With thousand of plugins to choose from how can you tell which ones you need? You can read reviews, look at demo sites, use trial and error, or read about others' favorites. After testing and using WordPress plugins on various sites for about 6 years I seem to favor the ones in this list for their functionality, ease of use, simplicity and overhead. Some of these come with baggage like Jetpack, but include so many useful features in one updated and supported platform that I use it on almost every site. The greatest feature of WordPress is that you can find a free plugin for almost anything you want to do, and you can edit and tailor them for your personal use. My choices for top WordPress plugins depend on how often I use them:
1. BackWPup UpdraftPlus
I use a back up plugin on every site and it is the first plugin I install. BackWPup Free used to be my go to plugin for this but they upgraded out the restore functionality, and the database backup files on three of my recent sites were corrupted, and could not be moved to a new host I was migrating too. This old plugin can be used to save your complete installation including /wp-content/ and push them to an external Backup Service, like Dropbox, S3, FTP and many more. BackWpup used to make it easy to move your website between accounts or different hosts and retrieve backups. No longer. It needs a patch for the 'Unknown cipher error', and the free version has size limitations and you have to divide folders among several backup jobs for larger sites. I now use UpdraftPlus to back all my sites up to Dropbox at a frequency that depends on how often those sites are updated or have content posted. It stores to your choice of cloud storage and restoring is very easy. if you are migrating sites UpdraftPlus is the plugin.
- Free version avaialable
- Must have on every site
- Easy to use
2. One-Click Child Theme
This is typically the second plugin I activate on a site. You shouldn’t modify CSS of any downloaded themes because if you update the theme, your changes will be destroyed. If you are like me than you are constantly updating sites trying to get every color and layout perfect and you will not want to have to make the same changes to theme pages, functions, and css each time. Instead you can create a child theme and edit the CSS, add to functions.php, header.php or any other pages that you need to fine tune, this way updates to the parent theme will be inherited instead of destroy your changes. One-click child theme is as simple as the name suggests. You click on Create Child Theme to create and activate your child them. You will need to update the primary menu selection again on the WordPress menu page. You will also need to copy the pages you want to modify. CSS is automatically set up. Use an ftp file manager to copy and move pages from the theme folder you are using to the wp-contents/themes folder/yourChildTheme. After creating your child theme you can deactivate this plugin since it will not be needed on your site until you need to make another child theme.
- Use on every site
- Very easy to use
3. & 4. TinyMCE Advanced & Black Studio TinyMCE Widget
These are actually two plugins, but you will get the most value from having both. TinyMCE will let you add, remove and arrange the buttons that are shown on the Visual Editor toolbar. It includes 15 plugins that are automatically enabled or disabled depending on what buttons are chosen. Some of the many features are support for creating and editing tables, options when inserting lists, search and replace when editing, font sizes and families. This makes editing posts and pages easy and powerful. It is easy to set up. You just drag the buttons you like to use to the Visual Editor tool bar in the plugin's setting page.
The Black Studio TinyMCE Widget adds the Visual Editor menu you to a widget called Visual Editor eliminating the need to write in html in the widget text area. I find this makes it easy to set up widgets. The only issue is that the alignment buttons for images do not work. All images. So for these you have to edit the Text and add an in line css padding value to move the image where you want it within the widget. Beside that you can see from the image that this is a must have feature for creating and customizing widgets.
- Must have on every site
- Easy to use
5. Jetpack by WordPress.com
This is packed with may features and can spew up your site development. It is actually a family of integrated plugins. As new features have been added with updates I have eliminated some of my favorite plugins that I used to use. The benefit is that it is supported by Automatic so will not break your site and has over 12 million downloads so bugs and compatibility issues are found quickly. You can easily activate plugins for social media likes, sharing, photo galleries, contact forms, mobile themes, site statistics, spelling and grammar checking, carousels, comment sections and many others. This overhead of this plugin is minimal compared to having all the discrete plugins you would need. This eliminates the need for about 12 to 15 plugins for some of my sites.
- Very high value on most sites
- Easy to use
6. Content Aware Sidebars
Jetpack has a Wdget Visibility setting allowing you to determine the pages where your widget will be displayed but it is cumbersome to use. you have to know the page id number and it will not be obvious when you go back into edit which widget is showing up where without opening each widget and then the pages in your dashboard to see what number the page goes to. This is an impractical feature on all but he simplest site or those sites with just minor needs to change a widget for a particular page. If you want to have different sidebars on different pages than Content Aware Sidebars is a must have. It is easy to set up. You create a new sidebar. Determine where on the page it will show up and then visually add posts, pages, categories .. to it to determine the pages it will show up on. you can manage an infinite number of sidebars. Boost on-site SEO with better Calls to Action by controlling what content your sidebars should be displayed with. The sidebar manager makes it incredibly easy for anyone without the need of code.
- Free version available
- Valuable site customization on most sites
- Not hard to use
Akismet checks your comments against the Akismet Web service to see if they look like spam or not and lets you review the spam it catches under your blog's "Comments" admin screen. This plugin has been downloaded 25 million times so it is used everywhere unceasing it likelihood of catching spam. I use this whenever I have a contact form or comment field. If you deactivate this plugging you will see a significant increase in spam.
- Use on any sites with comments or forms enabled
- Easy to use
Shortcodes Ultimate places a Insert Shortcodes tab in the WordPress Visual Editor. When you select the tab you get the following menu:
The picture tells it all. You can select a short code for almost anything. The plug in is very well documented with examples making this easy to use and a valuable tool for anyone wanting to add more than simple text and images.
- Use on all sites
- Easy to use, good instructions
If you have any site where others will be posting content or editing than WP-Members is a great plugin to have. It gives your site the ability to register anyone or select people and gives your the ability to activate them and set their privileges. It allows newsletters, premium content sites, and restricts selected content to registered site members, puts the registration process on the site front end so it is inline with your content (and thus your branded theme) instead of the native WP login page. It is a great tool for sites offering premium content to subscribers, and is adaptable to a variety of applications. You can set up members areas and block access to pages or posts on a site wide or post by post basis. When used with other plugins it can give you great flexibility and control over your site. The author has a great blog and support is good. There is both Quick Star Guide and a Users Guide.
- Use on most sites
- Not too hard to figure out and gives you great control over who read or edits your site
I looked at different SEO plugins and didn't find any that were simple to use or easy to set up. I include this because I find it useful. There are other plugins I like much better, but I do not use them on most sites so I will list them in a later post. So this is here because it is the least worst of the SEO plugins. All In One SEO Pack has too many features to describe here and like most SEO plugins takes time to set up and use. This has general settings with many options most of which are poorly explained. For example the option to turn on or off has a help button that states: Check this to support Schema.org markup, i.e., itemprop on supported metadata. Huh? There are 64 options like this on the General Setting page. It simply is not written for the average WordPress blogger. It makes up for this with options to enhance site performance and some mini plugins.
All In One SEO is crowded with selfie ads for the pro version and other plugins, books and such for sale, which I found annoying. I would like to be able to just donate something to the publisher and get rid of all that bravado garbage. As annoying as this plugin is it is still better than most, and can give you really powerful features once you figure it out. I use this plugin any sites I want publicized.
- Free version available
- Use on most sites, powerful features
- Difficult to use, poorly written instructions and too many ads and selfies
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