I recently attended a WordPress meet-up where we discussed some of our favorite WordPress plugins. The following list hopes to include some of the free WordPress plugins we discussed, along with some other inclusions that I personally find work very well.
Below is the list of 14 of my favorite free WordPress plugins, in the order in which they should be installed, activated, and set up for the optimal user experience:
A word before we get started
What do most of these plugins have in common? Almost all of them are the free version to an otherwise premium WordPress plugin. Why is this the case?
When you look at WordPress plugins, after function you are looking for stability and support. While you may get more from the premium plugin, the bottom line is that plugins with a premium element are generally better supported by a team of WordPress professionals and are more trusted.
Ultimate Coming Soon Page
You have purchased your domain. You have purchased server space from a host. You have done the simple WordPress install.
Now you have a blank site.
If you are not using a staging server to build your content first, you might not want people seeing your creation as you build it. If this is a business, you don’t want people to get the wrong impression.
Thankfully, there is a wonderful free plugin called Ultimate Coming Soon Page that allows you to block someone’s view of your site if they are not logged in.
The steps are easy:
- Install the plugin
- Go to Settings > Coming Soon
- Click the box to enable the Coming Soon page
- Save your changes
You have held off early access viewing using Ultimate Coming Soon Page. Now you need to get rid of those intangible jerks. I am speaking of course about spambots and spam commenters.
Even if you have hidden your comments with clever CSS, spam comments get into your site and take up precious space, filling your site and workflow with crappy advertisements for Viagra, Nike Shoes, and NFL Jerseys.
Thankfully, you can remove most spam comments easily and automat(t)ically with Akismet.
Simply install the plugin on your website and then either create a new WordPress.com user account. If you already have an account, you can just sign in to get your code. Put the code on the website and Akismet will work in the background.
EWWW Image Optimizer
While I still recommend optimizing images before upload to WordPress, using tools like ImageOptim or RIOT, you can totally use EWWW Image Optimizer for WordPress to crunch your images.
What is the benefit of crunching or crushing your images?
- You get a faster page load because the files are smaller. This leads to happy customers.
- You don’t take up a lot of space on your server’s storage. Large image can add up quickly.
To use EWWW Image Optimizer, on older images, you will go to Media > Bulk Optimize. Any new images will automatically be adjusted in the system for optimization.
Post Thumbnail Editor
A recent find on my part, the Post Thumbnail Editor is a wonderful plugin that allows you to manipulate how an image is displayed at different sizes.
Say you upload an image with the subject at the very right of the image. Post Thumbnail Editor allows you to adjust the thumbnail and select the target area for a small, medium, large, or even custom-sized thumbnail.
It is not ready for every install, but for most normal installs, with featured image sizes and small, medium, and large denominations, having this tool is critical to making sure your photo is well-centered at any size. The tutorial is too long to explain, but the developer has a fantastic tutorial on the download page.
Who doesn’t like a big old slider on their home page? It is an easy way to show a big image or call to action, and everybody is doing it. Our favorite slider plugin is Soliloquy.
Creating a Soliloquy Slider is done from their own panel in your WordPress dashboard, and there are a lot of customization options available. Go to Soliloquy from the left sidebar of WordPress, upload your images (the Lite version does not support the Media Library) and create an image slider, including transition animations, size, look, and feel.
Adding your slider to a page or post or even widget is easily handled by adding the shortcode supplied (once you have created your slider) in the text area where you want to place it.
The Events Calendar Free
There are some pretty cheesy events calendar plugins available that don’t offer the full feature set that you would expect from an event. Most, like Sugar Events Calendar, simply display what looks like a “Post” except ordered by the date of the event.
The Events Calendar from Modern Tribe offers a more complete solution and even offers other integrations with the pro version. This plugin gives you a great starting point and then moves from there with pro offerings if you are looking to make serious money with the plugin.
Events entry is free and events are automatically added to the /events page of your website by default.
This plugin should be on everyone’s website launch checklist. While WordPress Core was recently updated to move comments from Pages by default, it rarely makes sense to allow people to comment on an “About” page or a “Home” page.
The easiest solution is Disable Comments.
Install the free plugin, activate it, and go to the settings panel to adjust what major post types or pages don’t need comments. You can also retroactively disable comments on existing content and even disable comments entirely with one click of a button!
Disqus Comment System
On the flip-side to the last plugin, maybe you love comments or simply want to enhance the functionality of your existing commenting system.
