One of the biggest reasons I recommend self-hosted WordPress as my platform of choice is the variety of WordPress plugins available, many of them for free. Not only can plugins make your site beautiful, but they add tremendous function and power behind the scenes too.

recommended WordPress plugins for beginners

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What Are WordPress Plugins?

Think of WordPress plugins as “widgets” or “gadgets” if you’re coming from Blogger or as apps if you’re thinking about your cell phone. Companies and independent developers create the plugins that you install on your site, so it’s important to give anything you want to use a quick look over before installing. I check to see when the plugin was last updated, how many installs it has, and briefly look at its feedback.

There are plugins for almost anything you can imagine. Some will be required to make your chosen theme work correctly while others will add extra “bells and whistles” to your site. My favorites are the ones that work behind the scenes to optimize your site’s performance and traffic. For the purpose of this guide, we’re going to focus on essential plugins that I think every site should have.

Installing any of these is as simple as going to Plugins / Add New. Search for the plugin you need, install, and activate. Then follow unique instructions for each one to set it up.

Yoast SEO

This is a powerful plugin that I touched on in last week’s SEO guide for beginners. When used correctly, it can optimize your site for search engines like Google in order to send more readers your way. Like many plugins, there are both free and paid versions. I’m personally stilling running the free version. Visit the Yoast SEO website for more info.

Security + Spam

WordPress comments tend to attract a lot of spam, but Antispam Bee will help take care of them. {Please note I previously recommended Akismet, but it is no longer free unless your blog is 100% personal and not commercial in any way.}

For security, I recommend the free version of Wordfence. With a firewall and malware scanner, it also helps prevent brute force attacks and fake logins. You can also opt to receive an email with important site security information, like when to update plugins.

Backups

Even if your host provides backups, I highly recommend double-dipping here and installing your own as well. It’s kind of like securing your most important documents at home in a safe and also at the bank in a lockbox. UpdraftPlus is super user-friendly and once you set it up, you can forget about it. You can choose to have your backups sent to several third-party storage sites. I personally send mine to DropBox. Google Drive is another good option.

Social Sharing

Simple Social Icons is an easy plugin to use for displaying your social media sites in your menus, sidebar, or footer. It’s intuitive and can be easily customized to match your website’s colors. This is important for directing traffic to your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.

Grow Social is my preferred plugin for helping visitors share your content on their social media. This plugin allows you to add share buttons to the top or bottom of your posts as well as floating buttons on your sidebar.

For displaying your Instagram feed in your sidebar or footer, I love Instagram Feed.

Contact Form

Your visitors need an easy way to contact you and Ninja Forms is the way to go. When you install this plugin, it will create your first contact form for you (you can adjust settings if needed). Then you can quickly embed that form on your Contact or About page, any widgets, etc. When you write blog posts, there’s also an option to add the form to the bottom of any of them you’d like.

Advanced WordPress Plugin Options

This series is focused on simple tips for WordPress users, but there are two more areas that are worth noting as you begin to explore more functions of your site– caching and compression.

Website caching means that your content is stored on users’ computers so that your site loads faster for them in the future. For example, your logo/header probably doesn’t change from visit to visit. Caching allows their computers to store those images in memory so they don’t have to reload them each time. This improves the users’ experience and also your server/host load. If you’ve ever had to “clear your cookies” in your browser, you’re essentially clearing the cache on your machine. Most hosts have their own cache settings, but you can add an extra layer with a plugin. WP Super Cache is a good free option.

The other advanced option that you can look at is your image sizes. This also factors into user experience, server load, and site speed. Your first step to optimize happens before you ever touch WordPress. Look at the image dimensions for your theme and make sure you aren’t uploading images much larger than necessary. You also don’t need the highest quality; website resolution can be as low as 72dpi compared to the 300dpi needed to print so typically about 100kb per image is all you need. To take things a step further, you can use the Smush Image Compression plugin.

Now go install those starter WordPress plugins to optimize your site! Next week we’ll look at Google tools to help with analytics and traffic generation.

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