Our Favorite WordPress Plugins

One could argue that the functionality a site provides to the site administrator and front-end users is more important than the design. When we are building out WordPress sites for our clients, we see a common need for a handful of site administrator and user needs, no matter what the site is for. Fortunately, there’s a WordPress plugin for each one!

What is a WordPress Plugin?

Plugins are collections of code that expand the core functionality of WordPress. Developers can create their own plugins or leverage existing plugins available in two flavors: Open Source (free to use and modify—49,000+ available at the WordPress Plugin Directory) and Premium (paid plugins that include support and a license).

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There are certain add-ons that we consider to be the best WordPress plugins, and we add them to almost every site we build. Here are some of our absolute favorite plugins (and some of the tools we leverage in our WordPress Foundation Site Packages), covering everything from SEO to site maintenance.

The Best WordPress Plugins (according to us)

Note: Pricing, licensing, and other details below are accurate to the best of our knowledge as of April 2017. Please see all purchasing and functionality details at the links provided for each plugin.


Advanced Ads

Backup Buddy

Better Search and Replace

Black Studio TinyMCE Widget

Google Analytics for WordPress by MonsterInsights

Gravity Forms

iThemes Security

MailChimp for WordPress

Simple History

Simple Lightbox

Under Construction

WooCommerce

WordPress Related Posts

WordPress SEO by Yoast

WP Fastest Cache

WP Optimize


Advanced Ads (it’s way more than an “ads” plugin)

A plugin for ads? But, not all sites have ads on them… and despite the name, this plugin isn’t just for managing ads.

How we use it:

Advanced Ads provides a stellar solution for handling adaptive content, setting specific content to expire at a given date, and all sorts of other clever options that go above and beyond “ads”. And yes, it also handles ads like a champ!

One of the biggest “missing elements” of WordPress is a way to easily reuse content across a site outside of a widget area (sidebar). With Advanced Ads, you can create a snippet of content and easily insert it anywhere on your site (Posts, Pages, Widgets, even directly into the theme files if you want to), and you can set conditions to determine when (and if) the content shows. By using standard blocks of content (aka “ads”), we can easily change content across multiple pages and placements by editing one “ad”.

  • Have a set of trust badges that you want to display on a handful page pages? Make an Ad.
  • Want to display one set of content on desktop, and a different set on mobile? Make an ad group.
  • Want to display content to specific users based on how often they visit your site? Make an ad and set display conditions.

Another powerful feature is the “Placements” that come with Advanced Ads. With placements you can choose to inject content in a variety of ways:

  • Dynamically within content (such as after the 2nd paragraph on any post in a specific category)
  • In a pop-up (you’ll see some offers on our site that pop up in the lower right corner as you scroll down the page)
  • In an overlay
  • Footer and header placement… and more!

And right when you think it couldn’t’ get better, it does. Each “Ad” can be either a graphic, a standard content block (with a WYSIWYG editor), or a code snippet. This allows you to inject ANY content in ANY location on your site.

  • We use code “ads” to cleanly inject HubSpot forms and CTAs for our HubSpot clients.
  • Content ads are used to design popups on the fly
  • Image ads are used to display site-wide promotions on some of our client sites as well.

I can’t say enough good things about this plugin. It’s saved our clients thousands of dollars on custom development, has provided an elegant solution to many uses and has replaced a dozen other plugins that each only did a portion of what this plugin does (and they didn’t do it quite as efficiently).

Why we like it:

  • Flexible and straightforward
  • Multiple ways to handle content
    • creating ads (content) is as easy as creating a post
    • group ads to create ad rotations
    • create drafts or ads only visible to logged in users
    • set a date for when to publish the ad
    • set display conditions, visitor conditions, and more
  • Simple and yet super advanced — this has got to be my favorite content management plugin for WordPress!
  • AMAZING support (the plugin author, Thomas Maier, is super responsive and wonderful to work with).

Where to get it:

The basic version is available for free from the WordPress Plugin Directory. The Pro version is a paid Premium Plugin, and I highly recommend it! You can see a full list of the features on their website, and just send Thomas an email if you have any questions.


