Best Free WordPress Plugins for Common Website Functionality
The latest release of WordPress 3.7 has provided even greater tools & support for this PHP/MySQL system. Since the project launched over a decade ago it has seen various iterations on the administration panel, theme development, and plugin API(among other things). WordPress has grown into a fully-reliable CMS which pushes beyond the functionality of a simple blogging platform.
Because of the fast updates and tremendous community there are more people switching over to WordPress every month. This platform can be used for an e-commerce shop, photo gallery, production company, school webpage, online portfolio, or practically anything you can imagine. In this guide I’ve organized a number of helpful plugins you may want to use when putting together a new WordPress project.
If you write frequent entries on your website then you may also want to save ideas for new headlines. This can work nicely as a draft, but too many random ideas will end up crowding your posts section. I like to use an ideas management plugin to keep track of budding topics for new posts while also including links to reference when it’s time to write.
Ideas is very simple and obviously free to install. This works much like a custom post type where all the posts are saved as ideas. They should only be viewable in the WordPress admin, plus there are settings you can toy around with making it easier to learn. I’d also highly recommend WP Idea Stream which has much of the same functionality. However, these 2 plugins may be a little too much for someone who needs a simpler solution like Post Ideas.
This alternate plugin will appear as a link within the Tools menu in the admin panel. You can include reference links, a small description, and other common details for any new post idea. A follow-up release called Post Ideas+ adds post widgets on the frontend to easily update new ideas. You can also create separate lists for each author to manage their own ideas. Definitely worth trying out if you have a blog/magazine to keep posts organized.
Running a WordPress site doesn’t often require intensive user interaction. You likely won’t be handling constant image uploads or frequent forum posts. And even in these scenarios, it can help to just run a simple HTML cache of all your webpages. The simplest and most integrated choice would be W3 Total Cache. It can tie into 3rd party CDN networks along with storing a local copy of your pages.
I also find myself using Quick Cache on small-scale projects. It can work fine on larger websites but I also like the speed. You have the option to clear the cache from any administration page while also adjusting the caching settings without too many convoluted choices. WP Super Cache is another popular choice with a similar background.
You should try out any caching plugins that you find interesting. There is no absolute right solution but it helps to familiarize yourself with one or two primary choices. Be sure to install them on a live website to watch for any differences in performance.
Images & Media
Website images are common within any Content Management System. Image galleries and slideshows are often easy enough to build from scratch. But using a plugin will save you a lot of time and headaches fixing bugs.
Slideshow Gallery is an excellent choice to get started and familiarize yourself with the user interface. Plugins can be designed in many different ways, and WordPress includes handy objects called hooks within places on the layout. This allows devs to customize the new post admin page in order to format galleries in an easy-to-use fashion.
I’d also recommend checking out Slideshow which is powered by jQuery. In fact, there are a number of gallery & slideshow plugins to be found in the WordPress plugin directory. Dig through and see what you can find to best suit your website.
A personal favorite is Custom Upload Dir which can reset your upload directory. Now you aren’t stuck linking to images within /wp-content/. I usually just change the default folder to /images/ and keep the following year and month dates – but you may choose to upload files based on the permalink URL, datetime, author name, or many other factors.
Even if you aren’t a big proponent of detailed SEO, it helps to give your WordPress website the fundamentals. There are some great plugins completely free that will offer exceptional support for the most basic SEO requirements. I personally prefer FV All-in-One SEO because it displays a nice featured area on each post page.
At the bottom of the edit page you can see a sample of how your post would appear listed in a Google search. This includes the post title, description, and hyperlink URL. Note it is only my preference to suggest this plugin, but there are dozens of other free choices like All in One SEO Pack which is probably the most commercial choice. It is very simple to use and there are many tutorials online explaining the interface.
Yoast WordPress SEO is another very popular choice amongst mainstream WordPress users. It can be easy to first setup and then learn the controls whenever writing a new post. I would highly recommend any of these 3 choices if you prefer one over the others. All you need is a plugin that works and has a simple yet intuitive interface on the backend.
User feedback is another staple across the board of any website. Contact forms are usually the simplest way to gather feedback from visitors. Simple Basic Contact Form is one of the easiest solutions without too much complexity. Any newcomer to WordPress may want to start here and learn the ropes on how to customize.
A much more detailed choice would be Contact Form 7. This has a larger administration panel that helps you add plenty of new fields and user settings. You can also generate a number of different forms which may be sent to different e-mails, and customize the design any way that you choose. If neither of these choices seem great then try searching in the online WordPress directory for another free solution.
