As I go about making some changes in my sites, I see that an update is in order for my favorite basic plugins. We are constantly evolving, humans and software. 🙂
Caveat reminder: I’m writing primarily about plugins available for self-hosted WordPress.org installations. If you are on WordPress.com, some of these will not be available.
Lots of plugins are free, at least for a basic set of features, so don’t dismiss one because it has a premium version. Just keep in mind that some freemium products have more functions at the free level than others. It pays to compare. I search on the function I want and the term “reviews” to get a feel for what the “best” plugins are. Keep in mind that the quality of review sites varies; some just copy the promotional copy from the product’s site, and some have affiliate relationships that make their analysis biased. I try to get more than one perspective.
Spam Comment/Trackback Control
I used to use Akismet, which is provided by Automattic, the company that owns WordPress. 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 off your site. I don’t have a ton of followers and commenters yet, so I didn’t get to fully test Akismet.
I decided this month to try out a free plugin called AntiSpam Bee as an alternative to Akismet, and it has a nice, clear interface for settings. It is officially free for both personal and commercial use (no guilt trip to pay for my small businesses like Akismet). I’ll let you know if it works out for the long run.
Keep in mind that if unlike me you have lots of blog followers and commenters, you may need something more robust than AntiSpam Bee, and it may be worthwhile to pay for the service in order to get advanced management features.
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 some 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. They also offer premium enhancements for a fee.
Jetpack covers the gamut from basic security and speed features to extra widgets and comment options. Some folks have complained that Jetpack is too “heavy” (that it slows down the loading of your site content). That may be true if you just turn on everything. I use only seven of the options on my own sites, partly because I have other plugins for some of the functions. So, be selective based on your site traffic and needs; you don’t have to use everything.
In my review of plugins this year, I did consider letting go of Jetpack, but there are some features that I like to have regular access to that don’t have alternatives (like visibility options for widgets and a simple follow-by-email option that I don’t have to manage). And I didn’t notice a speed difference when using the Jetpack features I had turned on.
For an intelligent analysis of the pros and cons of Jetpack, check out Chris Lema’s article on the subject.
Jetpack does a decent job of tracking your site visits and providing some more specific information on your site traffic, but it’s definitely basic. You can pay Automattic for a real connection to Google’s powerful and detailed information if you want to, or you can go get MonsterInsights for free. MonsterInsights pulls its information from Google (you will need to connect to a Google account and put a little bit of code into the header section of your site—let me know if you need help with that) and serves up a spectrum of information on visits, views, and sources of visitors to your site.
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.
BackWPup is a freemium plugin that automagically takes care of backing up my post-and-page 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.
I also use the free version of Updraft Plus for some sites I run that do use Google Drive for storage. Updraft does save backups to Google Drive for free, but restoring a backup, although ostensibly free, takes a long time. I have a feeling that if I paid for the premium version, this would not be the case.
Caution: If you use a page layout program/theme framework that doesn’t use WordPress’s basic functionality, 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 (SEO) 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 WP Super Cache for several years with its basic settings. They work well, but I’ve had glitches with my theme display if I try to add more complex settings such as the ones in the CDN (content distribution network) section. Try out the different settings, but check your site before you walk away to make sure everything still works. For more on the CDN process, try this article from Cloudflare.
I’ve also had to tweak the settings for my Siteground optimizer. Check your caching plugin first when you see problems in site function or display; that’s where I have most often found conflicts.
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.