Some very cool WordPress plugins

This Wednesday is the next WordPress Users Wales meet-up, and the theme is something that every WordPress user loves to talk about:

Plugins!

Plugins are shiny toys to a WordPress geek. We love to play with them, share our favourites and learn about any new cool ones that will make our old blogs perform new tricks.

Now seemed like the perfect time to list some of my personal favourites. Most of these I have used, and the rest are on my list to try very soon.

There is also some opinionated advice near the end of the post on what kinds of plugins are best avoided.

The essentials

  • WordPress SEO by Yoast

    I was formerly a user of the All in One SEO Pack, but recently switched to Yoast and was impressed how much more it offers.

    You can simply use it to write more useful page titles and meta descriptions (the snippet preview is great!), or you can get technical and identify canonical pages, dink with robots.txt, use breadcrumb navigation, clean up junky permalinks, build an XML sitemap and more.

    Joost de Valk – aka Yoast – is one of the highest profile WordPress plugin developers, and his other stuff is worth checking out too, especially Google Analytics for WordPress. Clicky is fun for analytics fans too.

  • Jetpack by WordPress.com

    Jetpack enables you to connect your blog to a WordPress.com account to use features normally only available to WordPress.com users, including stats, social networking buttons, the WP.me URL shortener, Gravatar hovercards, embed shortcodes, Twitter widget, fullscreen gallery carousel, simple contact form system, CSS editor and loads of other extras.

    You do need a WordPress.com account, but this one plugin could save you from having to install several others, and you can be fairly confident that Automattic will keep this one up to date.

    Jetpack by WordPress.com

  • Contact Form 7

    A highly customisable contact form tool, supporting CAPTCHA, Akismet, file uploading and loads of control over the design.

    Wufoo are an alternative who have built their entire business around online form building. They’re not just for WordPress, but you can use them with WP.com and on WP.org with (or without) the shortcode plugin. If you don’t mind paying, Gravity Forms looks good too.

  • BackWPup (WP.org)

    There are many backup plugins, and originally I tried WordPress Backup to Dropbox, but I settled on BackWPup because it offered many different backup options. As well as Dropbox, you can send your database and XML files to Amazon S3, an FTP server, Google storage or as an email, all handily compressed into files you can name how you like. There may be better options, but this worked well for me.

  • Better WP Security

    As they say: “Better WP Security takes the best WordPress security features and techniques and combines them in a single plugin thereby ensuring that as many security holes as possible are patched without having to worry about conflicting features or the possibility of missing anything on your site.”

  • Akismet

    If you haven’t heard of Akismet, you haven’t been using WordPress. It’s not always perfect, but when you’ve been using it for a few months have a look and see how many spam comments it has saved you from having to deal with. You’ll be amazed.

    I’ve had this blog on WP.com for just over a year now, and there’s a note in my dashboard that says:

    Akismet has protected your site from 199,977 spam comments already.

Potentially useful

These next plugins aren’t recommended for everyone, but to those who need them they could be game-changers.

  • Editorial Calendar plugin (WP.org)

    This very cool plugin gives you a simple drag and drop interface for planning and scheduling posts. Helpful for the prolific blogger and probably essential for the editor of a busy multi-contributor blog.

    Editorial Calendar

    Editorial Calendar

  • WP Super Cache

    This plugin generates static HTML files from your WP database, and uses some clever tricks to serve those and reduce the load on your server, while still making sure visitors get updated content. Essential for popular blogs, or blogs that anticipate becoming popular. If things start getting serious, take a look at W3 Total Cache.

  • NextGEN Gallery (WP.org)

    If you run an image-heavy blog, you’ll have noticed how poorly WordPress manages images and galleries. NextGEN is an image gallery plugin that will help you manage galleries, customise thumbnails, add watermarks and create albums. It is overkill for a regular user, but for artists and photographers it could be worth their time.

    In my opinion, image management is a royal pain on WordPress. If anyone knows of any plugin that brings a simple approach like Posterous has, I’d love to try it and add it to this list!