Backup Buddy

If you are going to have a website, you MUST have a backup plan. BackupBuddy offers peace of mind, support, and automation all in one handy tool making it an easy choice as one of our top WordPress plugins.

How we use it:

We include BackupBuddy on all of our sites and use it on a daily basis to run backups and to migrate sites. For clients on our monthly site maintenance program, we use BackupBuddy in conjunction with iThemes Sync to keep all plugins updated and to store copies of their sites off-site. This ensures that, even if the worst happens, their sites are safe and can be easily restored.

Why we like it:

  • Automation
  • Ease of use
  • Offsite storage options

Where to get it:

BackupBuddy is a Premium WordPress Plugin. Single site licenses start at $80. We include this free of charge for our clients under our Gold License.


A small plugin for running a search/replace on your WordPress database.

How we use it:

Sometimes we need to dive into the database to make some global changes. We could use phpMyAdmin, but why bother when we can use this gem of a plugin that lets us run a test query first? We’ve used it to change company names (we’ve had a few clients re-brand and this let us replace <old name> with <new name> easily). We’ve also been using this quite a bit helping clients migrate over to HTTPs for their sites.

Why we like it:

While Better Search and Replace isn’t a plugin that we use every day, it’s a huge timesaver when we do need it.

  • Saves times
  • Does a great job (and we’ve never had it break a site, not even once!)

Where to get it:

This plugin is available from the WordPress Plugin Directory.


Black Studio TinyMCE Widget

I did a little happy dance when I stumbled across this one a few years back.

How we use it:

Drop the widget into a sidebar, and style away. Simple as that. Think of it as adding a content area to your sidebar. You add can anything to the widget that you would add to any WordPress WYSIWYG editor on a post or page:

  • Images
  • Content (even a full paragraph with bullets if you want)
  • Forms
  • Shortcodes… and more.

Why we like it:

  • It’s a widget with a visual editor!

Where to get it:

This plugin is available from the WordPress Plugin Directory.


Google Analytics for WordPress by MonsterInsights

Google Analytics is a great way to keep tabs on the traffic to your site. This Google Analytics plugin installs the JavaScript code for you; all you have to do is log in and connect to your Google Analytics account. With almost 13 million downloads, MonsterInsights is the most popular Google Analytics plugin for WordPress.

How we use it:

We use it on every site we build to integrate Google Analytics and ensure that our clients can track all of the data behind their site. Upgrading to the Pro version also provides eCommerce tracking and a slew of other features.

Why we like it:

  • It’s simple, and it works

Where to get it:

The lite version is available from the WordPress Plugin Directory. There is also a Basic, Plus, and Pro version available starting at $39 / year.


Gravity Forms

You can see this awesome little plugin in action on every site we build. It’s a premium paid plugin, and worth every cent. I can’t think if a single thing we’ve needed to do that Gravity Forms as not be able to accomplish and that’s why it’s one of our top WordPress plugins.

How we use it:

The most obvious answer is for contact forms, but forms can do way more than just send an email. We have set up forms to:

  • Send tasks to project management systems
  • Provide online shoppers with a way to ask questions about specific products
  • Collect email addresses in exchange for white papers (and provide the download upon successful form submission)
  • Set up simple single product purchases
  • Take surveys
  • Allow users to submit content to a website (both directory structures and full articles)

Why we like it:

  • It’s very user-friendly, includes support, and has an extensive knowledge base.
  • Supports integrations with many 3rd party tools such as Mailchimp, Constant Contact, Google Analytics, Zappier, PayPal, Authorize.net, and more.
  • Includes built-in styles to help manage form display (here’s a great post from Kevin Shoffner outlining them all)

Where to get it:

Gravity forms are available for $39 for a single site license. We include it free of charge in all sites we build under our developer license.


iThemes Security

The web can be a scary place, and security is a must have (especially if you collect user data such as usernames, passwords, and eCommerce transactions)

How we use it:

The basic setup is simple for us (because we’ve done it a zillion times) and here are some of the top items that keep us coming back to this plugin:

  • Away Mode allows us to block out access to the site admin at specific times of day (why let hackers in while you sleep?)
  • We can easily force HTTPs across the entire domain
  • Strong Password Enforcement
  • We can also change the default WordPress login URL – hackers have a heck of a time getting in when they can’t even find the login URL!

