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What’s in my handbag: My Favourite WordPress Plugins

Nov 30, 2014

This post was written as my entry to Congregation 2014, an unconference that takes place in the tiny and very welcoming village of Cong in Co. Mayo.

I’ve been blogging since 2003 and using WordPress since 2008. Previously I had self hosted a Blogger-powered site but felt that it was moving away from an open platform that I could tweak to my liking. I’m not a programmer by any stretch of the imagination but I do like to be able to tinker if the need arises. My interest in WordPress has inspired me to get up close and personal with PHP and MySQL. However,  beyond a weekend workshop I have not taken this any further. This introduction is by way of sharing what level this article is pitched at: it is for the curious WordPress blogger who is not afraid of HTML and CSS.

Credit: http://shannangia.blogspot.ie/2012/01/pk-chewing-gum-commercial-stills.html

Credit: http://shannangia.blogspot.ie/2012/01/pk-chewing-gum-commercial-stills.html

When I was growing up I always loved having a good old root around my Granny and my Mum’s handbags. Granny’s sometimes revealed a few treats but it was mostly tissues, notebooks, cigarettes and portable ashtrays. I sometimes struck gold in Mum’s: a longtime ex-smoker she always had those tiny packs of PK Gum in her bag.

I obviously wasn’t the only one with this fascination: a quick Google search reveals a whole Flickr Pool entitled “What’s in your bag?”  Ten minutes of fascinated scrolling later, I have reconnected with my inner child. Not as much twing gum (as it was called in my family) as I would like.

Similarly I remain fascinated by other “reveals”. I work with a number of clients who are involved in creative industries and when working on potential topics for blog posts I constantly reiterate that readers are fascinated by process. As a creative individual you are not alone in the wide world in your excitement about the possibilities brought by a new discovery, product or method. And if you are, isn’t it fabulous to be unique?

Without further ado welcome to my reveal. Please feel free to root through my blogging handbag: these are my current favourite WordPress plugins that I install on the majority of blogs that I manage. These are the ones that I chose after reviewing the plugins on offer for particular functionalities. When choosing plugins for a particular functionality I generally check

  • Compatibility with current version of WP. A reliable plugin will update soon after a major release of WP so if it’s currently not compatible check back in a couple of days or a week. Another new-ish, useful indicator is the “X people say it works.” which appears at the bottom right of a plugin page on WordPress.Org.
  • Support: Are the plugin authors responding to users’ queries on WordPress.org? Bear in mind if there is a premium offering of the plugin, support may be part of this and so may not be handled on WordPress.org.
  • Have a quick skim through reviews: if a particular problem keeps raising its head recently, steer clear. Personally I rarely use anything with less than 4 stars: if nothing else it reveals that it didn’t inspire enough love to merit a click in a star. *Goes off to rate favourite plugins.*
  • Downloads is not necessarily a great indicator as I’ve no doubt many WordPressers are magpies like I. However, all other things being equal, go with the plugin with the larger download footprint.
  • If you have the time, there is no harm in doing a Google about the plugin you are veering towards. You may find a blog post that compares it to other similar plugins which will support your decision or point out some issues.

 Let me know in the comments below if you have any other way of choosing plugins – I’d love your input!

 And now – drumroll please – shared in no particular order, much like the contents of a handbag, my current favourite plugins:

 