  • Advanced Custom Fields (WP.org)

    This powerful plugin is probably the simplest way to get started with custom fields and bring some CMS-fu to WordPress. It’s visual and hugely flexible. At the simplest level, you could use ACF to give your posts sub-headings and standfirsts. Alternatively, if you run a movie review blog, you could create custom fields for ratings, release dates and other data you may want to display alongside your post. It’s probably not for novice users, but WP developers will love this.

  • Types – Custom Fields and Custom Post Types Management

    “Types makes it easy to customize the WordPress admin. Define your own content using custom post types and custom taxonomy. Redesign editing screens using custom fields.”

    I don’t know if Types will conflict with ACF in any way, but that’s something I’ll be checking out. I don’t have first-hand experience of either of these or with custom fields, but the benefits are obvious and the reviews are very positive, so they make this list.

  • Restrict Content Pro ($30)

    A subscription system that lets you configure your blog so only paid subscribers can read premium content.

Putting the fun in functional

These plugins are hardly essential, but they each offer something useful (or fun).

  • WP Greet Box

    Display a different greeting message to your visitor depending on which site they are coming from. For example, you could encourage users from Twitter to tweet the post, or people visiting from Google search results to subscribe to your newsletter.

  • Yet Another Related Posts Plugin

    Yet Another Related Posts Plugin YARPP gives you a list of posts and pages related to the current entry, introducing your readers to other relevant content on your site. It’s algorithmic so the recommendations are not always useful, but the thinking behind this feature is smart (and good for SEO too). I prefer to manually write in links to posts I know to be relevant, and only when I know they add value.

  • Live Comment Preview

    Simply displays a preview of the user’s comment as they type it. Though not essential for you, your commenters will appreciate it.

  • Disqus, IntenseDebate or LiveFyre

    Speaking of improving commenting for readers, these commenting systems bring a lot. I know that many bloggers question the value of these, and don’t want to ‘give away’ their comments to a third party, but I’m a fan. I have the most experience with Disqus, which I like a lot, though WordPress bloggers may want to consider IntenseDebate which is owned by Automattic. I’ve heard people sing the praises of LiveFyre too, so no doubt all three have their merits.

    Each of these systems offer more features than you’ll find in vanilla WordPress, like image uploading and social logins. The real benefits though are for your commenters who won’t have to fill out a form or sign up just to leave one comment on your blog. They can also view all responses to their comments from a single dashboard and carry their reputation with them to different blogs.

  • Upcoming posts plugin

    Creates a widget that displays scheduled posts or drafts with excerpt and more information.

  • Better RSS Widget

    “Replacement for the built in RSS widget that adds an optional link target, shortcode, and page conditionals.”

  • WP-PageNavi

    Replaces the typical ← Older posts | Newer posts → links with something a bit more useful for large blogs.

    WP-PageNavi

    WP-PageNavi

  • Polldaddy (WP.org)

    Survey and rating software, and another product from Automattic. You can use this on WordPress.com blogs too. A good alternative is WP-Polls.

  • Instapress

    Customisable plugin for Instagram users.

No, no, no!

Sharing is not caring! It’s important not to junk up your blog with too much stuff for vistors to have to figure out. If you try present too many options (share this, get my newsletter, look at this ad, subscribe to my RSS feed, read these other posts!) you’ll end up losing their attention completely.

What follows are some of my personal least-favourite types of plugin that I see in common use:

When you’re evaluating whether to try out a new plugin, keep foremost in your mind this golden rule:

Don’t install any plugin unless you absolutely, positively need what it offers.

All of the ‘bad’ plugins listed above may actually be perfectly appropriate if they are relevant to what you are doing and tastefully implemented. However, unless you can make a strong case to justify the value of any of them, my strong advice to you is to avoid them like the plague they are.

And finally…

  • WordPress functions.php Snippets

    Often it’s better not to use a plugin when a simple theme tweak will give you the same benefits. Wpfunction.me is full of useful snippets you can simply drop into your functions.php file to customise the login screen, remove the admin bar, create custom thumbnail sizes, remove the WP version number to add a little security by obscurity, let users add custom backdrops and various other handy hacks.

