10 Essential WordPress Plugins to Enhance your Website
With over 54 thousand plugins in the official WordPress directory, it’s quite an achievement to make it onto a list of just 10 essential WordPress plugins.
Plugins for WordPress are great, giving websites impressive new features for little effort and little (or no) money. However, it’s really important to be discerning about which ones you pick.
The importance of this isn’t always immediately apparent to new bloggers. It’s tempting to install loads of plugins and really pile on the “bells and whistles” in the early days. But what then happens is that you build a bit of traffic and find your site really struggles under the weight of the plugins.
With Google paying a lot of attention to how fast and mobile friendly sites are, “lean and mean” is a good thing to aim for. That means each and every plugin you choose really needs to earn its place in your WordPress install.
Having built plenty of WordPress sites, I’ve worked with great plugins, awful plugins, plugins that have had great functionality but slowed sites down to a crawl, and plugins that have completely broken things! As such I feel in a good position to produce a list of essential WordPress plugins that truly are worth adding to most sites.
It’s amazing what you can get for free these days. Some of the most fully-featured and invaluable plugins in use on my sites have never cost me a single penny.
It’s worth noting that free plugins often have a “premium” upgrade that gives you extra functionality. For the purposes of this essential WordPress plugins list, I’ve only included plugins in this section if what you get for free is useful in itself. Something you do see a lot of with plugins is a “free” version that’s restricted so much it’s basically useless unless you pay. Plugins like that don’t earn a mention here.
Yoast SEO is always one of the first plugins I install on a new site. It helps you to keep on top of the basics of search engine optimisation for every post you publish.
SEO experts often disagree on things(!) As such, you’ll find plenty of debate as to which Yoast features are most relevant. Yoast’s core functionality involves building each post around a specific primary keyword, something some SEOs argue is becoming less relevant as Google’s algorithm becomes more sophisticated. However, there’s plenty of functionality here beyond that, even in the free version. You’re free to pay attention to the guidance you agree with and ignore what you don’t.
Whether you use Yoast to ensure you are dealing correctly with things like headings and meta descriptions, or concentrate on the readability features, it soon becomes indispensable. The Premium version adds on stuff like a redirects manager, 24/7 support and internal linking suggestions. However, many users (me included) find more than enough included with the free version.
WP-Insert is one of those plugins where you get an awful lot for free. There’s not even a premium option for this one, with the developers relying purely on donations for their work on it. Hopefully with over 20,000 active installations out there, they do OK!
What WP-Insert does is let you insert a piece of code in your choice of position(s) in your posts or pages. The primary purpose of this is to insert adverts in your content. For example, you can use the plug in to place an ad in the middle of every post, at the end, or after the third paragraph. I’ve also found uses beyond advertising, such as using it to put in a sign-up form for an email list at the end of each post.
There are lots of advanced options for configuring different behaviours for different devices, adding tracking codes, and performing A/B tests with different ads. However, the plugin doesn’t fall into the trap of being too difficult to use.
The alternative to using a tool like this is manually inserting things on every single post. Imagine what then happens if – a year down the line – you decide to include a different advert. Would you rather change it once in WP-Insert, or go into every single post? I rest my case!
Easy Table of Contents
Easy Table of Contents is another open-source (i.e. free) product that easily earns its place among my most essential WordPress plugins.
Long content is generally considered to be what Google is looking for when it ranks blogs. The trouble with long content is that it can get rather unwieldy if it’s not nicely organised with headings and subheadings. The best thing to truly improve navigation is to include a table of contents.
The trouble is, building a clickable table of contents is rather time-consuming if you use HTML, especially when you’re doing it for post after post. It’s also probably a bit intimidating if you don’t know how to do the code. Easy Table of Contents just does it for you, creating an attractive, nested table at the top of your post, based on your headings.
There are plenty of options for how tables are created. Best of all, the plugin doesn’t have much impact on site speed, something that would be a deal-breaker for me. Having a clickable table of contents is great for SEO, as well as reader experience, and this plugin makes it really simple to add one to every post. If you want to see an example, just scroll up to the top of this article!
As I mentioned in the introduction, Google likes sites that are lean, mean and fast to load. Page speed is a factor that Google openly admits has an impact on how well your site can rank in the search listings.
Although Autoptimize has a fairly small selection of basic settings (with more hidden away in an “Advanced” menu), it’s still quite technical stuff. Of all the essential WordPress plugins here, this is one you’re best to look at once your site is getting more established. While site performance is very important, it’s more important (at least in my opinion) to build up a body of content and establish some regular traffic.
Autoptimize is completely free, and something I install on all my own sites once they start getting a bit busier. If you don’t understand the technicalities, you have the option of paying the company to best configure the settings for you. Alternatively, you will find plenty of forum threads with people sharing best practices if you want to learn to do it yourself.
GDPR Cookie Consent
This is not the place for a long discussion on all the various things you might need to do to make your website legally compliant. There are far too many variables, and factors that will depend on where you’re based and where your traffic comes from.
I tried loads of cookie banner plugins before settling on this one. I found many were intrusive, looked bad, or didn’t work properly on mobile. This is far from an exciting plugin, but it’s simple and does what it needs to do.
