Seven Free WordPress Plugins To Make Your Life Easier
Part of the appeal of WordPress for the non-developer crowd is the ability to use plugins to extend the functionality of your site without having to learn to code PHP or drink excessive amounts of Jolt cola. It's a beautiful thing really (Jolt is hell on the stomach lining).
With great power comes great responsibility though... there are literally millions of plugins out there, and they are not all created equal. Some started out strong and haven't been updated in years. Some didn't start out so strong and will crash your site just because they don't get along with another plugin or possibly your theme. Some have fabulous support teams and frequent updates and shiny logos.
I've spent a lot of time trying out plugins, on my own site and on client projects, and I have a long list of preferred options now. I use these seven on a regular basis with great confidence. Some you may already know, some are pretty well kept secrets, but they'll all make your life a tiny bit easier in one way or another.
SumoMe is a free plugin that houses a bunch of other add-ons, some free and some paid. Think of it like a box of goodies for your website. Once you install the plugin and set up a quick account it's really easy to add Google Analytics, several different email opt-in tools, those nifty share buttons that float on the side of your site, and plenty more. I tend to stick with the free add-ons, but you might like one of them enough to upgrade to the next version.
My favorite SumoMe items: Google Analytics - You'll need to log in with your Google account to connect this one, but once it's set up it has some nice on-site stats for you to customize. Smart Bar - This gives you an email signup bar at the top of your website. It's easy to set up, and easy to connect to MailChimp or whatever email service you're using. Welcome Mat - You may have seen this one on my own site. It's an email signup splash screen before your actual website appears. You can configure all of these signups to only show on certain pages, for certain visitors, and to only be seen a certain number of times. This lets you test what works best for you without driving your visitors nuts with repeated popups. Scroll Box - One more signup option. This one shows up when the page is scrolled, and allows you to set options like how far down the page needs to be, whether the box shows from the top, bottom, right, or left, and how many times a visitor will see it. I like the scroll box because it's not intrusive, but it works. Share - Those floating share buttons on this site are courtesy of Share. Heat Maps - This one is a lot of fun, and also a great way to see what parts of your site are being used and how. Set up tests on any page of your site and see where people are clicking, then use that information to make adjustments to the way your content is laid out or presented. You might be surprised at where people are actually clicking and what never sees the light of a cursor.
If you're using the contact form that came with your theme, stop. Please. You're missing out on a ton of options, a nicer interface, and some great spam protection tools. Ninja is still free for the base plugin, unlike a lot of the other premium form plugins out there, and has a super easy drag and drop form builder and lots of extra fields you won't find in the other free plugins. If you need more functionality you can buy add-ons as needed to do things like create multi-part forms with conditional logic and integrate MailChimp.
This one requires a little more tech-savvy than the others, but I really like it for certain applications. Most themes now are mobile responsive, and *most* of the time that works fine. But I frequently run up on sites where I don't like the design of the mobile menu. As a coder I can edit that to my liking, but there's something to be said for not reinventing the wheel. So in comes WP Responsive Menu. It's simple and easy to set up, just install it and open the settings. You can turn it on or off, decide at what width the mobile menu should appear, pick a menu to use on mobile, and change the colors and behavior. You can even upload a logo to show up on the menu bar. The slightly more technical part is that you need to tell it what elements to hide in mobile, using the CSS class or ID. If you're accustomed to using Safari's Web Inspector or Chrome's Developer Tools that's easy to figure out, but if not I would advise hiring a pro to set this one up.
Yoast SEO has a ton of options and helpful tools, but I won't go into how to use all of those in this post. Suffice it to say that it makes it easier to deal with things like your XML sitemap, meta data, and robots.txt file. At the bare minimum, it's a fabulous tool for making sure your pages titles and descriptions show up the way you want in search results. Aside from the pages of settings for everything from the site map to social media graphics, you also have settings on each page and post for fine tuning and optimization. It will even give you handy tips on how to make your blog posts more effective and easier to find.
This one is obviously just for Genesis themes, but it solves a common problem. I don't normally recommend using a plugin to solve something that a line of code could do, but this makes things so simple that I even use it myself on client sites. When you create pages with a Genesis theme (and some others) they automatically place the page title at the top. This is fine for blog posts, but when you're trying to look like a professional you really don't need the word "ABOUT" at the top of your bio. I promise, you don't. With Genesis Title Toggle you can turn those titles on or off as you wish. It adds a checkbox to the Genesis Theme Settings that lets you set a default preference for the site, and each page has its own checkbox as well.
Favicons are probably the most overlooked creatures in the website world. Depending on what browser you use you may not even see yours unless you really go looking. In the olden days they were just the tiny icon that showed up to the left of your web address in the address bar or the browser tab, and that little dude still exists in some places. But now there are a host of other icons that need to be thought about as well... the 120x120 boxes that show up in Safari's frequently visited section, the little icons that appear if you save a page shortcut to your phone screen, and a dozen or so others we won't go into. The good news is that you can take care of all those in one fell swoop with this plugin. The setup is simple enough, just install the plugin and click Generate Favicon. You'll need to upload a square version of the image you want to use, and the plugin will create all those little icons for you. Choose a few background colors for things like Windows tiles, and you're good to go.
Have you ever wished you had the visual WordPress editor when working on a widget? Well this is one option to solve that. I use it on my client's sites to make it easier for them to style content in widgets, add images, etc. Just install the plugin, activate it, and the next time you go to your widget page you'll see a popup letting you know you can use the Visual Editor to create a new widget. Easy peasy.
Hopefully one of these is a solution to something you've been fighting with on your site, and I'd love to hear your favorite plugins in the comments!