I hope this list is useful to someone. Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed anything essential, or if some of my recommendations are in fact not the best in their category!

Update 2012.10.09

Here are some of the more interesting plugins I learned about at tonight’s WordPress Users Wales meeting.

  • Theme-Check

    I’m highly skeptical of plugins that promise to check your themes and other aspects of your blog, but this one is what WordPress.org themselves use to check that the themes they receive are compliant with all the latest standards and practices. I’ll certainly make use of this next time I develop a theme.

  • prettyPhoto

    A nice looking lightbox for images. There are lots of lightbox plugins, but this one looks quite decent.

  • WooCommerce

    An open-source eCommerce plugin. It seems like the core plugin is free, but you pay for the extensions to get features like branding, subscriptions, product slideshows, different payment systems etc.

  • Fast Secure Contact Form

    Based on my cursory overview, it looks like this might be a simpler alternative to Contact Form 7.

Update 2012.01.11

I’m not going to update this post with every new plugin I like the look of, but today I saw two more that seemed potentially useful. They’re actually services you could use with any blog, but both specifically provide WordPress plugins.

  • Swiftype

    This is a really smart search for your site that displays results as you type. The really clever bit is how you can take editorial control over the results by reordering and renaming them. Swiftype is free while it is in beta, and they expect to remain free for users who don’t hit their API too much. You can see it in action on The Daily Muse.

  • Google News Keywords from Tags

    If you have a site that you want featured in Google News results, they advise you to use special meta tags in your page, eg: <meta name="news_keywords" content="World Cup, Brazil 2014, Spain vs Netherlands">. This plugin gives you a nice way to manage those from the edit post page. Read more in Search Engine Journal.

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12 thoughts on “Some very cool WordPress plugins

  1. I’ve always found Joost’s plugins quite bloated. He seems to throw the kitchen sink at everything, when quite often all you require is a small spoon. Why on earth add an htaccess or robots.txt editor to an SEO plugin?

    On the subject of YARPP, I ran it side-by-side with another plugin called Similar Posts, and the latter gave far more useful recommendations. Though at the moment I’m trialing something called Related Content by Wordnik, a start-up which offered me $75 to run it for a month. The results are OK – about as good as YARRP – but there are a few design/UX issues they need to fix (eg links opening in a new tab). Still, I’ll keep an eye on it – it looks like it might be good in the longer term, and potentially it’ll promote my content on other people’s sites too.

    Nice article. There’s a fork of Jetpack out there which strips out everything other than stats. It’s a shame there aren’t more options – I’d love to have a standalone shortcode embed plugin, as that and the stats are the only part of Jetpack I really use.

    Other plugins I use (which should be generally useful rather than specific to my sites):
    WordPress Amazon Associate, which can sniff which countries users are coming from and serve up Amazon ads with appropriate currency/links. It’s nice to geo-target if you’re going to do that sort of thing, especially if you have affiliate accounts for the different Amazon sites.
    Executable PHP widget, which lets you do more than the basic text widget offered by WP. Should be part of the core.
    Inline PHP. Because I like adding php elements to pages now and then.

    • Hey thanks Joe, there are a lot of good suggestions in there! A few thoughts in reply:

      htaccess and robots.txt help you control what parts of your site search engines are permitted to index. Creating a canonical pages, for example. I know I’ve used that feature, 301 redirects and the noindex setting a few times, so I’m glad they’re included. It’s potentially very useful for SEO.

      It’s interesting that you highlighted the stats aspect of Jetpack. I use this too, but I nearly included a warning in my write up not to rely on these stats instead of Google Analytics (or similar). I don’t think WP keep an archive of this data (they didn’t last time I checked) and having a history of your blog’s growth could provide you with a lot of useful data you didn’t realise at the time you would want.

      Anyway, I’m going to look up Executable PHP widget right now…

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