Plugins: Taking Your WordPress Blog to the Next Level

This blog post is corresponding to my talk of the same name that I gave at the WordPress.com booth at BlogHer 2014 in San Jose!

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You’ve set up your blog with WordPress and you’re pretty happy with how easy it is to add new posts, add images to those posts, and publish them to your site.

But now what? You might think that it would be nice if you could notify your Twitter or Facebook followers when you make a new post on your blog. What about selling your cooking e-book to your readers? What to do with all this spam and how do you make sure your site is backed up in case anything happens?

There’s an answer to all these questions (and even more you didn’t ask): use plugins!

Plugins can extend WordPress to do almost anything you can imagine. In the official WordPress.org plugin directory you can find, download, rate, and comment on all the best plugins the WordPress community has to offer.

Now you may say to yourself, “Thirty two thousand plugins? How will I know what to use?”

That’s where I come in! I’m going to highlight my picks for the most useful and awesome plugins that are in the WordPress.org repository right now.

Spam Spam Spam!

I don’t like spam. You certainly don’t like spam. Heck, even Monty Python doesn’t like spam!

Nobody likes spam!

Nobody likes spam!

How do you stop the never ending flow of spam? Simple: you use Akismet. Akismet filters out your comment spam for you, so you can focus on more important things. Like writing your next blog post, or developing your new recipe, or putting the finishing touches on your photography book.

akismet

Akismet catches an average of about 7.5 million pieces of spam per hour. That means they’re stopping almost twice as much spam as there are people in Los Angeles every single hour.

Akismet is free for personal and non-commercial sites and there’s just a nominal cost for Business/Enterprise level sites. It’s the single most widely used WordPress plugin out there – because it works.

I Want It All!

You want to let your friends on social media know when you post something new on your blog and be able to comment on your blog using their social media accounts. You also want some amazing photo galleries for your images. You also want to have people subscribe to your blog and you want to know when those people visit your site. Then you want to customize your site, but don’t want to make your own theme.

You’re going to need at least a 8-12 different plugins to do all of these things, right?

Wrong! All you need to install is Jetpack!

jetpacklogo

Jetpack is a single plugin that gives you the most powerful WordPress.com features, hooking your self-hosted WordPress site to WordPress.com’s infrastructure to take advantage of robust stats, easy social sharing, and a whole lot more.

Here’s just a few things you can do with Jetpack:

  • Install over thirty popular plugins with one click (and update them all the same way).
  • Engage millions of WordPress.com users, allowing them to interact with your site.
  • Boost your site’s performance by taking the load of these features off your servers.
  • Count on regular updates, enhancements, and troubleshooting from the same folks who build WordPress.com.
  • Work seamlessly with Akismet to stop spam from your comments and contact forms

All in all, there’s over 30 different features included in Jetpack. Plus, if you need help getting Jetpack up and running, the chances are high that you’ll get me helping you! :D

(Disclaimer: I do support for the Jetpack plugin. Plus, I think it’s pretty awesome!)

My favorite module is Publicize. Publicize makes it easy to share your site’s posts on several social media networks automatically when you publish a new post. It’s quite possible that you followed the link on my Twitter page to come read this post! You can share to Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Path – all automatically when you publish a new post. Nifty!

You can see all 30+ features of Jetpack on the plugin website.

What Do You Mean My Site Is Gone?

In our ever-expanding digital lives, we’ve all had that “OH SH*T” moment when your hard drive crashed or you lost your smartphone and all the content on it was lost forever.

Made you feel sick to your stomach, right?

What would happen if your blog – the blog you’ve poured your heart and soul into – suddenly didn’t exist anymore? Yes, your web host might do backups of your site, but what if their servers had a catastrophic failure and they lost all your data? How would you recover?

Oh-no

Unless you’re really diligent with backing up your WordPress installation, database, and all media files, you would be in trouble.

