One of the reasons that so many people (myself included) recommends using the WordPress software on your own domain (not WordPress.com) is because of the functionality.
You can do just about anything with your WordPress website with the right plugin.
The question you might be asking yourself is what plugins are out there, and which ones are absolutely necessary for your niche website on WordPress?
What You’ll Learn
In this post, you will learn about the three essential plugins you should install on your WordPress website. Specifically…
- Which plugins are absolutely essential for SEO, security, and speed.
- How to install each recommended plugin fast and easily.
- How to maintain your plugins to keep your site from getting hacked.
The Plugin You Can’t Live Without for Search Engine Domination
Want search engines to rank your niche website?
SEO is important to every niche website owner that wants to be successful. WordPress has a great foundation for SEO. Even Matt Cutts said so.
"WordPress takes care of 80-90% of (the mechanics of) Search Engine Optimization (SEO)." - Matt Cutts (SEO for Bloggers)
So what takes care of the other 10-20%? Plugins like WordPress SEO by Yoast. This free plugin will help you optimize each and every page on your niche website for search.
In a nutshell, this plugin lets you add SEO titles and meta descriptions to every post and page on your website. Best of all, it will actually tell you what you need to do to make sure your posts and pages are optimized for your target keywords.
To install WordPress SEO by Yoast, find it in the WordPress plugins database within your WordPress dashboard, install, and activate.
Once installed, you will find its settings in the SEO menu in your WordPress dashboard. Be sure to click the Titles & Metas link to configure your homepage SEO (SEO title and meta description).
Then, on each of your posts and pages, scroll down below the visual editor to find SEO setting options for your posts and pages.
You can also do this for your archive pages, such as your category archives, by going to the Posts menu and clicking on the Categories link.
Hover over your categories, click the edit link, and scroll down to the WordPress SEO settings to configure your SEO settings for each of your category pages. This works for tags as well.
You’ll even find WordPress SEO settings for your author profile.
If you don’t think your author profile is important for SEO, do a Google search for your name. If you contribute to other blogs, you’ll likely find some of your author pages ranking well in search results.
The Plugin You Can’t Live Without to Protect Your Website Content
Don’t want to lose all of your hard work forever or have this happen to you?
"Two days ago, I did an upgrade on the blog’s Thesis theme, and something went terribly wrong. The blog got completely messed up. I thought I was screwed because I didn’t make a backup of the old theme before updating, and my system admin was out for the night. It looked like my blog would be down until the next morning. This was, of course, completely unacceptable." - John Chow (How VaultPress Saved My blog)
If your web hosting company includes backups and security scanning of your website (like WP Engine and Synthesis do), you can skip this plugin unless you want some additional peace of mind with backups that you can control.
VaultPress is a WordPress plugin and service that will automatically backup your WordPress website and keep it secure. Backups include your database (all of your posts, pages, and comments), your theme files (your design), and your uploads (all of your photos, videos, PDFs, etc. that you uploaded to your Media Library).
In the event that your website is compromised, you can quickly restore the latest version without losing your data - or your mind.
To install VaultPress, you will first install the plugin from the WordPress plugins database within your WordPress dashboard.
VaultPress will add a message to your WordPress dashboard that you need to register your plugin. To do this, you will need to sign up for a VaultPress account and select a plan.
You can choose the $9 per month plan for daily backups, one-click automatic restores, and a 30 day backup archive. Or you can choose the $29 per month plan to add security scanning and realtime backups to the mix.
Once you’ve registered, you will be given a registration key that you can paste into your VaultPress plugin settings, which you will find by clicking the link in the message on your dashboard or by going to the VaultPress menu in your dashboard menu.
As an added bonus, this plugin comes with Akismet built in. Akismet will help you protect your blog from spam comments.
The Plugin You Can’t Live Without for Better Website Performance
Want to ensure that your WordPress website can handle a large burst of traffic with minimal performance issues, like the kind of traffic you’d get from landing on the homepage of Reddit? Then you need W3 Total Cache.
