WordPress Plugin 101: Essential Plugins and Tips

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Every WordPress site uses Plugins to some capacity. Some use them for simple things like dishing up a geeky quote like the Hello Dolly Plugin that comes with every WordPress install, while others are doing complex things like turning your blog into an eCommerce platform.

In this post I’d like to offer up my selection of Plugins that every WordPress site should use, particularly because they represent the features that every website, in general, should have. I’m interested in quality over quantity here, so don’t expect a huge list. This is about finding a manageable, dare I say memorizable, list of go-to Plugins that get done what we need done.

Sound good? Let’s get started then.

The Plugins you have to use

  • Akismet logo

    Akismet

    Anyone who has run a WordPress site will let out a little groan of agreement on this one. Without Akismet humming away on your Dashboard you’ll be faced with (depending on your blog’s popularity) a number of spam comments every single day. In my experience, the number of spam comments usually matches up with, roughly, 10% of your daily visitors. So beware.

    With Akismet though, an Automattic product, many (even most) of your spam worries will float away. Akismet kills spam comments. And since it doesn’t really require anything except for an initial setup to get this one going, it would be pretty silly of you to overlook it. Instructions can be found on the Plugin repository for setting it up.

  • Feedburner logo

    Feedsmith (along with Feedburner, of course)

    While I hesitated putting this one on the list, I think it’s really that important. If you’re building a website and hope to make anything out of it, then the odds are that you will need to track statistics. One of the major stats a website can have is the RSS subscriber count. And today, at least, there’s no better way to track your count other than using Feedburner. And if you’re going to use Feedburner, you should grab the Feedsmith Plugin and put it on your blog. Now.

    Feedsmith does the hard work for you, by redirecting every request for the RSS feed generated by WordPress over to your Feedburner address. This way you don’t miss any possible subscriptions, even if the person grabs the feed from somewhere other than in your nice sidebar graphic.

  • Google logo

    Google XML Sitemaps

    This one doesn’t protect your butt from spam or show you happy subscription numbers, but it may be the silent killer that brings your site out of the dark and into the view of Google. This Plugin will dynamically create and maintain your sitemap as you generate more content, making it that much easier for Google to find your site.

    Keep in mind that, as far as SEO tactics go, offering up a sitemap to search engines (not only Google) is about the best non-blackhat way to do it. Think of it as offering up a wide open fast lane for Google to travel down, rather than making them take the crowded parkway. Maybe Google will thank you.

    Just to reiterate, this is a Plugin you “set and forget”, in that you don’t have to offer it up to your visitors in any way. Google will find it when it looks for it.

  • All in One SEO

    The popularity of this Plugin is soaring lately, and I’m one that thinks this is a good thing, primarily because the author behind the Plugin is interested in doing SEO the right way. This Plugin offers up a relatively easy way to do things right and treat your theme better in search engines.

    At the same time I suggest this, I’ll also warn that it may not be the best fit for everyone. This Plugin encroaches on the “unless you know a better way” territory, where some of you will no doubt be. I’ll cover this more later this week, but in the end if you are reading this then the odds are you are looking for where to get started. This is a Plugin to start with.

    SEO of course means Search Engine Optimization. Sorry for all the acronyms.

If this seems like a pretty trimmed up list, that’s because it is. There are, realistically, very few Plugins that you definitely need on every site you set up. I would argue that you can’t operate a site properly without the Plugins above, and would be hard pressed to get by easily for long without these.

Before you slam me for not listing your favorite above, keep in mind that this week I’ll also be posting a couple of lists, one of Plugins you want for your personal blog and another for Plugins you want for your “pro” blog. Stay tuned.

5 Tips for your Plugin use

While we’re on the topic of must have Plugins, how about some must do tips. These are pieces of advice I would offer up to anyone as they put together a WordPress site and jump into the formidable foray of available WordPress Plugins.

  1. Delete old and unused Plugins

    Maybe I’m a little bit obsessive compulsive, but I don’t like having things around that I don’t use. Heck, I’ve not had a printer for ages because I hate printing things on paper. While this causes me some pain about 3 or 4 times out of the year, for the most part I can get by just fine without it.