Unless you used VaultPress.

vaultpress

VaultPress makes it easy to keep an up-to-date backup of your site with both daily and/or realtime syncing of all your WordPress content. VaultPress also performs security scans daily and makes it easy to review and fix threats.

One of the features I like the most about VaultPress is how easy it is to move from one host to another by using an up-to-date backup to restore your site on your new server. My co-worker Pam can attest to the ease of the move.

Unlike the other plugins in this list, VaultPress is a paid-only service with prices starting as low as $5 a month. But, consider the cost of losing your site if you don’t back it up.

If you are also a Jetpack user, you can have a free 5-day trial of VaultPress through the VaultPress module in Jetpack. You can read more about this trial on the VaultPress blog!

I use VaultPress on this site and it’s great knowing that my data is protected in the case of catastrophic failure.

How To Make Friends and Influence People

No, no, no…I’m not talking about the classic Dale Carnage book. What I’m talking about is how to make your blog findable for other people on the internet. One way to help put your blog in front of new users is through the process of Search Engine Optimization, or SEO for short. Wikipedia defines SEO as:

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s “natural” or un-paid (“organic”) search results. In general, the earlier (or higher ranked on the search results page), and more frequently a site appears in the search results list, the more visitors it will receive from the search engine’s users.

Now here are a number of plugins out there that will help with SEO, but the one I’m going to recommend is WordPress SEO by Yoast. It’s probably the most popular of the SEO plugins out there and with good reason; plugin author Joost de Valk is quite passionate about SEO.

yoastSEO

Don’t believe me? Go read his article titled “The Definitive Guide To Higher Rankings For WordPress Sites” and let me know if he missed something. Chances are, he didn’t.

WordPress SEO not only helps you write better content but also provides a number of features/customizations:

  • Page Analysis
  • Technical WordPress Search Engine Optimization
  • Meta & Link Elements
  • XML Sitemaps
  • RSS Optimization
  • Breadcrumbs
  • Edit your .htaccess and robots.txt file
  • Social Integration
  • Multi-Site Compatible
  • Import & Export functionality
  • Multilingual support

The plugin is free, but they do offer premium add-on modules to add even more features.

What Do You Mean “Make It Faster?”

You’ve built up your site and now you notice it’s not as snappy as it used to be. Must be your host that’s having the problem, right? Not necessarily. Your site may need a bit of a tune up.

What I mean by a “tune up” is to better optimize how fast your site loads. If you’re using Jetpack, they have a feature called Photon that acts as a CDN (Content Delivery Network), serving images off their servers rather than yours, which makes your site load faster. Neat, right? Bad news is that it only works on images.

Can you speed up your entire site? Yes, by caching your site.

Caching is critical to site performance, which makes it critical to the success of your site. If your site is slow to load, both your direct traffic and your search engine rankings will suffer. But here’s the good news: there’s a plugin for that!

The caching plugin I’m going to recommend is WP Super Cache. Sure there are other caching plugins out there, but if you want easy to understand instructions and a “set it and forget it” setup, you’ll love WP Super Cache.

If you want to read more about caching and why it’s important for your WordPress site, see this great article by WPMU DEV about the basics of caching: Article

Show Me The Money!

You’ve been blogging about a certain topic and have had so many requests for an instructional video that you decide to make one to sell on your site. Perhaps you want to sell your jewelry or sell the ebook of your recipes that you curated from your blog. Well, that sounds terribly complicated and that you will need to hire someone to set this up for you.

Not necessarily!

There are a number of great plugins out there for setting up your own storefronts, or eCommerce sites. Sure there will be a little more work than just simply activating the plugin, but the work will be worth it as you won’t need to give a cut of your sales to services like Etsy or eBay.

The two that I’m going to highlight are Easy Digital Downloads and WooCommerce.

easydigitaldownloads

Easy Digital Downloads is a plugin that allows you to easily sell your digital content – e-books, music or video files, and more. Since it’s only for digital downloads, the developers only added the features you need to get set up. Also, it’s 100% free to use with no license restrictions or expensive hidden costs.

