Without plug-ins, a blog is a simple vanilla cupcake.
No frosting. No sprinkles. No glorious fudge center that makes your taste buds explode in joy. Your nice looking theme makes a pretty paper wrapper, but that's it. It's like content cake sitting alone, in desperate need of TLC to make it delicious and irresistible. Readers won't love it and clients won't love it.
But with plug-ins!? You can do glorious things, all at the click of an "activate" button.
What are plug-ins? Small pieces of code that adds new functionality to your blog. Want to add SEO? Use a plug-in. Allow people to sign up for a newsletter? Plug-in. Send anyone that leaves a comment for the first time a quick thank you email? You got it, a plug-in.
Free WordPress.com blogs do not allow use of plug-ins, you must have a self-hosted WordPress.org blog. Use of plug-ins are best suited to intermediate to advanced WordPress users, not beginners, due to the customization most of them require.
If you can think it up, there is probably a plug-in already existing that can make your idea come to life. Whether it's adding basic utilitarian features like SEO or a Facebook feed (frosting) or sparkly sprinkles that make your blog sing, it's worth exploring to see how plug-ins can improve your blog and the user experience.
Here are a few of my favorite essential plug-ins. Some are perfect for ANY blog or website, while others are only useful if you design or set up the sites for clients, or can make suggestions for improvements.
** IF YOU ARE A PR PRO, recommending these to your client can make you look like a savvy WordPress rock star. Give it a try. **
- Custom Sidebars - want sidebars that are different on each page? This is the handy little plug-in that can do it for you. It helps your WordPress website not look straight out of the box.
- Disqus Comment System - this plug-in comment system replaces the normal WordPress comment system with one connected to your social media. Comments are threaded, monitored for spam, search engine friendly and add to your social mentions. LiveFyre is a similar system that is very popular.
- Digg Digg - like those little social media share buttons that float on the left side of my posts? That's the Digg Digg plug-in. Uber awesome.
- Foobar Notification Bars - see blogs that have a vibrant, customized bar across the top of the page with a juicy call-to-action or promotion? It probably uses Hello Bar or Foobar (my favorite). Very useful in boosting conversion for subscribers!
- Simple Pop Up - Want to create custom pop-ups? This tool makes it easy, whether you want to use a custom image, MailChimp code or plain text. I use Simple Popup Plus, the $23 premium version. Here is an example of how I use the tool to promote subscribing to my blog.
- Thank Me Later - this plug-in allows you to send an email to people who leave a comment. If you use this one, be careful. You don't want to be an evil marketing stalker, you just want to thank them and perhaps add a little value, such as suggesting a similar post or blogger they might enjoy. You won't want to try this if you use a comment system that isn't native to WordPress (such as Disqus or LiveFyre). It won't work.
- WordPress SEO by Yoast - I've tried multiple SEO plug-ins and this one is my favorite. It makes it very easy for clients to use due to the red light, green light, yellow light feature showing visually if your SEO is done correctly on each page/post.
- Redirection - When I'm integrating SEO into a website and need to change a few permalinks to include keywords, this is my go-to tool for making sure existing Google rankings for the old page aren't lost and eliminating broken links. I simply put a 404 permanent redirect in place to the new permalink using this plug-in. (If you are doing massive redirects, such as moving a blog to a new URL, you would want to use a more robust blog migration tool.)
- Multicons - Love websites or blogs that have a little icon or logo to the left of the URL in the browswer address bar? Multicons helps you put it there. The image is called a favicon.
- Ultimate Coming Soon Page - need a landing page allowing email subscribers while your website or blog is under development? The Ultimate Coming Soon Page plug-in is fantastic. It allows you to fully customize how the placeholder slide on your new website looks, while giving easy access to how the development site looks by adding /preview to the domain. Love, love, love this one.
- WP Touch - want a responsive website that looks great on a smartphone, but don't have the time, budget or interest in doing a site redesign? WP Touch is a $49 premium plug-in that does it for you.
- Related Posts - this plug-in encourages readers to dive into your content by recommending similar posts to the one they are reading, and enhances your SEO by helping more content become indexed by the search engines via outbound links. You can show images or text links, and determine if the suggested posts are chosen by category or tag.
Have a favorite plug-in of your own to share? Bring it on! Be sure and include a link to it, along with what it is and why you like it.