WordPress Plugins – How Do I Pick the Right Ones?

by | Sep 10, 2018

When it comes to WordPress, you’re as plugged in as you wanna be! In fact, there are over 45,000 different plugins to choose from – usually, but not always, there’s a free version and a premium version you can buy.

Here’s the thing, plugins add to the standard functions of WordPress  – spam protection, image compression, backups, search engine optimization (SEO), even better contact forms. But every time you add one, you’re adding code to your site which can sometimes result in unexpected conflicts or complications.

(See more details in the Updates section below.)

Before we go any further, plugins are managed differently when you use WordPress with a hosting plan (self-publish) or put up a site on WordPress.com.

WordPress.org or WordPress.com

What?! I know, right? It confuses everybody in the beginning.

Dot Org

WordPress.org is where you can get a free copy of the current WordPress application. It’s free to download if you want to install it on a VPS or other web server where you have a hosting plan. (Most host providers already make it available for installation.)

WordPress.org has a support forum, directories of themes and plugins, free mobile apps and volunteer opportunities. It’s community of designers, developers, technical writers and other IT professionals.

When you have a hosting plan, you can add whatever WordPress plugins you want and delete the ones you don’t. Some host providers may have a couple of plugin’s they insist you use for security or performance purposes. If you have a Managed WordPress site, certain plugins can be blocked.

Dot Com

WordPress.com is a hosting service that sits on the WordPress application. It started as a free blogging platform but has expanded substantially in recent years to include a tier of paid plans.

The free sites modify your domain to include their platform: www.mywebsite.wordpress.com and also display ads on your site.  With a free plan, you can’t add any plugins at all and have a limited choice of themes.

Once you get to a Business Plan, $300 a year, you can choose from a group of pre-selected plugins and the ads go away. But you can’t use 3rd party themes (like Avada or Divi) and there is no cPanel to adjust or see the backend.

Honestly, it’s a great place for a blogger or student or a simple portfolio. Beyond that you’ll be paying way above market value for site you can’t control or configure to your advantage.

Picking Your Plugins

If you can name it, there’s a plugin for it. When you have that many options, it can be a little addicting. Maybe step back and think – why do I need this?

Also, just a quick tip before some slick computer nerd tries to convince you that you need a custom plugin – remember there are 45,000 plugins already available. Surely somewhere on that list you can find what you need.  (Unless you like spending money…)

A Plugin’s Purpose

We recommend you break out your plugin choices by purpose – what need do they fill:

  • Security
    • Spam protection
    • Site Defense
    • Backups
  • Load Speed
    • Image Compression
    • Caching
    • Optimize Database
  • Search Engine Performance
    • Analytics
    • Page SEO
    • Site Maps
  • Customer Engagement
    • Social Media Share
    • Email Opt-in
    • Contact forms

We like plugins with the best of them, but don’t go overboard. When something goes weird or wonky on a website, every help desk worth its salt is going to start by telling you to deactivate your plugins one at a time.

Plugins add code, scripts and CSS to your database. Sometimes they play well with one theme and wreak havoc on another. Every time WordPress updates or even theme updates,  what used to work, might not work anymore. Make sure you back up before major updates.

There’s a plugin for that…

Free or Premium

Most (but not all) plugins have a free version and a paid version. It’s just common sense to try the free version first, especially if you’re just starting out.  Most free plugins will give a good feel for what you need and sometimes, you may choose to spend a little cash.

There are different models for pricing. Some sell the product outright – for example Divi Booster is a third-party plugin developed for the wildly popular Divi theme. The plugin can be purchased for $19.00 – It’s yours, you can install it anyplace you want, as many times as you want.

Gravity Forms – a popular contact form plugin – goes a different route. They’re no cheap date in the form department with an annual subscription model that starts at 59 bucks a year for 1 site.  Their “best value” plan at $259 a year seems a bit steep for a contact form, still it does cover unlimited sites…but needs to be renewed every year.

The moral of this story is to use the Google machine and look for options before you commit. Try free first and frankly subscription models for plugins are probably not the way to go. There are always other options – even for premium tools.

How to Install

On the dashboard menu is the Plugin link. If you hover over it, you’ll see Installed, Add New and Editor. The chances of you needing to edit plugin files is in “when pigs fly” territory – probably good not to mess with the code.

When you choose Add New, you have two options. You can search for a specific plugin from the database. The search is pretty intuitive, so once you find what you want, click Install and when prompted, click Activate.

You can also add plugins (zip files) that you downloaded from WordPress.org. Just click Upload, choose the zip and click Install and then activate it.

Our Plugin List

Everyone who designs or develops in WordPress has a list of their favorite plugins. You are now officially part of that group! Here are the plugins we tend to use the most.