The other simplest way to manage visitor contact is in your comments section. WordPress sites are notorious hits for spammers, and so without a plugin like Akismet you don’t want to use the default system. I have grown to like Disqus because it all ties into one system neatly packed in the WordPress dashboard.
If you’d rather build up a larger following through social media then try something like Facebook Comments. Lots of people are automatically logged into their profiles on networks such as Facebook, so it wouldn’t be uncommon for somebody to stumble onto your website and leave a bit of feedback.
One of the primary reasons developers keep coming back to WordPress is that it’s secure. Bugs are quickly patched in new releases while also being pinched out during beta testing. The guys who run Automattic are pretty smart and they’ve built one truly amazing product.
But there are some alternative plugins you might enjoy to help further your website’s security. Akismet comes for free with every download and you can obtain a free API key from their website. They ask for donations but if you can’t give any money just slide the bar down to $0 and Akismet gives you a free shiny API key. However this really only protects against spam comments, which you still often need to clean manually anyways.
Let me introduce Better WP Security which is a fully-packed and unique WordPress plugin. You can change the admin login page URL, and the wp-content path along with database prefixes. Plus there are so many other features I just couldn’t list everything here. For a free download this plugin offers a tremendous amount of great functionality. The goal is to mask your HTML source as much as possible so that it doesn’t appear to be running on top of WordPress.
One other helpful plugin I’ve found is Limit Login Attempts. This can work against you during those moments when you forget your account password, but if your login page is getting an overabundance of hits you may install this plugin to lock out the activity. It’ll prevent any single IP address from logging into the site for a set period of time once they’ve reached a threshold of failed attempts.
I’m not sure this is a hugely popular request but it does come in handy when sorting “most popular” posts. There are some basic plugins you can include to count the total pageviews like WP-PostViews. This number on the page may end up cached but it’ll still count every unique pageview. A counter plugin named Ajax the Views will fix this small bug if you run a WordPress caching plugin.
Ultimately page view counts are useful because it promotes confidence in your content. Being able to sort by most popular, even limited to a month or a year is definitely an interesting feature. I’d also recommend another plugin Ajax Hits Counter if you have the time for testing out a few choices.
Related Blog Posts
I like to bring this up because related posts and pages are a great way to draw visitors even deeper into your website. But the functionality isn’t always easy to build from scratch. A great place to start is Contextual Related Posts which can also work on any custom post type.
It’ll pull information and include post thumbnails, shortcodes, among other internal content. I was very impressed the first time when trying this out on a live website. It will include some default styles and it certainly helps to know where you should look to customize them. But if you put in the effort I bet it’ll look spectacular.
There are so many others worth mentioning but I’ll also include Yet Another Related Posts Plugin(YARPP for short). It’s great because this also includes thumbnail support and CPT support. The related posts or pages can display in your RSS feed too. Either of these plugins will not let you down with a wide array of easy-access settings to edit templates and redesign styles fitting to your layout. If you want to look for more choices I can promise there are some other gems hidden inside the WordPress plugins directory.
Custom Posts & Pages
WordPress 3.0 invented the idea of Custom Post Types. Instead of having a blog post, you might have a new book post or newsletter item. This has built an entire CMS engine around the WordPress PHP framework. If you aren’t a coder then you can instead build CPTs using a plugin like Custom Post Type UI.
This plugin can automatically include the codes into your WP theme or you may copy and paste them manually into a new file. Custom Post Types are flexible in that they can be written as a plugin or within your theme’s functions.php file. These CPTs are fairly lengthy when written in PHP, but don’t let that put you off from trying them out! Shortcodes are another cool feature where you can build unique page output using [squarebracks] in your post content.
The plugin Shortcodes Ultimate provides a large list of free shortcodes which can match any theme. You’ll also be able to look into the plugin source code and possibly duplicate your own. These shortcodes can be great when pulling out unique data based on a custom post type, or maybe some other metabox or additional field in the database.
Building new PHP files in your theme folder allows you to create special types of pages. Plugins may also run this type of code like with Compact Archives. This can be used in a page to output a year/month date list that links to your post archives. Consider using a plugin like this for any blog with more than a year’s worth of content.
It is difficult to guess everyone’s needs when developing a new WordPress project. The system has grown rapidly since v3.0 and the team is determined to continue pushing forward. Many of these plugins would be useful in any typical scenario, or even just to practice for working on a side project or freelancing. If you know any similar free WordPress plugins feel free to share with us in the post discussion area.
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