WordPress plugins are software that adds or changes the functionality of your WordPress website. Plugins can do simple things like inserting social media buttons into blog posts, or complicated things like backing up your entire WordPress site to the cloud. In this post I'll discuss how to choose and install plugins for your WordPress blog.
Almost every WordPress blog has at least a few plugins installed. There is some debate about the correct number of plugins that you should use, because plugins add complexity to your site and can slow down performance. Some people suggest that you should run fewer than 10 plugins on a site. Others thing that it doesn't matter how many plugins you run, as long as your web hosting server can handle the load. My biggest blog has 25 active plugins installed, and still performs well thanks to the SiteGround cloud hosting server that it runs on.
Choosing high quality plugins is important. Poorly written plugins can slow your site down, and might have security vulnerabilities in their code that allows an attacker to take over your site.
When you're browsing the WordPress plugin repository, there are some signals that you can use to determine what is and isn't a good plugin to install.
- When the plugin was last updated. Plugins that are actively maintained by the developer are less likely to have bugs, and are more likely to be compatible with the latest versions of WordPress.
- The number of active subscriptions. Popular plugins are popular for a reason. The more people who trust and use a plugin, the more likely any problems will be found and reported to the developer to fix.
- Ratings and reviews. Even the best plugins will have people who are unhappy with them for some reason. But you can get a sense of the quality of a plugin by the number of 4 and 5 star ratings it attracts. Much like book reviews on Amazon, be wary of plugins that have just a small number of 5 star reviews, in case they are fake reviews trying to boost the popularity of a bad plugin.
- Documentation. A good plugin developer will write easy to read documentation for installing and configuring their plugin.
As an example, here is the plugin repository page for the popular Contact Form 7 plugin. You can see that the plugin was updated just 2 weeks ago, and has more than 5 million active installs. It also has an average rating of 4.5 stars.
Each plugin also has a dedicated support forum where users can post their questions or problems. You can review the support forum to see whether the developer is actively participating and helping people with the problems they're encountering. A busy support forum doesn't necessarily mean the plugin is poor quality, it just means that people are seeking help with their particular issue. If you see lots of arguing and a developer who is dismissive of users' problems, then that might not be a good sign.
I've used a lot of plugins for my WordPress blogs over the years, and have settled on a consistent set of plugins that I use on every site. Each of my blogs then has a few plugins that meet a specific need for that site alone.
Here's a list of my recommended WordPress plugins. Some of these plugins are free, while others are paid. I have included affiliate links for some of the paid plugins, which means I'll earn a small commission if you decide to purchase the plugin.
- Akismet – Every blog that has comments needs this plugin to prevent spam. If you replace the WordPress comments with a third-party comment system such as Disqus then you don't need Akismet. But I install it on every blog, because I only use the WordPress comments system.
- Backup Buddy – This is my go-to plugin for WordPress backups. I run regular backups of all of my WordPress blogs and store the backup files in Amazon S3 cloud storage. Backup Buddy also supports other cloud storage such as DropBox and Google Drive. Aside from the peace of mind of regular backups, Backup Buddy also has a great restoration capability that makes recovering from a disaster quite simple. The restoration can also be used as a site migration capability for moving a blog to new web hosting.
- Beaver Builder – Beaver Builder is an excellent page builder for WordPress that lets you create custom page layouts without needing to write any code. I use Beaver Builder for product sales pages, as well as for customized home page layouts. If you're starting to find the page layouts of your blog too restrictive, or you want to create some nice landing pages for your products, then Beaver Builder is a great choice.
- Contact Form 7 – This is a free contact form plugin so that you can add a simple form to your contact page for people to get in touch with you. For more comprehensive contact form options I recommend Gravity Forms instead.
- Crayon Syntax Highlighter – My main blog is a technical blog where I often share snippets of programming code. Crayon allows me to format the code with syntax highlight so that it looks like proper computer code and doesn't just look like plain text on a page. This is important for readability. If you aren't running a technical blog then this plugin probably won't be of use to you.