Like Autoptimize, discussed above, Redirection is one of those essential WordPress plugins that becomes more essential the longer you have your site. Over time, you inevitably end up wanting to redirect pages and articles to elsewhere on your site. You may, for example, want to get rid of an old article and redirect the traffic to a newer one.
When you do redirections, it’s crucial that you do them properly. You don’t want to send Google to dead links, and you don’t want to waste effort you’ve put into building up links to older content. You can manage redirects by manually editing a file called “htaccess,” but if you’re a blogger first and a techie second (or not at all!), it’s much easier to do it with the help of a plugin.
There are plenty of plugins to help with this, and this is the best I’ve found. It’s completely free but regularly updated and well-documented. Over one Million WordPress users have it installed!
Jetpack (Particularly for VaultPress!)
Of all the essential WordPress plugins here, JetPack is the one most people are likely to have seen. Many web hosts preinstall it alongside WordPress, and it’s actually made by Automattic, the people behind WordPress.com.
Jetpack is a whole suite of tools for WordPress, and it is actually available in a free version. This gives you things like site stats reporting and some features to make your site load faster. However, the really good stuff comes in the commercial versions of Jetpack, which start at just $3.50 per month or $39 per year.
The killer feature for me is VaultPress, a backup system for WordPress which takes regular backups of your site. This has got me out of major trouble on a few occasions, both in recovering from site hacks and in rescuing me when I’ve played around overzealously and broken something! VaultPress alone makes Jetpack worth the price for me.
There’s plenty more though, including filtering for comment spam, and malware protection. Personally, I also rather like the way Jetpack displays site statistics. You get this functionality even with the free version, and for a quick glance at who’s coming to your site and from where, it’s quicker that going into Google Analytics.
I pay for Jetpack for all of my sites, and think it’s worth every penny.
WP Rocket is the plugin I use alongside Autoptimize (above) to make sites run faster. It’s a plugin that deals with technical stuff like file caching, image loading and code optimization – all the stuff that probably makes your eyes glaze over if you’re a content creator and not a techie.
Thankfully, it does all this stuff with a user-friendly interface that actually helps you understand what you’re doing rather than confusing you. Having tried several caching plugins over the years, I can confidently say that this isn’t normally the case!
Like Autoptimize, WP Rocket has many settings. It takes some time to learn everything and squeeze the best performance out of your site. It’s thoroughly worth it, however, and the product’s lively and helpful Facebook group makes it easy to share “best practice” with other users. When site speed becomes a priority for your website – usually once it’s getting a bit established – WP Rocket is a great enhancement. It’s only $49.
Popups are controversial. Nobody really likes them, but if you’re trying to build up an email list, which is a must if you’re trying to grow a profitable blog, they certainly help.
I’ve looked at lots of different products for managing popups. Some are part of very expensive lead-generation solutions. Others are very cheap – and very much look it! Layered Popups is a well-pitched plugin that offers a huge library of attractive popups and lots of advanced customisation. It’s also only $21 (at the time of writing), and integrates with an enormous selection of email marketing systems.
It’s fair to say that with all of the functionality there IS an inevitable learning curve. As you can see from the screenshot, there are a LOT of options to get your head around in this plugin. However, it’s worth it for the end result, which is attractive popups that work reliably. The plugin developer also responds very fully to any queries.
An alternative (or complement) to collecting email subscribers is to sign readers up to push notifications. This is something I’ve been trying out recently at HomeWorkingClub with good results.
PushCrew makes it easy to add push notification support to your site. It has a generous free tier for up to 2000 subscribers. Plans for 5000 or more start at $35 per month.
In my experience, the click through rate from push notifications is rather good. I’ve seen click though rates as high as 9% when I’ve used PushCrew to promote recent articles. This is pretty exciting stuff when you consider that average email click rates hover around two or three per cent. It’s just important to make sure you don’t overdo and make notifications ping up for your readers all the time!
Conclusion: Which Essential WordPress Plugins are Most Relevant to YOU?
If you’ve read right through this article, I suspect you’ve been more interested in some plugins than others. That makes sense.
While I have some sites running every one of these, there is definitely a priority order to how I install them. I detail it here in case you find it helpful.
For Initial Setup Stage
These are plugins I install immediately, before I even start to build any content for a new site):
- Yoast (to ensure I’m following the right SEO steps for each article).
- GDPR Cookie Consent (for legal compliance – note that you will still need privacy policies, disclaimers and other things).
- Jetpack (so the site is reliably backed up using VaultPress, and so that I have spam protection on comments and access to site stats).
- Easy Table of Contents (It’s worth starting off on the right foot and making sure every post has easy navigation with a table of contents).
For Marketing the Website
These are the plugins that typically follow next, once there’s some content up and it’s time to start building a following:
- Layered Popups (to capture email addresses for my email list).
- PushCrew (to begin collecting readers for push notifications).
- WP-Insert (once it’s time to work with ads, and also for inserting email signup forms within posts).
As the Site Begins to Grow
While things like site speed are very important, they’re not as important as getting a site off the ground. The final three essential WordPress plugins start to come in more useful once you have traffic and momentum. Obviously there’s no harm at all in implementing these at at early stage, but sometimes time and budget means you have to prioritise.
- Redirection (to help reorganise content).
- WP Rocket (to speed the site up).
- Autoptimize (to speed the site up).
If you’re ready to start a blog and need some help, read this article about finding the best niche.