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WordPress is the most widely used and adaptable content management system out there, but you’re probably going to want some plugins to make it just right for your needs.
Here, I’ve collated what I think are the best plugins – both from experience, and community recommendations. Remember though, the more plugins you install, the slower your site will be, so there’s a delicate balancing act between features and performance.
Performance and Backup
WordPress is great – but can be quite slow when faced with lots of traffic. Once you hit about 500 pageviews a day, you’ll need to start thinking about caching pages so they don’t need to be regenerated every time.
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Note: Many of these plugins should only be configured by advanced users – they could potentially break your site, so take care. I’ve noted which are particularly easy to use.
The Swiss Army knife of caching and performance plugins, W3 handles everything from page caching to Content Delivery Networks and file minification. If those terms mean nothing to you, don’t install this yet – read our primer on speeding up WordPress and configuring W3 Total Cache.
Make no mistake, W3 Total Cache is a behemoth that can seem like it needs an engineering degree to set up correctly. If you don’t need to serve millions of pageviews a day, or perhaps can’t install W3 because your host disallows it (or handles caching themselves), you can still get the benefits of minification with this simple hands-off plugin. Simply install, and it will automatically figure out which JS and cSS files are being loaded, combine them into a single file, and minify. It’s simple – and it works.
For simple page caching needs, SuperCache might suffice. It makes static HTML pages, and serves those instead of dynamically generating new ones each time (which is what WordPress does by default). If you’ve tried W3 Total Cache and found it bewildering, give this a go instead.
Another quick fix for speed, CloudFlare is a free service which replaces your existing DNS, acting as both a firewall against malicious requests and caching certain content. It can be a little tricky to set up though as it requires modifying your domain settings (unless you’re hosted with Media Temple, in which case it’s one click away from your control panel). Read what I had to say about CloudFlare in detail.
The only reliable way I’ve found yet to take an entire website from one place to another. Run the plugin, get a big archive out of files and database; put the archive on the new site along with a special installer, and run. It just works.
Performs essential maintenance on the WordPress database – trimming down the size by removing post revisions, and optimizing the tables. Just useful to have around – or at least to install once a year when you’re tidying up.
The best (and free) WordPress backup solution, but it can be picky about your server setup. If you can get it to play nicely, it includes email backups, Amazon S3, and Dropbox.
Don’t forget that many dedicated WordPress hosting solutions will already include some kind of backup, or offer it as an inexpensive add-on – check with your host.
If you don’t to manually edit Analytics code into your theme’s header file, Analyticator is the easy way. Simply log in to your account to authorize the plugin, then choose from your list of sites – the plugin will handle the rest, as well as allowing you to ignore certain users, and adding an attractive widget to your Dashboard for at-a-glance stats overview.
Completely free WordPress security suite – firewall, malware scanning, strong password enforcement, plugin and theme repairs. If you’ve had problems in the past or aren’t confident of where your theme or plugins come from, it’s worth giving your site a thorough scan. In most cases though, as long as you keep WordPress and plugins up to date (WordPress updates itself automatically now anyway), you probably won’t need this.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Contrary to popular belief, SEO is not cheating – it’s just half of the secret to running a successful and popular website (having fantastic content being the other half). These plugins help to present your site to Google in the best possible way – giving you the audience you deserve! Confused about SEO? Try these 5 beginner guides to learn the art of SEO.
Industry standard and essential install for every website. Extensive feature set, including XML sitemap generation and indexing control of archives.
With Google having removed video thumbnails from general search results, the benefits of this plugin are somewhat diminished. However, it will still enable you to create special video sitemaps, ensuring your video content is listed on video specific search queries, as well as adding the correct OpenGraph and semantic markup.
Monitors your site for 404 Not Found errors and presents you with an easy way to 301 Redirect them. Shouldn’t be needed for most sites, but if you’ve recently changed the site structure, deleted lots of posts, or find you’re otherwise getting reports of 404 errors from users, it might be worth seeing what this can do for you.
Social and Commenting
These plugins help to create a real community on your site – critical if you actually want users to stick around.
Drop-in replacement for the boring standard WordPress commenting system – offering a range of login options, share buttons, spam protection, user tagging, and more useful features. Highly recommended if you find WordPress comments rather lacklustre.
Another full comment replacement system, LiveFyre has the added benefit of being able to extract conversations about your post from social networks. There’s a rich text editor, and the ability to insert videos or images. Much as I love LiveFyre though, I see more larger sites running Disqus now, so this war may be won.
