One of the many benefits to WordPress, one of the most popular blogging platform and Content Management System (CMS), is that it is open source software with a very large and dedicated community. There are so many great developers working to make WordPress the best that it can be, that there are thousands of free plugins available to enhance the platform’s default functionality.
There are, of course, too many plugins to list here, so in this article we’re just going to point out the essentials… what I consider to be the bare minimum “can’t live without” list of plugins that should be installed with just about any new Wordpress installation.
If you are new to WordPress, this basic list (which is technically not limited to plugins alone) should help get you started on the right foot. Whether you are running a basic brochure site, or a full featured blog, you should be sure your WordPress site includes these essentials.
Once you’ve installed WordPress, there are a few things that absolutely must be taken care of right away. No if’s, and’s or but’s… Two of these items are already included with WordPress – you just need to configure them.
Although not a plugin, this is one of the first items that should be setup in WordPress. Permalinks give your blog posts and pages a “pretty” url. Something like yoursite.com/category/post-name/ as opposed to yoursite.com/p=?1234 – not only is this easier on the eyes, but it is SEO friendly since it incorporates keywords into your URL.
In theory, this is a quick and easy setting to change. However, I have run into the situation on some web hosts where you have to manually update the .htaccess file for this to work properly.
You can update your Permalink structure under the Settings tab in the admin area.
2. Permalink Redirect
Related to Permalinks, is the Permalink Redirect plugin. This one doesn’t come with WordPress, however they go hand-in-hand together. This plugin takes the basic Permalink settings a step further by ensuring that there are no excess characters in your URL – in the event there are excess variables, Permalink Redirect sends users to the correct URL.
This plugin is pretty much all taken care of behind the scenes – once you’ve installed it, there is nothing for you to configure.
If you are simply using WordPress as a CMS for a brochure type site, this is a step you can skip. However most people take advantage of WordPress’ blog feature (it’s primary function). If this is the case, and you have comments enabled on you blog, then Akismet is absolutely essential as well. Akismet is a “smart” spam filter, in that it is able to learn what should or should not be considered spam.
It amazes me the type of spam comments that people and spam bots try to post on blogs. To protect your site from such comments, you will need to configure the Akismet plugin (which comes pre-installed with WordPress) as well as create a WordPress.com API key.
Once setup, you’ll be able to view a list of all spam received, in order to confirm that the plugin didn’t catch a real comment. This is rare, but if it does happen, you can mark it as “Not Spam” – then just hit “Delete All” and the rest of the spam comments are gone!
You can enter your API key under the Plugins tab, and manage spam under the Comments tab.
Feed Your Obsession (To Constantly Check Stats)
If you have a blog, you are no doubt constantly trying to increase the number of subscribers you have. The best way to keep track of this is with FeedBurner.
4. FeedBurner RSS and Email Feed Subscriptions
By default, WordPress automatically creates a feed address for your blog, enabling visitors to subscribe to updates using their RSS Feed Reader of choice. However this default setting is limited in that visitors to your site are only able to subscribe via RSS and you are not able to keep track of subscriber numbers.
By utilizing FeedBurner, you are able to give your visitors the additional option of signing up for updates via Email, as well as letting you track exactly how many subscribers you have.
You can create a free account on FeedBurner and give them your default WordPress feed address (something like yoursite.com/feed/). FeedBurner will in turn provide you with two unique URL’s, making it as easy as possible for people to subscribe to your blog updates.
Better yet, it keeps an accurate count of your subscribers that updates on a daily basis. FeedBurner even lets you view a list of subscriber email addresses.
You can place the HTML codes that FeedBurner provides in many different places on your site. It can be hard coded into the WordPress theme PHP files, entered as a Text/HTML widget for your sidebar under the Appearance tab, entered into individual pages or posts, or even included as options for several subscription and bookmarking plugins.
5. FeedBurner FeedSmith Plugin
Once you’ve setup your feeds with FeedBurner, it is very helpful to also install the FeedBurner FeedSmith Plugin. Without this plugin, you might run into the situation of some people clicking on your FeedBurner subscription URL, and other people finding (or manually typing in) the default WordPress feed address.
Either way, they are signing up for your blog updates, which is great. But, if they go through the default WordPress feed URL, their subscription won’t be included in your total subscriber count.
Enter FeedBurner FeedSmith! What this plugin does is automatically redirect any feeds coming from WordPress through FeedBurner, so that it is included in your total subscriber count.
For example, if you click the link going to this blog’s default WordPress feed URL:
You’ll see in your address bar that it is automatically redirected to FeedBurner:
This redirect ensures the new subscriber will be included in your subscriber count.
You can enter your FeedBurner feed URL under the Settings tab.
Get Analytical – Comprehensive Stats Tracking
As with the obsession to check subscriber stats, comes the obsession to track visitor stats, as well. To aid in this is a wide range of statistics and analytics programs.
6. Google Analytics
Google Analytics is perhaps the most popular of the various stats programs available. It lets you track an amazing amount of visitor information – such as the number of visitors to your web site, how they found your site, what web browser they are using, etc.