Why we like it:

iThemes Security (formerly Better WP Security) does a great job of locking down a site to keep the hackers out. As they say it… “WordPress Security Designed to Keep the Bad Guys Out”

  • It works (but there is a learning curve)
  • Support is offered (in the paid version)
  • It doesn’t conflict with other plugins.

Where to get it:

The basic version of this plugin is available for from the WordPress Plugin Directory. There is also a Premium version that offers support and additional features (like two-factor authentication and password expirations).


MailChimp for WordPress

If you are using MailChimp and WooCommerce, get this plugin.

How we use it:

While WooCommerce isn’t a requirement for using this plugin, we typically only install it on WooCommerce sites as we use the Gravity Forms MailChimp Add-on for all other MailChimp integrations.

Why we like it:

  • It pushes all of your e-commerce data into MailChimp.
  • Set up is super simple. Just install, follow the onscreen prompts to connect your MailChimp account and you’re basically done.
  • You can use it to add a checkbox to subscribe to your list on comment forms and user registration forms.

Where to get it:

The basic version is available for from the WordPress Plugin Directory, and the Premium version (that handles the eCommerce data) is available starting at $59 for a single site.


Simple History

Know who’s done what, and when they did it.

How we use it:

Once it’s installed we can hop to the “Simple History” section of the site admin and review all kinds of site activity:

  • Who logged in (or tried to and couldn’t…Talking about you, Mr. Hacker!)
  • What changes were made, and when they were made

Why we like it:

This plugin adds a handy link to the admin area that will allow you to see who did what, and when they did it. It’s a small item but saves oodles of time trying to figure out how or why something broke on a site that has multiple admins.

Where to get it:

This plugin is available for from the WordPress Plugin Directory.


Simple Lightbox is a very simple and customizable lightbox that is easy to add to your WordPress website.

How we use it:

By default, WordPress opens up images in a new tab. Yuck. This plugin fixes that. Simply install the plugin and (optionally) set up a few style options. Now, all of your linked images will open their larger versions in a lightbox. You can also set the images to automatically loop in a slideshow (like we do on our portfolio pages).

Why we like it:

  • Like the title says, it’s simple!

Where to get it:

This plugin is available for from the WordPress Plugin Directory.


Under Construction

Creates a ‘Coming Soon’ page that will show for all users who are not logged in.

How we use it:

This is super useful for developing a site on a live server, without the world being able to see it, and for implementing changes on a live site. We’ll turn the under construction page on when we are pushing changes from a development to a live site, and rest assured that users are not seeing us run our housekeeping tasks.

Why we like it:

  • Simple
  • Customizable (you can use your own HTML code for your under construction page)

Where to get it:

This plugin is available for from the WordPress Plugin Directory.


WooCommerce

eCommerce anyone? Heck yes and please!

How we use it:

I did a full write up on WooCommerce in my eCommerce series, but here’s a quick summary about what makes WooCommerce our favorite.

  • Sell digital downloads and physical goods.
  • Easily connect WooCommerce and MailChimp (with MailChimp for WordPress) to nurture your list (and make more sales).
  • Setting up a payment gateway is pretty simple with the payment extensions available.
  • Coupons are included out of the box, and there are quite a few awesome extensions that add even more functionality.
  • You get a full featured eCommerce solution that can be fully customized for your brand.

Why we like it:

  • It’s Free
  • It’s Easy to use and setup
  • It’s Expandable (plugins for WooCommerce and called “extensions”, but they are just like any other WordPress Plugin).
  • It’s secure and supported

Where to get it:

The basic version of WooCommerce is available for from the WordPress Plugin Directory. Paid and free extensions are also available from their https://woocommerce.com/


Increase readers’ engagement and quickly (and easily) display related posts.