Next, WooCommerce is the Swiss Army knife of eCommerce plugins – it can do just about everything. WooCommerce is the most popular WordPress eCommerce plugin and it’s free. The team over at WooThemes have worked hard to perfectly integrate it into your self-hosted WordPress website.

woocommerce

While it is free, they also have an extensive library of free and premium extensions to further expand the functionality of the plugin. This one you will need to spend some time configuring, but with a tool this powerful it’s understandable!

But Wait! There’s More!

Now these are what I like to call the “extra credit” of my talk at BlogHer. These are other plugins that I didn’t talk about at my presentation, but I feel are worthwhile to mention. I won’t go into extensive detail, but mention a little bit about each one.

  • Gravity Forms: Advanced contact forms that you can configure to your hearts content. Read Chris Lema’s post about why he thinks Gravity Forms is the best WordPress plugin EVER! (Premium)
  • WordPress Editorial Calendar: Plugin that makes it possible to see all your posts and drag and drop them to manage your blog. Useful for the blogger that wants to post on certain days of each week and this helps plan out your publishing schedule. (Free)
  • Edit Flow: Edit Flow empowers you to collaborate with your editorial team inside WordPress. Great for working collaboratively on content within a group of writers. (Free)
  • CMS Tree Page View: Adds a CMS-like tree overview of all your pages and custom posts to WordPress – much like the view often found in a page-focused CMS. Within this tree you can edit pages, view pages, add pages, search pages, and drag and drop pages to rearrange the order. (Free)
  • Featured Image Column: adds a column before the title (far left) and shows the posts featured image if it’s supported and/or exists. Useful if your theme uses featured images and you can check at a glance if you’ve set the image in your posts. (Free)

I hope you found this useful!

Let me know in the comments if you have other plugins that are your absolute must-haves!

wcmpls

WordCamp Minneapolis

Today I gave my talk at WordCamp Minneapolis! My topic was about the right way and the wrong way to ask for help with your WordPress problems. However, I tried to inject a bit of humor into my slides…

I even got the hearty laugh I was looking for with the GI Joe slide. YO JOE!

It’s great talking to “my people” – the dumb nerdy jokes I say are understood and appreciated! I also was pretty proud with myself for not saying “fuck” anytime during my presentation. I think “batshit crazy” and “asshole” were the worst offenders, language-wise. #winning

Having a great time meeting new people and seeing old friends today. Looking forward to the afterparty at WestWerk tonight too.

WordCamps are amazing!!

2014 WordCamp Minneapolis

Local friends, you can come see me speak at WordCamp Minneapolis on Saturday, April 26th at 11am. My topic this time is how to get help for your WordPress problems – schedule here.

It’ll feature what you should do, what you should avoid, and a lot of my weird sense of humor. I realize I’m right before lunch – but I promise that you won’t even notice you’re hungry! :)

See you then!

CSS Diner is Slowly Killing Me

[EDIT 4/7/2014] Hey – I did figure it out. You can stop commenting me the answers now. KTHX. :P

One of my Automattic colleagues turned me onto the site CSS Diner, which touts itself as “a little game to help you learn CSS selectors.”

It’s been great thusfar! While I’m pretty good with CSS, I’ve always struggled with the more advanced selectors and how to properly implement them. This little game, for me, has been fantastic in helping “stick” those rules in my head. Until I got to level 17, that is. The dreaded :last-child selector.

I was able to suss out how to select the apple on the fancy plate…but that goddamn pickle…

pickle-rage

Now don’t mistake this as a “cry for help” because I do want to figure it out on my own. For me, that’s the best way to learn new things: you keep trying until you get it.

And in my case, it may involve some head-trauma as I bang my head on my desk in frustration. :D

I’d love to hear your recommendations on more advanced CSS trainings! Free is even better.