essential wordpress pluginsI’m throwing together a new hobby website to tinker with right now, and as with all my other sites I’m building it with WordPress. I know basic HTML and CSS but WordPress really takes the pain out of making a new website, especially hobby review sites like the one I’m making.

Every time I install WordPress I find myself searching the web trying to remember what plugins I to install. Last time I made myself a list in Simplenote, and this time I’ve decided to write a post and share my favourite essential WordPress plugins with y’all.

You’re not supposed to use too many plugins on a WordPress site as each one has the capacity to increase your load time, introduce bugs or conflicts, which itself could compromise your site security. However, these are the plugins I can’t live without. See what you think:

Essential WordPress plugins – free

Essential means I absolutely would not launch a WordPress site without these. They’re all available for free from the WordPress plugin depository, available within your WordPress site from the plugins panel.

WordPress SEO by Yoast

WordPress plugin page
Plugin website

Yoast (aka Joost de Valk) is a world-renowned SEO guru, so you can trust his advice. This plugin consolidates a whole bunch of the most important SEO tricks into one, including meta descriptions for your Google search results, XML sitemaps, breadcrumbs and more.

You also get a little tool in the admin page for each bit of content on your site that allows you to specify what ‘keywords’ you’d like the content to rank for. The plugin then assesses how well your page is likely to rank for that keyword depending on how many times you’ve used the keyword in the content, if your links are appropriate, whether you’ve written enough text, if the keyword appears in your page URL, and so on.

Yoast’s tool doesn’t automatically guarantee high rankings for you – you’ve got to put the work in – but it gives you all the info you need to give yourself a massive head-start against those who don’t put the same work in.

Google Analytics for WordPress by Yoast

WordPress plugin page
Plugin website

Knowing as much as possible about your visitors is just basic webmaster stuff. However, the complexity of the Google Analytics interface makes it pretty tough to learn, especially for beginners. I don’t think I’ve looked at my GA page for any of my sites in over a year now, ever since I subscribed to the much friendlier alternative, Clicky (see below).

However, it’s the industry standard tracking tool and it’s free, so you’d be nuts to ignore it. Yoast’s plugin makes the fiddly work of adding the correct code to your sites as simple as installing the plugin and connecting it to your GA account.

Clicky by Yoast

WordPress plugin page
Plugin website

Clicky is an alternative to Google Analytics that I’ve been using for about a year now. You can track one site for free with limited features, or pay a subscription to track multiple sites with a bunch of extra features such as heat-maps. I particularly love being able to tag certain users so I can track their return visits and path through my sites.

This plugin by Yoast is similar to his GA plugin – you fill in your Clicky details and the plugin adds the Clicky tracking code to your site’s pages.

SEO Friendly Images

WordPress plugin page

The ‘alt’ and ‘title’ tags in the images on your site are very valuable SEO tools and you should set relevant tags for all your images. You can set these manually per image in the Media library, but if you’re uploading a ton of images every day, or don’t relish going through your existing images to manually add alt and title tags, this tool will do it for you based on simple rules you can set up.

Limit Login Attempts

WordPress plugin page

WordPress sites are prime targets for hackers because a staggering number of people leave the username as the default ‘admin’, and then use a terrible password. Hackerbots will spend all day long trying to break in using ‘admin’ and a password dictionary list. If you’re using ‘admin’ for your username, change it now!

Limit Login Attempts does exactly what it says. You tell it how many failed login attempts are allowed from an IP address before that IP is blocked for a certain number of hours, and have the plugin email you if too many repeated failed attempts occur.

It’s fun leaving email notifications on for a few days just to see how many automated hack attempts are made on your site, but after that just turn them off and let the plugin do it’s thing.

Bad Behavior

WordPress plugin page
Plugin website

This annoyingly-mis-spelt plugin (look, I’m British, it’s ‘behaviour’, okay? 😉 ) works well with Limit Login Attempts in that it uses a well-maintained list of known bot networks and blocks them from even accessing the login page. You’ll need to sign up for an account to get an API key but it’s free and well worth the peace of mind.

Akismet

WordPress plugin page
Plugin website

The industry standard for filtering out spam comments before they even get to you, and is so good it comes pre-installed with every WordPress site. You’ll need to activate it with an API key which you can get one for free by registering on Akismet’s site, and you can use the same key with all your WordPress sites. It isn’t perfect, but you don’t want to launch a site that uses comments without Akismet activated. Trust me!

Regenerate/Force Regenerate Thumbnails

WordPress plugin page (Regenerate Thumbnails)

WordPress plugin page (Force Regenerate Thumbnails)

Regenerate Thumbnails is something you usually only need if you change theme to something that uses different image sizes. Regenerate Thumbnails uses your original uploads to regenerate new ‘thumbnails’ that will fit with your new theme’s media size requirements.

However, it also leaves behind all the original thumbs, which take up space if you don’t need them. Force Regenerate Thumbnails is an alternative plugin which will generate your new images and delete all the old ones, keeping your Media library nice and trim. Only use it if you’re sure you’re sticking with the new theme!

By the way, if you install Jetpack (see below) and use the Photon module you shouldn’t need either of these plugins as Photon will use the WordPress servers to generate whatever size of thumbnail is needed, on demand. Which is nice.

Smart 404

WordPress plugin page

I hate seeing 404 pages turn up in my visitor stats as it means a user didn’t get what they wanted and probably left my site. Smart 404 looks at what the user tried to get to, searches the site’s posts, pages, tags and categories for anything similar, and sends them there instead of the 404 page. If it can’t find anything similar then it generates a tweak-able 404 template that provides a list of suggestions to the visitor.

