. It outputs the content of the post inside a section element.
  8. It closes the aside element, ends the loop and uses rewind_posts() to reset the query.

Now save your functions file.

Adding the Function to the Sidebar Template File

The function you've just written isn't attached to any hooks so WordPress has no way of running it. Instead, you need to call it in your sidebar.php file.

Open the sidebar.php file in your theme. If you're working with a child of the Twenty Fifteen theme, this will be the copy you made earlier.

If you want your sidebar to consist just of these sidebar posts and no widgets, delete any code to output widgets. If you want to keep widgets, leave that in.

In my case, I'm going to delete the widgets from the Twenty Fifteen sidebar file, so I'm deleting these lines:

Now add your function to output the sidebars. In Twenty Fifteen I'm adding it at the very end of the sidebar.php file, after the endif; line. In your theme you can add it wherever you want the sidebars output:

Now take a look at your site. The sidebars will be displayed:

Front end showing sidebars displayed

They still need some styling, which we'll come to shortly. But first let's tidy up the widget areas.

Unregistering the Widget Area

If you're working with a child theme and you don't want to use widgets in your sidebar at all, it will prevent confusion if you remove the widget areas in your child theme. This means they won't show up in the Widgets admin screen. If you leave a widget area registered, users may add widgets to it and be puzzled when they don't show up on the site.

If you're working with your own theme, all you need to do is delete the code that registered those widgets in the first place (or not add any widget areas to start with). But if you're using a child theme you can't edit the parent theme, so you'll need to use the unregister_sidebar() function to remove the widget area(s) in your sidebar.

In your child theme's functions.php file, add this:

This unregisters the sidebar-1 widget area, which is the ID of the widget area I removed form the sidebar.php file. Note that when attaching the function to the widgets_init action hook, I've added a priority of 15 to ensure that this function is run after the one registering the sidebar in the first place, which has the default priority of 10.

Now my Widgets admin screen shows no widget areas:

Widgets admin screen showing no widget areas

Styling the Sidebars

At the moment my sidebars don't align nicely with the other sidebar content as styled by the Twenty Fifteen stylesheet. If you're using your own theme you might not have this problem, or may have different problems that you need to fix with styling.

To fix the problem with Twenty Fifteen, you just need to add one line of CSS. Open your child theme's stylesheet and add this:

Now save your stylesheet and view your site again:

Front end with sidebars displaying correctly

That's better! Now the sidebars are displaying correctly.


Using a custom post type for your sidebar content can make life much easier if the people editing the site aren't experienced with code. Using posts in this way means they can use the normal WordPress admin screens to create sidebars and then output them on the site.

If you like you can add to this technique by adding extra arguments in WP_Query. Maybe you could create a taxonomy for your sidebar posts and output posts by taxonomy, or output different content (e.g. including or omitting the post title or featured image) depending on the taxonomy (or even better, post metadata). Or you could add an argument for posts to be sorted by menu_order and add that when registering your post type.

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