    In a similar way, I don’t like to have Plugins pile up that I don’t use anymore. Generally if a Plugin is not installed and being used by a site of mine on a regular basis, it’s time for it to go. Sometimes this will cause a problem for me if I need to track it down again in the future, but this is, to me, a small price to pay for a clean Plugin list.

    Why do this? Well, there happens to be one new pesky feature of WordPress nowadays which offers up as much irritation as it does helpfulness. The number of Plugins that need to be updated will always show in a little red circle next to your Plugins option on your Dashboard nav. This red number is red and very attractive to the eye, despite the Plugins which need updating only being those which you don’t have installed and aren’t using. So in my case, unless I regularly clean out useless Plugins, I end up with a big red number in the navigation that I have little motivation to take care of. So, I delete.

    I would also suggest regularly checking through your Plugins to see just which ones you really do need around. Did you forget you were even using it in the first place? Odds are you don’t need it around.

  2. Consolidate your used Plugins

    I’ll cover this more in detail later this week, but consider combining things like Javascript and CSS files into your own theme files. This will limit the number of HTTP requests needed to load your site and, ultimately, speed things up. Once you get a popular site going (and of course you will) you’ll want all the speed you can get. Actually, I would hope you want a speedy site no matter how many people are visiting.

    Like I said, more on this idea later this week.

  3. Not a Plugin, but set up Analytics

    Okay, so this one stretches a bit beyond Plugins, but I would argue that it’s worth mentioning in the same breath. Analytics is a service run by Google that you can use to track statistics on your WordPress blog. You’ll have to dig into setting up a Google account and getting your site set up for the Analytics code, but once you do it’s a snap to install it on your site.

    See this tutorial I wrote up some time ago on adding Analytics to your WordPress site. I’m due to update this tutorial before long, methinks. Also, pro tip: add your Analytics code to a sidebar widget, so you don’t forget about adding it again when you (inevitably) change your theme tomorrow. Trust me, it’s not fun to forget to re-add your Analytics code. Blank stats are no fun.

  4. Stick to the Plugin repository

    This may seem a bit overly stingy, but I try to restrict myself to the WordPress.org Plugin directory when I can. You can find the directory on WordPress Extend, and for the most part every Plugin you need to use will be located there. While the search hasn’t always been great on that site, it’s getting better. If it fails to find what you want, try using Google, since even now I think Google does a better job of indexing the directory’s Plugins than the directory does.

    Why only the official Plugin list? I don’t mean to push any irrational fears, but seeing a Plugin that has been allowed into the official directory gives me a feeling of safety/security that this Plugin is going to screw me over. And while I possess some of the skills necessary for checking whether a Plugin means me harm or not, I realize most people don’t. And if you don’t, your best bet is to stick to the official sanctioned list, since one line of security is better than none.

    In a sweet bit of irony, notice that Feedsmith (listed above) is on this essential list and yet isn’t found on the WordPress.org Plugin directory. Shame on me, but it really is that good.

    Also, refer to the below tip if you’re a safety nut.

  5. Popularity matters

    It’s not always good to go with the crowd, not by a long shot. Cheap populism is no good. But it is definitely worth it to check in on the popularity of Plugins you are considering before dropping them onto your precious sites.

    The first (and easiest) way to check in on a Plugin’s popularity is to look see the download statistics on its listing page in the Plugin directory on WordPress Extend. This is one of the reasons it’s worth it to stick to the Plugin directory on WordPress.org. Look specifically for Plugins that show a general upward trend, and not a severe spike before a falling off to nothing. You’re looking for a steady gain in popularity, as that shows that people are telling their friends about something awesome.

    If that fails (or if you are *gasp* looking beyond the directory for your Plugins) then you can check out the Plugin support area (be it in the forums or on a blog post of the author’s) to see what main complaints are as of late. Or, even simpler, try a simple Google search for the Plugin’s name. Odds are that if anyone out there is talking about it, positively or negatively, you’ll find it.

Your turn

Any thoughts on my list of must-haves? Or do you shy away from Plugins altogether? I’m also interested, actually mostly interested, in what tips you have for using Plugins to their fullest. What I’ve offered here so far is actually pretty meager, and can only be considered a Plugin 101 of tips. What else should a WordPress user absolutely know if they are going to work with many Plugins?