"...a 2-second delay in load time during a transaction resulted in abandonment rates of up to 87%. This is significantly higher than the baseline abandonment rate of 67%." - Tammy Everts (Case Study: How a 2-Second Improvement in Page Load Time More Than Doubled Conversions)
This free performance optimization plugin is recommended by many of the top WordPress web hosts. Some hosts, like Synthesis, include it automatically in your WordPress installation. That’s how much they trust it!
To install W3 Total Cache, find it in the WordPress plugins database within your WordPress dashboard, install, and activate.
Once installed, you will need to go to the Performance menu in your WordPress dashboard and click the General Settings link. In the General Settings, you will want to check the box to enable Page Cache.
Note that this is the bare minimum for optimizing the performance of your website. You will want to refer to this tutorial for additional caching options that can be configured for your website.
Going forward, when you make a change to your WordPress website, be sure to use the Empty All Caches link under Performance in the top menu bar.
This will ensure that your new changes will not be hidden by your cache.
What About Plugins for…
This post is to focus on the absolute, bare minimum essentials.
"...there are four major areas he looks for when he evaluates adding a plugin to his website. Does it load lots of scripts, styles, or other assets? Does it add extra database queries to each page? Does it perform complex operations? Does it perform remote requests, like to external APIs?" - Pippin Williamson (Plugins and Fast WordPress Sites - It's not the Number of Plugins, It's the Quality)
You must optimize your niche website for search, and WordPress SEO by Yoast is the best free plugin to do that. Even if your theme has SEO settings built in, you still want that plugin.
You must make sure your website performs at the fastest speed possible, and W3 Total Cache is the best free plugin to do that.
You must protect your content, and VaultPress is the best plugin to do that. It’s not free, but it’s made by the creators of WordPress, so you know it’s good.
These are absolute essentials for all WordPress website owners, unless you have a web host that does it for you.
As for the rest, here are some good options to consider.
WordPress Comment Plugins: If you want to use the base WordPress comment system, you need Akismet + GASP to control spam. And we’re talking moderate control, not full control. You can never 100% protect yourself from spammers.
Third-Party Comment Plugins: Disqus is the most popular third-party comment system for WordPress. Great features that will help you moderate spam, but again, not completely rid yourself of it.
Social Sharing Plugins: There are hundreds. Digg Digg is made by Buffer and free. Filament Flare has a great design and analytics with free and paid options. A lot depends on the social networks you want to support and the design you want.
Google Analytics Plugins: Yoast makes a plugin that makes installing Google Analytics on your WordPress website easy. But you can do it by grabbing the code from your Google Analytics and manually installing it on your blog, saving you one extra plugin.
Email Marketing Plugins: Most email marketing services have a WordPress plugin you can use to install opt-in forms on your website. If you’re going to get a plugin to do this, skip the ones from email providers and go straight to ones that have more features, like OptinMonster.
The key is not to overload your WordPress website with plugins. The more you have, the harder your website has to work to perform. So make sure that each one you install has an important purpose.
Maintain Your Plugin Updates to Keep Your Website Safe and Functional
Want your WordPress website to be secure?
Just like your WordPress installation occasionally needs to be updated to introduce new features, fix bugs, and keep your website secure, your plugins need to be updated as well. You will know when a plugin update becomes available when you see a number next to the plugins menu.
When you see that number, you can visit your list of plugins to see which plugins need to be updated.
You can update your plugin by clicking the update now link next to it.
Note that some plugin updates have been known to wreak havoc on websites. This can be due to updates that were not fully tested or a clash between an older plugin and a newer one.
The key is to check out the area of your website the plugin effects after you have updated the plugin if possible. For example, if it’s a social sharing button plugin update, you should check your social sharing buttons to see if they are still working.
Or, if you don’t want to take any chances, wait a few days, then go to the plugin’s page on WordPress and visit the support forum. If there are any major problems, someone will be asking about them there.
In a Nutshell
If you want great SEO, get WordPress SEO by Yoast. If you want peace of mind, get Vaultpress backups and security. If you want a fast website, get W3 Total Cache.
From there, be wise about the plugins you install. Your ultimate goal is to only use plugins that get you results, not those that just slow your site down with nothing to gain.