At the time of writing the plugin hasn’t been updated in two years, but it’s working fine on all my sites. If any up-to-date alternatives spring up, let me know!

WP Smush.it

WordPress plugin page
Plugin website

Smush.it is a long-running Yahoo service that reduces the file size of an image without affecting how it looks by stripping out unnecessary data, great for improving the load time of your site.

With the plugin active, all subsequent images uploaded to your site will automatically be sent to the Smush.it service first before being sent back and added to the Media library as normal, without any effort on your part. You can also manually send your existing images to be smushed, either individually or in bulk.

This plugin fell into limbo for a while around 2012 but the team at WPMU DEV came to its rescue and it’s now fully functional and regularly maintained.

WP Super Cache or W3 Total Cache

WordPress plugin page (W3 Total Cache)
Setup guide (W3 Total Cache)

WordPress plugin page (WP Super Cache)
Setup guide (WP Super Cache)

In very basic terms, caching speeds up the load time of your site which makes it easier to use and more attractive to Google, both of which you want. There are a variety of caching plugins out there, and arguing over which one is best is a full time occupation for various internet forum users! What I can tell you is that for most sites either of these will be absolutely fine.

Most, if not all, of my sites run W3 Total Cache these days as I found the clearest instructions for using that plugin with Amazon’s CDN. However, CDNs themselves can open up a whole can of worms, so for the most part I recommend you start off by setting up the basic caching options and seeing how much of an improvement that makes, then go from there depending on the size and popularity of your site.

A useful tip: if turning on your caching plugin immediately causes your site to break, don’t panic! It’s almost always either Javascript or CSS minify rules to blame, so start by turning off your minify settings one at a time until the site starts working again.

Jetpack

WordPress plugin page
Plugin website

Jetpack is an official WordPress plugin that bundles a whole bunch of useful functions into one handy package, including: publicising, short links, sharing, image caching, basic stat tracking, slideshows, backups, mailing lists, custom CSS, Google+ integration and more.

I use more powerful, dedicated plugins for many of these things, such as mailing lists and stats, but I particularly love the ‘Edit CSS’ option for themes that don’t have their own CSS panel, and the automatic publishing to LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+ and Twitter, which takes so much of the legwork out of publicising a new post. The Photon tool also does a great job of speeding up image delivery.

Not-Quite-As-Essential WordPress plugins – free

I don’t always install these plugins, it depends what kind of site I’m making. For example, I only use the Image Metadata Cruncher on my photography sites, and some themes come with their own options for social media badges or Mailchimp signup forms. But when I need them, these are the plugins I turn to:

Mailchimp for WordPress

WordPress plugin page
Plugin website

Despite the name this isn’t the official Mailchimp plugin for WordPress, but it should be. It’s an excellent third-party plugin that makes it incredibly easy to drop signup boxes or forms into a page with a short code, and also includes the option to add a ‘sign up’ tick box to your comment and contact pages.

You can upgrade to the Pro version for more options, but I’ve been doing okay with the free version so far.

Social Media Widget

WordPress plugin page

There’s a metric ton of social media widgets out there but I just wanted one that displays nice icons in a row in my sidebar or my footer, and this does the job with optional animations to boot. Simple, lightweight, with a range of different icons to suit most tastes and the flexibility to install more. I really love that it includes Instagram, it took me ages to find one that did!

Image Metadata Cruncher

WordPress plugin page
Plugin website (don’t let the weirdly unpleasant design put you off!)

I use this plugin on my professional photography sites because it gives me full control over how EXIF and IPTC details are used by WordPress, based on the contents of those fields as edited by me in Lightroom or Photo Mechanic.

For example, by default WordPress extracts the EXIF ImageDescription and the IPTC Headline of an uploaded image and uses that to fill the Description and Title fields of the Edit Media form. Image Metadata Cruncher gives you full control over this by letting you tell WordPress which EXIF or IPTC elements to use, where.

It even lets you build up complex sentence ‘strings’ to use on your site, such as:

Photo taken with Canon 7D at ISO 800. Shutter speed was 1/125s and aperture was f/2.8.

Some awesome paid WordPress plugins

Sometimes I find the best option is a paid plugin, and I usually turn to CodeCanyon first. Here’s the two plugins I’ve bought that have been very useful across multiple sites:

Justified Image Grid

CodeCanyon plugin page
Plugin website (try out all the options in the demo!)

This. Is. Amazing. It takes all the images you’ve attached to a post, or a subset of them WordPress-gallery-style, and presents them in an elegant justified grid according to the options you set. It’s effortless and awesome and makes your image galleries look fantastic.

You can opt for one of dozens of pre-made themes (all of which look good out of the box) or delve into the incredibly powerful options to tweak almost everything, including the general size of the images, if they animate when hovered, title styling, lightbox options, and more.

I use it on my professional photography site for blog galleries and portfolio galleries, and on my photoblog for the homepage gallery.

Taqyeem (reviews)

CodeCanyon plugin page

Boasting an oddly not-very-descriptive name, this plugin is actually one of the best available for turning any theme into a review theme. You can add a review box to any post or page using admin options or a shortcode, every element of the review box is customisable using well-documented CSS options, and you can drop the overall star rating into any part of your theme with a line or two of PHP, also covered in the instructions.

That’s yer lot!

Installing the essential plugins I listed above, and setting them up right, will be sure to get your WordPress site off to the best start it can. Enjoy, and good luck!

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