  1. Akismet – Akismet will manage comment spam on your WordPress blog. No matter how small your blog is you will soon discover that it is a target for spammers. This is usually the very first plugin that I install. This plugin is part of the Automattic suite of plugins. Automattic is the company responsible for WordPress. What I take from this is that they reckon this plugin is so good and so essential that they just bought it. $5 per month for one site or “name your price” for non-commercial use.
  2. Backup Buddy – This plugin, which requires an annual subscription, automates backup of your database and content. I originally came across as a way to migrate a WP site from a test environment to a live environment. It works perfectly for this and continues to back up my suite of WP sites. Probably the second plugin I install. $100 per year for 10 sites.
  3. Google Analytics DB for WP – This analytics package works seamlessly with Google Analytics. It displays key analytics right in the dashboard so lets your clients see how they are doing on a regular basis. The site administrators can choose whether Editors, Authors and Contributors can also see the analytics. This plugin might not seem essential but if you are developing a site for a client it allows them a snapshot of how they are doing without getting lost in Google Analytics proper.
  4. WP Updates Notifier  – One of the accusations I have heard levelled at WordPress is the constant need to update. True there are updates required regularly on WordPress itself, on themes and on plugins. I think it’s a small price to pay for bug fixes and security on products and services that are either cheap or free. This plugin notifies you (or your developer) when updates are required and I find it indispensable to help me keep on top of the sites I manage.
  5. WordPress SEO by Yoast  – This is a brilliant plugin that checks your post for search optimisation based on the keywords you are focussing on. This robust addition to my collection has quickly become indispensable for my own personal blogging but it’s a great way for me to help clients optimise their content for search, get them thinking about writing online and improving how their content appears in search and social. It’s easy to use for clients working on posts but also offers more advanced options to help optimise the whole WordPress driven site for search and social. A nifty little feature is the ability to write unique headlines for content to be shared on Google+ and Facebook.
  6. Twitter Cards Meta  – If you like your custom and unique headlines for social media I would highly recommend this plugin. It ensures that your content, when shared on Twitter, is displayed using Twitter Cards. This means featured images, videos, galleries and 4 other types of specialised media will be shown in a more visual manner on the Twitter web and mobile applications. This should give your content a lovely shove. You will need to validate your site at https://cards-dev.twitter.com/validator and the good news is you can validate cards for your clients’ sites too. Phew. (If you would like to know more about Twitter Cards try and catch fellow WordPressophile James Whatley speaking about them or check out his slide deck )
  7. AddThis or ShareThis: If you want to use social to build traffic then you should make it easy for your site visitors to share by installing one of these plugins. Both of these popular social sharing tools offer a collection of plugins that will allow you to add sharing buttons to your site. These plugins variously allow you to
    • Make it easy for visitors to share your content on their own social profiles, allowing you to highlight your preferred networks. You can also choose various styles and sizes of buttons, or reveal the number of existing shares or not.
    • Offer follow buttons to enable your readers to follow you on popular social networks, again focusing on your preferred networks. These plugins are easy to install, generally requiring an account with the service you choose in order to obtain an API key. You can use one account to manage multiple domains and AddThis offers a PRO version for €99.00 per annum.
  8. Contact Form 7  – This is a fairly simple WordPress plugin that allows you to create different forms for your site. It uses shortcodes and HTML so you’ll just have to gird your loins, roll up your sleeves and get stuck in. It generates bespoke forms which you can place anywhere on your site. I like it even more because of its sister plugin, Flamingo.
  9. Flamingo  – a customer relationship management package that works beautifully with Contact Form 7. It creates an exportable address book of all those who filled in your Contact Form above and also all commenters. So even if you don’t plan to use any contact forms on your site this is a great plugin for harvesting your commenters’ email addresses.
  10. PageBuilder by Site Origin  – I came across this handy little plugin when I bought a theme from Site Origin. It works with other themes as well and allows you (or your developer) to create layouts for pages. It allows you to add columns to a page or to add widgets normally used in sidebars in the centre of the page. I’ve used it to create better looking contact pages but the possibilities are manifold.
  11. Events Manager – A couple of my clients work in the creative and wellbeing industries. They need to be able to display scheduled classes, workshops and events. They need to take bookings and payments for bookings. Events Manager does all that and MUCH more besides. It includes mapping and the creation of unique landing pages for event types and venues. Certain features are of course only available with the Pro version which costs $150 per annum for five sites, $75 for one.
  12. EWWW Image Optimiser – Now this is probably the most technical of all the plugins I’ve written about so far. If you know anything about sharing images online it should be a doddle for you but it was a bit of a learning curve for me! However it is well documented and if in doubt, Google is your friend. Basically it optimises images as you upload them to your site, maintaining quality while lowering file size. This will mean your content will load faster, use less bandwidth, and your backups will speed up. Full of win!
  13. Require Featured Image – Many themes nowadays are visually rich. Or they would be if the writers didn’t keep forgetting to include an image. This plugin will not allow a post to be published without a featured image being added. Simples.
  14. Edit Flow  – I originally tripped across this plugin when I wished to archive a whole collection of blog posts for a client who wanted a fresh start. The content of the site had been in the wild too long and was busily pulling traffic along its inbound links. We wanted the content to remain live but not front and centre on the site. Edit Flow allows the site admin to create custom statuses. This allowed us to create an archive status and we were off. However there is much more to this plugin that is especially beneficial to a team blog. It includes an editorial calendar, comments and discussion. Editorial Metadata, notifications, story budget and user groups allows editors and teams to remain efficient and effective. So if you’re thinking about creating a group blog this plugin would be indispensable.
  15. Coming Soon Page & Maintenance Mode by SeedProd – If you have a big redesign on the cards, install this plugin. It allows a little more flexibilty and styling than others I have tried in the past. I have used it for clients with media embedded in the holding page so that visitors don’t go away completely unloved. 

And that should do it! 15 plugins for you to consider. Some I consider essential, some nice to have and some specialised. Apparently the founder of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg, once met a man with 500 plugins on his site. Agus má tá bréag ansin, ní mise a chum é!

 

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