When you start a blog (or even when you’ve been blogging for awhile!), there are a sea of options for making your blog do things. WordPress plugins, like apps for your blog, are what we use.
Whether you want your blog to be found by search engines or to make your content more shareable, the best WordPress plugins have these three things in common:
Having used literally hundreds of WordPress plugins myself over the last six years, I’ve narrowed the list down to the very best – and these are the tried-and-true favorites.
These plugins help keep your blog healthy – preventing your site from getting hacked, keeping spammers at bay, and helping everything run more smoothly and efficiently.
My favorite basic security plugin, Wordfence adds an extra layer of protection by locking out people who try to hack their way into your website, even blocking IP addresses of bots trying to access your site. You can customize email alerts to be sent to you if anything suspicious is going on, and they offer a premium version that gives you access to support if you need it.
This WordPress plugin does just what it says: it’s anti-spam, stopping regular spam comments in their tracks. And it does this without using captcha, asking questions, or annoying your readers…who really just want to leave a comment. I personally have found Anti-spam to be better than Akismet, which is the standard one that comes with WordPress when you first start a blog – it simply works better.
Well this one’s a mouthful. Basically, there are two types of spam: regular comment spam and trackback spam. The Simple Trackback Validation plugin stops the second type of spam, basically by verifying that sites trying to send you trackbacks are real websites run by real people. At one point before I was running this plugin, I was getting over 3,000 pieces of trackback spam per hour, but this one did the trick.
WP-Optimize keeps your blog running smoothly by optimizing your database tables, getting rid of old post revisions, and cleaning unapproved comments and other things you’ve thrown in the trash. It helps your site run faster by not letting extra data build up and sit on your site.
I cannot stress to you enough the importance of having backups of your blog located securely off-site. Even if you’re using a premium hosting provider like WPEngine, who keeps daily backups of your entire site with tons of extra layers of protection, there is always the remotest outside possibility that a real, live person could accidentally mess something up and lose your data.
I used to recommend BackupBuddy but found it too unpredictable – sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t – and for a non-tech person, it could be difficult to set up and extremely confusing to actually use a backup to restore your site.
For my own site and others I maintain, I now use VaultPress, from the same people who make WordPress itself. For a tiny fee, I get daily off-site backups of my site – and if my site is ever hacked (or if I mess something up!) it’s literally two clicks to restore my entire site to a previous state.
— Jeni Elliott (@bizmavens) September 19, 2014
These plugins are essential for getting more traffic to your site – both from SEO and readers organically sharing your posts.
Hands down, WordPress SEO is the industry standard for SEO plugins. You can use the tools in this plugin as you’re creating your posts to guide you to make good wording choices and get the maximum leverage from keywords that will help you get found by Google. While there are plenty of features in WordPress SEO that help your blog’s rankings, many bloggers wrongly assume that just because they “have a plugin,” that’s all they need to do.
But luckily, Yoast has teamed up with the good folks at WP101 to produce tutorial videos that will teach you, step by step, how to use the plugin for maximum SEO impact. Those videos alone are worth the cost of a month’s access to WP101.
It’s true that Yoast’s plugin generates a sitemap for you – that thing Google reads to help it index your site better – but Google XML Sitemaps makes it easier. You activate the plugin, go to the settings and grab the URL the plugin uses for your sitemap, and paste it into Google Webmaster Tools. Easy as pie, and I’ve never had it go wrong.
Sure, you can open up Google Analytics every time you want to look at your stats, but if you’re just after some basic information like page views and which posts are getting the most visits, Google Analytics Dashboard puts those stats right inside your WordPress dashboard. It’s certainly not necessary, but definitely convenient.
Definitely a great social sharing plugin for your images, Frizzly places a Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter “share” button over your images when a reader hovers, encouraging more social sharing of your content. If you’re a Twitter user, you can put your Twitter handle in the settings so you’re automatically tagged when someone shares your post via the plugin, and the blogger (rejoice!) can choose where the Pin Description comes from when a user pins – whether it’s the post’s title, the image title, or the Alt text.
If you want beautiful, minimalist social sharing buttons and are using a Genesis theme, you’re in luck! Brian Gardner has released a lightweight plugin just for Genesis users called Genesis Simple Share. Just visit his site and sign up for free access. Another perk of being part of the fabulous Genesis community!
And for bonus points, you can use the CSS code Brian gives on his site to customize the colors of the buttons to match your blog’s design.
If your blog isn’t powered by Genesis, there are still some other decent options available for social sharing plugins. My favorite is the Simple Share Buttons Adder. It gives you the usual options of which social networks to show, but you can also upload your own custom buttons to match your WordPress theme! I use this plugin frequently in my web design work, and it’s a nice finishing touch…not to mention the fact that your readers can share your content more easily.
Without a solid strategy for building your list and building relationships with your readers, you’re sunk. These plugins add that extra personal touch for growing your readership.
There’s nothing like hanging around a blog waiting for the blogger to respond to your comment, is there? Did you know that most people you reply to never even know you took the time to reply?
With Comment Reply Notification, you can set up email delivery to notify your reader when you’ve responded to their comment. They’ll be surprised to hear from you – and chances are, they’ll leave comments again!
One quick note here: this plugin hasn’t been updated in over two years, but I still use it on this site, and it still works like a charm.
The very first time a new reader comments on your blog, you have a golden opportunity to introduce yourself and welcome them to your community. Comment Redirect lets you do this automatically. If you want to see this in action, take a look at the brilliance over at Outspoken Media’s Thanks for Commenting page, where they welcome you to their tribe AND promote the value of subscribing to their blog – all in one fell swoop.
There’s a reason people use pop-ups on their site to encourage subscriptions – it’s because they work.
But all pop-ups aren’t created equal.
OptinMonster is a finely-tuned marketing machine that gives you total control over your opt-in process. Instead of flashing a pop-up in front of your reader the moment she gets to your site, OptinMonster lets you delay your pop-up until she’s settled into reading your amazing posts (and clearly will want more!). (pro tip: 20 seconds is just about right!)
They also have extensive design options, and the higher-tiered license allows advanced functionality like exit intent, which means it waits to show your reader the pop-up until it senses they’re about to leave your site. If you want more email subscribers and are just not finding success without a pop-up, this plugin is for you.
If you want to encourage more comments on your blog, one way is to reward your readers for leaving comments. The free version of CommentLuv does just that: it lists your commenter’s last post alongside her comments, rewarding her with a link back to her blog. The premium version of this plugin (which I use here) has lots of extra options, including analytics so you can see where your own comment traffic is coming from, plus the ability to reward your readers with extra links based on the number of comments they’ve left. This encourages readers to comment not just once, but on many posts on your blog.
You have lots of options when it comes to forms on your site, but Gravity Forms is by far my favorite. It has a simple drag-and-drop interface to let you build not just a contact form, but surveys, polls, quizzes, order forms so visitors can order products straight from your site…your site users can even submit donations via Paypal! Gravity Forms was the first-ever premium plugin I bought, and I’m still using it regularly five years later.
What do you consider to be the best of the best in WordPress plugins? Got any favorites? Leave me a comment (or question!) below and I may just add it to the post.
And if you’re always on the lookout for the very best WordPress plugins, be sure to pin this post on Pinterest so you can come back and check for my updated recommendations.
How to Start a Blog – the first steps, from buying hosting to installing WordPress
Best WordPress Plugins: 15 Essentials Every Blog Needs (you’re here)
…and once you’ve made it all the way through, check out my favorite Blogging Resources.