- Google Analytics for WordPress by Monster Insights – Monster Insights claims to be the best Google Analytics plugin for WordPress. I can tell you it does work just fine, and I use it on most of my sites. Monster Insights is free, and there are also some premium features that you can pay for if you need to. I use the premium features for Google Analytics tracking of sales in my ecommerce store. An alternative to Monster Insights is Analytics Cat, which is a simple way to add Google Analytics code to your blog if you don't want any of the extra bells and whistles of Monster Insights.
- Simple Author Box – If your WordPress theme doesn't provide a nice author box at the end of your blog posts, then Simple Author Box can do the job for you.
- Social Warfare – Having attractive social buttons on your blog posts is really important. Social Warfare is a free plugin that makes it easy to add social buttons to your posts and pages. There is also a paid version with additional features. If you use a StudioPress theme for your blog like I do, then Genesis Simple Share is another option you can consider.
- Subscribe to Comments – This plugin adds a check box to your comments form so that commenters can be notified by email when other people write comments on the post. This is a great way to maintain engagement and keep the conversation flowing. Note, this plugin hasn't been updated in more than 2 years, which makes it an exception to the rules I mentioned earlier for determine if a plugin is high quality or not. Subscribe to Comments is so simple that it just keeps working.
- WP Smush – WP Smush improves your page loading times by compressing your images. The free version allows you to manually “smush” images after you upload them to your blog. There is also a paid version that improves the compression of images, and also allows you to bulk “smush” all of the images that you've already uploaded to WordPress in the past.
- Yoast SEO – Considered one of the best SEO plugins available for WordPress today, Yoast SEO is developed by well-respected SEO expert Joost “Yoast” de Valk and his team. Many WordPress themes come with built-in SEO features, but I always recommend using a plugin such as Yoast SEO instead, so that your SEO settings are not tied to a particular WordPress theme.
There are three methods that you can use to install plugins on your WordPress blog:
- Installing plugins from the repository via the WordPress admin dashboard
- Uploading plugins via the WordPress admin dashboard
- Uploading plugins via FTP
The simplest method is to install plugins from the repository via the WordPress admin dashboard. However, some premium plugins are not available from the repository, and must be downloaded from the developer and uploaded as a zip file instead. The third option, uploading plugins via FTP, is the least recommended method, but might be necessary if you have a custom plugin that you've developed or paid someone to code for you.
Installing Plugins from the WordPress Plugin Repository
Log in to your WordPress dashboard with your admin account. In the left sidebar look for the Plugins section. Either click on the “Add New” link in the sidebar, or click on Plugins, and then click the “Add New” button at the top of the page.
A list of popular plugins in the repository is displayed. On the right side there is a search box where you can search by keywords for the plugin you want to install. If you know the exact plugin name then you can search for other, otherwise some keywords will usually find the plugin. However, be aware that generic keywords might display results that do not show the plugin you're looking for at the top.
For this example, I'm searching for the “Subscribe to Comments” plugin. Among the top results is the plugin I'm looking for. To install the plugin, simply click on the “Install Now” button. After the install has completed, click on the “Activate” button to start using the plugin.
After you activate a plugin there may be additional settings for you to configure. For example, the Social Warfare plugin has options for which social networks you want buttons to appear for, and where you want the buttons to appear on blog posts. Refer to the plugin's help documentation for the exact steps to configure the plugin.
Uploading Plugins using the WordPress Admin Dashboard
If you have a plugin that has been provided to you as a Zip file, you can upload it to your blog using the admin dashboard. In the Add Plugins page click on the “Upload Plugin” button.
On the next page that appears, click on the “Choose File” button. Browse to the location on your computer where you have downloaded the plugin Zip file. After selecting the Zip file on your computer, click on the “Install Now” button to upload and install the plugin. You will then need to activate the plugin to start using it.
Uploading Plugins via FTP
If you have plugin files that can't be uploaded as a Zip file, you will need to use an FTP client such as FileZilla to upload the files to your web hosting server. Refer to your web host's support pages for the instructions for configuring your FTP client to connect to their server.
Plugin files are uploaded to the /wp-content/plugins folder of your blog's folder structure. Each plugin usually lives within a separate sub-folder that is named with the name of the plugin itself.