Category Notes
PROTECTION
Akismet If you allow comments on your site or use forms, Akismet minimizes the spam you will invariably get. You have to register with WordPress.com and can use it free on one site. Once get your account,  you receive an authorization key.  Install Akismet, activate it with your key and you’re good to go.
Anti-Spam Bee If you don’t want to register for an account, this free plugin is a great alternative to Akismet.  You can ban specific IP addresses, countries or languages, log spammers and schedule a spam purge of the WP database. It’s simple to use and effective.
WordFence WordFence is a free plugin protects your site from hackers. There’s a firewall and malware scanner, blocks brute force attacks and emails an alert if you’re site is compromised. There’s a live traffic view too, and an SEO feature to show you how Google bots see your site.
UpDraft Plus Updraft is a free backup plugin that can be easily automated to back up regularly. You can send files to DropBox or Google Drive or other storage sites. You may not need a backup plugin if you have someone maintaining your site or your hosting plan provides an option, but if you do – this the best.

 

LOAD SPEED
WP Smush Smush is an awesome image compression plugin that reduces the size of your image files that can really slow your load time. You can bulk smush a media library or smush as you go. You can strip metadata from the files if you like and set maximum file sizes.
WP Fastest Cache This plugin automatically creates, stores and displays static html files of the page on your site. Because the page doesn’t need to render dynamically, it loads faster. There are lots of caching plugins – never have more than one active on your account at one time.
WP-Optimize This plugin cleans up your WordPress database which can get pretty cluttered as time goes on. It removes trashed comments, all those versions of a rewritten page or post and can be set to run automatically – including a command for SQL to clean up it’s tables.
SEARCH ENGINE
Google Analytics Monster Insights You need a google analytics account for this to work, but this plugin makes it simple to connect your account to your site without touching any code. You see all the displays and charts as if you logged in at Google, tracking what pages are working, the percentage of conversions, where users are coming from and more.
Yoast SEO Yoast is the number one plugin for SEO – providing real-time feedback as you create your pages. It lets you set a key word, edit your meta data, create SEO titles for your pages. It will set up your robots.txt and htaccess file. There’s even a readability tracker to help improve your content. (If you’re not a fan, try All in One SEO Pack.)
Google XML Sitemaps Search engines use robots to rank your site. Sitemaps are the way to help them find you and your content. If you’re not interested in creating your own XML file, this free plugin will do it for you with a push of a button.
ENGAGEMENT
Sassy Social Share

 

This plugin is free, lightweight and no registration required. It gives visitors to your website options to share your content via Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp and 100 other platforms. Sassy lets you customize icon styles and choose where they’re placed – customized placement specific to mobile devices too.
Popup by Supsystic 

 

This plugin has a tone of features but is very simple to use. It easily integrates with all the major mailing list providers (Mailchimp, Aweber, etc.) The controls for who sees the pop-up, when and where it shows up are in regular person language, no geek speak.  If you don’t have a mailing list account – you really should get one – they’re free to start.
Contact Form 7 Contact Form 7 has been around forever.  The free plugin works well, but it is as Plain Jane as you can imagine. Expect to spice up the styling with CSS. You can add on a honey pot (trick field seen only by robots that shouldn’t be filled out) to reduce spam.

 

We’d suggest you also install Flamingo which tracks all the form communications and can be exported as a csv file for viewing in MS Excel.

*Test your forms with multiple email addresses from multiple email services to make sure they are getting through. It’s not uncommon for servers to have difficulty sending them, especially to paid email accounts from Google that use your domain name but aren’t hosted on your site.

Site Updates

WordPress as a whole is updated periodically. You’ll be given a chance to do it manually but if you don’t update yourself, sooner or later, your host provider will do it for you.

This is because updates don’t just add function, they patch vulnerabilities and address bugs and glitches. The same thing happens on a smaller scale with themes and plugins.

That said, updates don’t always go as smoothly as you might hope.

Back Up

Please set a schedule for automatic backups of your site. If for some reason an update breaks your site, (trust us, sites break – at some point yours will too) having a backup will save you tons of time and money. Imagine having to rebuild your entire site …yikes.

If you’re confident in your technical abilities – go to your cPanel and use the File Manager to run a backup or you can zip up specific folders and save them to your computer.

Maintenance

The longer your site goes without basic maintenance, the better your shot at getting hacked. Who’d want to hack me, you scoff.  It’s less about you and more about the ability to do the hack. There are bad actors out there learning their craft.

Don’t just assume that your site is up to speed. Login at least once a week – check your analytics, moderate any comments and check your plugins and themes.  If they need to be updated, your dashboard will let you know.  We suggest you delete any preinstalled themes you’re not using.

Update your theme first, then take a look at your entire site. You’d be surprised how often theme updates can create chaos from one version to the next. Then update your plugins.  After you’re done, check the site again to make sure it looks alright.

But remember, this isn’t just about how it looks – it’s about how secure your site is.

Quick Summary

Keep it simple when it comes to plug-ins.

  • Don’t need it, don’t add it
  • Always start with free versions
  • Add plugins one at a time
  • If it didn’t work like you thought, delete it
  • Keep your plugins updated

So now you’re officially plugged in (groan!) I know, sorry, just couldn’t resist.

Found plugins you like that weren’t on our list? Share please!

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