You are not the only one who thinks the WordPress comment system is a total mess. While WordPress is soon planning to do away with comments in pages and HTML tag display on comments, it simply is not inviting to leave comments on most WordPress sites.
Disqus changes that by tapping into their platform, where users can login with existing Disqus accounts from across the web or even through social media like Facebook or Twitter. It is easier for you and the user to manage. Once you create a Disqus account, you can track and monitor all comments on multiple sites in one convenient place too.
Jetpack by WordPress
It is almost unfair to put Jetpack on this list since it offers so much. This is a constantly expanding “platform” of a plugin that is made by the creators of WordPress.
Jetpack does everything from add those fun social media share buttons to allow for the creation of portfolio pages to allow for custom CSS in widgets and more.
I could go all day about the features, but I’m a busy guy. Here is a screenshot with some of the stuff you get… oh yeah… for free!
If there is a problem not solved by the other plugins here, Jetpack probably solves it. It also begs the question, why is Jetpack not simply baked in to WordPress.org?…
Ninja Forms used to be terrible. That’s right. Garbage. The UI didn’t work and many people created forms, just to find that there was NO SUBMIT BUTTON! You have to add it yourself!
While you still have to add that submit button, I am proud to recommend Ninja Forms if you are looking for a solid solution to putting a contact form on your site.
Ninja Forms has taken it one step further. A standard plugin install of Ninja Forms will give you access to a pre-created contact form (Name, Email, Comment, Anti-Spam, Submit) with pre-made notifications to be sent upon submission of form.
This one is totally biased but also totally worth it.
Often, when people start with WordPress, they love the functionality of the basic “Text” widget. Playing with HTML and CSS styles. Adding or deleting paragraphs. What’s not to love?
In short, Note takes the visual WordPress editor and brings it to the front-end text widget. You can easily set headers, alignment, links, bold, italics, and images to your sidebar or even above or below content with the Note plugin.
WordPress SEO by Yoast
WordPress SEO by Yoast is one of those no-brainer plugins that everyone talks about it. It has millions of active installs and is simply a plugin you need.
Install it for improved searchability with Google. Rather than give a breakdown of what the plugin does, perhaps I can offer a few tips on how to use the plugin:
- To enable breadcrumbs on your site, go to SEO > Advanced and check the box to enable “Breadcrumbs”. These are the links that show up above posts to help people see where they are and navigate. They are also very good for SEO.
- When editing a page or post, you will notice a new window below the content editor to add SEO details. Start typing keywords in the “Focus Keyword” section to get recommendations on longer keywords to focus on (better for SEO).
- Under the same window as the “Focus Keyword” is a tab for social. Here, you can mess with the Facebook posting options. This will change the Open Graph data so that the post appears in a specific way on Facebook when people share.
Google Analytics for WordPress
Made the same people who brought you WordPress SEO by Yoast, Google Analytics for WordPress connects your website to your Google Analytics account by simply pasting the created analytics ID in the proper field.
Without having to add any code to the <head> of your WordPress website, the plugin will take care of it for you.
There isn’t much more to this plugin, so time to move over to the next and final recommendation for now!
W3 Total Cache
Now that you have all of these plugins installed, you have started creating content, you want to preserve page load speed.
Normally, this would be a more advanced topic that would not have a place in a beginner’s WordPress plugin tutorial, but W3 Total Cache is a simple way to “cache” content so that it does not load again.
As this is a beginner’s post, let me go over the quick positive and negative of caching content:
+ Caching landing page content and other static content prevents the page from having to reload on certain browsers.
– If you are running a publishing or periodical site with consistently updated content
You can tweak the settings to not cache certain pages or to clear the cache on certain pages or when certain conditions are met. This ensures that load speeds stay down, you don’t overload your server, and people viewing your site are happier on repeat visits.
Bonus: What the “hello” is “Hello Dolly”?
Upon installing WordPress, you might have noticed a plugin chilling in your list of plugins. While it is deactivated (thereby not taking up any precious load time), Hello Dolly is a placeholder plugin that serves no purpose other than to fill you in on where plugins go and how they will display.
Think of Hello Dolly as the test comment of plugins. It is there to show you it can exist.
You may delete the plugin from your install without worry of anything exploding.
What are you favorite WordPress plugins?
Did I forget any awesome free plugins to start in this list? I’m sure you have some ideas, so post them in the comments below (powered by the eighth plugin on the list).