How we use it:

Setup is pretty simple. Once installed just head over to settings > WordPress Related Posts and choose how many related posts you would like to display. For some sites we edit the categories that are included, as well as further customize the display with custom CSS, hiding or showing thumbnails, etc. All set to match the brand for the site we are working on.

Why we like it:

  • It includes some default “themes”, or you can code up your own CSS for the display.
  • It places a list of links with thumbnails at the bottom of your posts (which increases your internal link count, and encourages readers to read more)!

Where to get it:

This plugin is available for from the WordPress Plugin Directory.


WordPress SEO by Yoast

This is by far one of our favorite WordPress plugins. Keep in mind that this plugin isn’t a substitute for good SEO, but it’s an excellent tool to help implement your plan of action.

How we use it:

Yoast’s SEO tools let you control meta descriptions, titles, index rules, and other geeky things that our SEO partners over at Inflow request from our site.

  • Manage keywords and meta titles + descriptions,
  • Edit robots.txt and htaccess right from the site admin
  • Manage attributes for all content and taxonomies (including no index of custom post types)
  • Set display (or no display) of sitewide bread crumbs
  • Configure OG data (Open Graph data is metadata for social media sites)
  • and more

Why we like it:

  • It works. Need I say more?

Where to get it:

Yoast SEO is a 100% must have for any WordPress site and definitely (in our opinion) the best WordPress SEO plugin. You can get the free version from the WordPress Plugin Directory, and you can upgrade to Premium ($69 for one site) for a redirect manager, multiple focus keywords, internal linking, insights, social previews, and premium support. Yoast also offers Local SEO for sites that compete in Google Maps, News SEO for sites that want to be included in Google News, and Video SEO for sites wanting to optimize their videos for the search results.


WP Fastest Cache

Depending on your hosting account, how your site is structured, and other variables, this little gem can help you resolve many of the optimization issues that might be pulling down your page speed.

How we use it:

Once installed you just need to head over to the plugin settings and select what level of optimization you want to use. You can preload site content, set a cache for mobile vs. desktop users, and address many of the issues that cause a low pagespeed score on Google Pagespeed Insights.

This plugin will also auto optimize images, and my favorite part will let you easily exclude certain scripts from being minified (some scripts will break if you try to minify them).

Here’s a full list of the options that are included in the Premium version:

  • Create the cache of all the site automatically
  • Don’t show the cached version for logged-in users
  • Don’t show the cached version for desktop to mobile devices
  • Create cache for mobile theme
  • Clear cache files when a post or page is published
  • Clear cache files when a post or page is updated
  • Minify HTML
  • Minify HTML Plus
  • Minify CSS
  • Minify CSS Plus
  • Reduce HTTP requests through combined CSS files
  • You can decrease the size of js files
  • Reduce HTTP requests through combined js files (header)
  • Reduce HTTP requests through combined js files (footer)
  • Gzip
  • Browser Caching
  • Remove render-blocking JavaScript

Why we like it:

Simply put, this plugin helps your site load faster, which makes Google like your site more, and encourages users to stay on your site. Unlike other caching plugins and services that we have tried, this one is simple, effective, and easy to troubleshoot and resolve any issues we have run into.

Where to get it:

The basic version is available for from the WordPress Plugin Directory. If you want to upgrade to the Premium version, click the “Premium” tab on the plugin settings page in your WordPress admin and upgrade for $39.99.


WP Optimize

WP-Optimize is WordPress’ #1 most installed optimization plugin. With it, you can clean up your database easily and safely, without manual queries.

How we use it:

Databases get big. Big databases slow down sites. We’ve used this to delete 2,000+ spam comments off of aging sites and clean out old posts drafts, autosaves, and trashed comments.

Why we like it:

  • It makes our job easier (which saves our clients money).

Where to get it:

This plugin is available for from the WordPress Plugin Directory.

While this list isn’t a full or complete list of all of the WordPress plugins we use, it gives you a good idea of the basic tools we implement for our clients and some of the powerful features you can plug into WordPress. We’ve been building in WordPress for about 10 years now and have used all sorts of plugins—including custom plugins that we have developed for unique circumstances. In every case, we work with our clients to make sure that the features and functionality are built for their unique needs.


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