Frequently analyzing visitor trends is a smart move for any web site owner, as it will give you a good idea of what the most popular content on your web site is, what search terms people are using to find you, what pages people are linking to on your site, etc.
Having a good view of visitor trends will help you to optimize your site further by letting you know what type of information people are looking for on your site, so you can provide even more helpful content. It’ll also give you a better idea of how you can update your site for better search engine optimization.
You can add the tracking code near the end of your footer.php file, just above the </body> tag.
Search Engine Optimization
One of the great benefits to having a blog is that by nature it is a type of web site that is frequently updated. Having frequently updated content is a GREAT benefit for Search Engine Optimization (SEO). WordPress itself has many features that are great for this, but coupled with a few additional plugins, it can’t be beat!
7. All In One SEO Pack
All In One SEO Pack is one of the more popular WordPress plugins in regards to SEO. Ask just about any expert WordPress user out there what SEO plugins they suggest, and you can bet this one is at or near the top of their list.
All In One SEO Pack gives you numerous items that you can control from the WordPress admin area. On a static web site, things like the Title tag, Description and Keyword meta tags must be hard coded into the HTML of the site.
With All In One, you are easily able to set these default tags for your home page through the WordPress admin area, without knowledge of HTML. Even more important, however, is that you are able to set specific tags for each individual page and post, as well. By default, if you do not manually update these, it will pull text from the post itself. Although this is quite helpful, you’ll ideally want to hand-craft the proper tags for each post.
You can edit the default information under the Settings tab, and update the information on each page/post under the post writing area.
8. Google XML Sitemaps
Many search engines – in particular Google, Yahoo!, MSN and Ask.com – utilize specially formatted XML Sitemaps in order to properly index all of the pages on your web site.
The Google XML Sitemaps plugin will automatically create this file for you, as well as update itself a regular basis by adding new pages or posts to the Sitemap file. The file generated includes a list of all the URL’s on your site, as well as additional information, such as the priority of the page, date a page was last modified, etc.
While having an XML Sitemap on your site does not by itself guarantee that your web site will be indexed by the search engines, it does help ensure that when it is found (usually by you submitting the Sitemap to the search engines – something else this plugin offers), that it can easily find all content of your site. If you happen to have pages that you don’t want to be indexed, you can specifically mark those pages or posts, so as not to have them appear in the Sitemap.
You can edit the settings and generate new sitemaps under the Settings tab.
Security and Safe Guarding
I’m sure that most of us know all too well the importance of frequent backups of personal and/or work files on your computer. Hopefully you’ve never had to learn this the hard way!
Well, your web site is no different. It’s crucial to frequently backup both the files on your server (usually by manually downloading files via FTP), as well as MySQL database tables, which are what contain the actual content (text from your pages and posts, comments, settings, etc.) for your WordPress driven web site.
9. WP DB Backup
Absolutely essential for ALL WordPress sites is the WP DB Backup plugin which can backup your entire MySQL database. This plugin provides several options for backups – for example, you can do a manual backup that will let you download the file to your computer, save it on your server, or send it to you via email.
Even more convenient, is the option to set the plugin to run automatically, letting you backup your database on an hourly, daily, twice daily or weekly basis, depending on how frequently you make updates to your web site.
WP DB Backup is somewhat like insurance – it’s something you hope you never have to use, but it is a lifesaver if you do end up needing it. In the event something in your database goes terribly wrong, you’ll be able to restore your site content with the most recent backup file created with the plugin.
You can select from the backup options under the Tools tab. Please remember, however, that this just backs up the Database tables – you’ll occasaionally want to download the site files files (PHP files, images, etc.) that can be accessed via FTP.
What’s On Your Must Have List?
This is obviously just the beginning, as these are only a fraction of the seemingly limitless list of things you can do to customize and enhance your WordPress driven web site.
In particular are many plugins that can greatly improve upon a default WordPress blog – such as integration with social bookmarking sites, comment enhancing plugins or tweaks, photo gallery plugins, and more – certainly enough to warrant another post (or ten) of their own!
For the WordPress developers out there, we’d love to hear from you! If you were setting up a new WordPress site and were limited to the plugins / feeds / tweaks / settings, etc. above… and only one more… what would it be?
Please share in the comments below!
To answer my own question, I’m going to cheat and pick two more plugins.
If you plan on putting any PHP code in your posts or sidebar items (something necessary for more advanced customization of WordPress) the Exec-PHP plugin allows you to place PHP code into your pages, posts or sidebar items. Without this, you either get an error, a blank space, or most likely you’ll just see the <php> tags appear on your page. The Exec-PHP plugin allows your custom code to actually function – and the more I work with WordPress, the more I find that the possibilities are truly endless!
- Deactivate Visual Editor
While Exec-PHP is great, it can sometimes use a little bit of help… If you only plan on putting PHP code in your sidebar items, then you can forgo this plugin. However if you plan to place some additional code on either your pages or posts, you’ll need to be sure to ONLY edit these pages using the HTML editor in the admin area. If you switch over to the Visual editor, it renders your code useless. This plugin forces you to use the HTML editor on any pages (or posts) that you specify, ensuring that any PHP code you’ve added stays fully in tact and functional.
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