Maintain a Twitter account and wish all your new posts could be automatically sent there? You’ll want this free plugin then. Connecting to a variety of networks, this requires careful use to avoid rapid loss of friends and followers – you have been warned!
The simplest, easiest, and most attractive way to add a set of floating social share buttons to your site.
Poll your readers for their opinions with a multiple choice survey, or ask them to rate posts or products – PollDaddy has it all, and is completely free.
These plugins tweak some fundamental things about how WordPress works – take care, and don’t install anything you don’t thoroughly understand.
The title says it all – this stops WordPress from generating post copies every time you update some small part. The same effect can be had by modifying the wp-config.php file by yourself. Here’s a whole article of wp-config tweaks you should try, too.
Custom fields are a powerful way of turning WordPress into anything you want. We use them extensively at MakeUseOf to record various added information about the article. By default, you only get a simple list of data keys and values. With this plugin, you can create special forms to make additional meta entry meaningful.
WordPress provides RSS feeds for your entire site out-of-the-box without any bother, but with thousands of users pinging your site for updates everyday, this can rapidly become a performance bottleneck. Feedburner is a free Google service which caches your feed, handling the traffic without bothering your site. The FD Feedburner plugin ensures anyone subscribing to your site is automatically given the Feedburner cached feed URL instead.
Lots of features from the team behind WordPress themselves, all rolled into a single handy plugin – includes stats, gravatar hovercards, grammar checker, recent tweets widget and much more. Opinions are divided on JetPack – some people love it, but it’s a big resource hog and will significantly slow down your site, so be sure to weigh up the actual value you’ll get from this.
Quick way to add a secure contact form with captcha, and even includes a meeting scheduler. There’s a wealth of settings to customize, but the defaults should be fine for most.
If you need to restrict your content to specific member levels, this plugin is your answer. You can also control user role capabilities if you want some non-standard permissions for your contributors or subscribers.
Sometimes, you don’t want the same sidebar widgets appearing on every page – Widgets Controller adds a layer of logic to your widgets, so you can easily design custom rules for what appears where.
There is no better way to insert advertising codes into every post – and it even handles mid-content insertion too – without needing to delve into code. I’d recommend reading my full guide on monetizing your blog, first – until you have at least 500 pageviews a day, advertising may do more harm than good.
Nothing complicated, but WordPress can make a mess of inserting the right video sizes. This plugin scales them appropriately, and keeps the correct aspect ratio. Install and activate.
Add visual interest to boring blog posts by adding boxes of highlighted content, spoilers and tabs. This plugin adds a number of useful visual highlights that your theme might not have included. Read all about the 40+ features added by Shortcodes Ultimate.
For sites with multiple writers, managing the workflow of submitting, editing, scheduling and publishing can be a hassle. Edit Flow allows you to create custom statuses (like “waiting for approval from James!”), get notifications when articles are approved, and even manage article budgets.
Replaces your regular old search box with one that presents results as soon as the user starts typing – and it uses a far better third party search engine than the default WordPress one. You can even manually override search results for a specific query to present them in exactly the order you want. Marvellous!
In the past, there were lots of competing eCommerce plugins and it wasn’t really clear which was best. That’s all changed now: WooCommerce has pulled out well ahead of any competitors, and offers a fantastic feature set for the low price of nothing. Additional plugins can be pricey, but out-of-the-box is such a complete and feature rich system that if your requirements are flexible you may not need anything extra.
Sadly, the built-in WordPress gallery functions are still quite lacking, as is the media management in general. Fix that with NextGen Gallery if your site is going to be photography focussed. The plugin creates a whole new section with brand new way to manage galleries and albums. Featured in our 4 must-have portfolio plugins article back in 2010, and still recommended.
Most images aren’t optimized – which means your users are wasting bandwidth downloading them, and the total page load time is slower. Smush.It is a free Yahoo! service which automatically optimizes the images without any loss of quality. Can be buggy with images over 1 megabyte, but still the best solution out there, and will hopefully be fixed now that wpmudev has taken over the development.
Not all themes are ideal for printing – install this plugin to automatically make PDF and printer friendly versions, utilizing the free PrintFriendly service. Read more about PrintFriendly.
When working with small businesses, one of the most common requests is to add a map to the page – but there are lots of other ways a custom map can be useful, too. Leaflet Maps is simple, free, and works with any maps data source you can think of – not just Google. Define custom markers with photos or choose from a wide range of included icons.
As always, your input is appreciated and helps to make this page what it is. If you have any suggestions, please post them below and we’ll check them out.