I’ve evolved, albeit slowly, with WordPress plugins. So many to choose from, free and not-so-free. In this article I will stick to just the basic ones; there are many others to do specific tasks, and I’ll cover them individually in separate posts.
Caveat: I’m talking primarily about plugins available for self-hosted WordPress.org installations. If you are on WordPress.com, some of these will not be available.
I began with the free ones when I first started with free themes, etc., but value is value, and I’ve been researching and selectively picking out premium themes and plugins, or paying for initially free ones to get more value (or assuage my conscience—real people do real work to bring us themes as well as plugin functionalities). You can install all of these plugins using the WordPress plugins section of your dashboard.
Spam Comment/Trackback Control
I use Akismet, which is provided by Automattic, the company that owns WordPress. They have it available for activation on every site you set up. If you have a personal site, it’s totally free, but you have to go through their little guilt trip to get a key to activate it. You can pick whatever level of support you want to give to Akismet or if you are just running a personal site, you can activate it for free. It actually does good work in keeping spam comments and feedback off your site. I pay $5/month for the two sites I manage that currently contribute most to my income. Seems fair. Keep in mind, though, that if you have lots of blog followers and commenters, you may need something more robust than Akismet. I’ll let you all know when I get that popular!
This is a large suite of features packaged by Automattic and automatically available on their WordPress.com sites. They also offer them for free to self-hosted WordPress.org sites. I find many of Jetpack’s features useful, but most are very basic and some have weird glitches when used with certain themes, so try them out first and see how they work for you. For example, the Mobile Responsive feature actually does not work very well with my themes (from StudioPress.com), largely because they are already mobile responsive. It always pays to look at your site on a mobile device in any case to test out the display. Some developers and users find Jetpack to be “heavy” in that it slows down their sites by being a large plugin. I’ll do a separate Jetpack review to list out my favs from this package, but I do find that enough of them contribute that I’m willing to keep using it. They also offer some features at premium level (costs money).
I like Ninja Forms. I understand that Gravity Forms is even better, but it doesn’t start with a free version, and so far, I’ve found the free version of Ninja Forms to have just about everything I need in a basic forms plugin, with the ability to edit and add fields, set up post-submission messages and payment buttons for Paypal, etc. You can also use the basic form functionality included in Jetpack for simple contact forms, but if you want to do anything else, you’ll need something more, and Ninja Forms has it.
This freemium backup plugin automagically takes care of backing up my post database and all the other structures in my website on a weekly basis. I back up to Dropbox and it works great. They also back up to lots of other storage places, although some (like Google Drive) require you to upgrade to a paid version. If you use a page layout program/theme framework that doesn’t use WordPress’s basic functionality, though, you may run into trouble trying to restore your site from a backup, so check with your theme framework provider.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Yoost and his team, the intrepid statistics geeks at Yoast SEO, have developed a system for search engine optimization that has quite a reputation as the go-to plugin for making sure Google sees your site and tracks it to your benefit. If you are not running a business that your website supports, this plugin is likely not necessary, but if you do have a business site (even a small one), then, yes, Yoast can help you improve its search-ability. They have a nice setup wizard and great tutorials to get you up to speed. You don’t have to be a slave to their somewhat mechanistic perspective on writing copy, but remember that they are teaching you to write for the search bots as well as for humans.
If you don’t have a built-in site optimizer like the one I have with my favorite web host Siteground, then try out WP Super Cache. Caching your content is important so that loading times on your site will be faster for users who are navigating around to different pages, especially if you use large images. The caching program temporarily saves up the pages you’ve already looked at and can quickly serve them up again as you go around a site. I’ve been using this particular plugin for several years. It’s settings are a bit complex, but it does work well.
Expanding Your Options
If you want more on plugins and other capabilities WordPress-wise, from simple widgets and themes to major features like course management and ecommerce tools, Chris Lema is my go-to guy for fair and clear comparisons of anything WordPress. He also writes regularly about lots of other cool geek and sometimes non-geek stuff. Check him out.