What’s a plugin?
The first time I read about WordPress plugins, I had only one question:
A plugin. It’s sort of like an app, that you would get for your phone. It’s an extension that gives your website a functionality it wouldn’t otherwise have. Like social share buttons or pop ups that collect email addresses. (Maybe by now you’ve noticed that your theme doesn’t seem to have these, but all the other blogs in the world do?) Well, you can have ’em too.
Plugins are one of the MAJOR benefits of a self hosted WordPress site. You can’t get (most) plugins for the free platforms like blogger or even wordpress.com, thus limiting functionality immensely.
(THIS POST PROBABLY CONTAINS AFFILIATE LINKS. OUR FULL DISCLOSURE POLICY IS REALLY BORING, BUT YOU CAN FIND IT HERE.)
Before you start installing plugins left, right, and center though –
WordPress plugins are awesome, but plugins have a dark side. (Just like too much sugar, or too much wine, unfortunately.)
They can slow your site down, making the pages take longer to load. You know when you click in to read a post (from Pinterest, or Facebook, or anywhere really) and it just sits there blank and slow for.ev.er? So then you leave?
Yep, too many plugins running on a website can do that. (So can other things, like images that are too large, or some ad networks, for example.) That’s bad.
You absolutely don’t want people clicking in to your blog and then leaving before they have a chance to fall in love with you, or sign up for your email list.
Keep that in mind when you’re getting excited about new plugins. Sometimes it’s best to see if you can do without a plugin. And if you happen to install a plugin that you don’t use, don’t just deactivate it – delete it! (You can always re-install it in the future if necessary.)
Plugins can also come with bugs. You’ll want to use WordPress plugins that are well reviewed and regularly updated. Anyone can write the code for a plugin (well, anyone who knows how to code…so not me). That means that some of them are poorly coded and can cause problems on your site. If you install a plugin and your site starts acting funny, try deleting it.
But don’t be afraid of all plugins now that you’ve read this! I use a few plugins and I like the ones I use.
Important Free WordPress plugins:
While you do need to be careful with plugins, there are a few that are almost necessary.
These are plugins that I recommend everyone install right away. I use the free versions of these plugins and they do the job for me!
♦ Akismet (spam blocker). You will get spam. I hardly get any spam, because Akismet does a really good job.
♦ Yoast SEO for WordPress Plugin. SEO means “search engine optimization” (you should definitely read this post by Regina for all her amazing knowledge on SEO. If you are starting a blog, Regina is a lady you wanna know).
(Instructions on finding and installing the free plugins coming up in a bit – just keep reading for now.)
Other Necessary Plugins:
I used to be a big advocate of using all free plugins when possible, all the time.
(I’ve learned some painful lessons over the course of the past year, and why we don’t always want free plugins was a BIG ONE.)
Let me preface this: I am not saying any of the following to convince you to buy plugins. Make your own choices about this, because the free ones DO WORK.
Social Sharing plugin –
Social sharing plugins are important; if you are not getting your content shared then NO ONE will see it. Period. Social sharing is huge, and you need a social sharing plugin.
I installed one of the most popular free social sharing plugins available when I started my blog – shareaholic. (It’s the cute one you see everywhere that says “sharing is caring”.) And I LOVED it. I used it for nearly a full year. Because my site is monetized with ads, site speed is very important. Ad networks actually pay MORE per ad if your site is fast. (Interesting eh?).
My ad network let me know they were none too happy with shareaholic – they said it is extremely resource heavy and really causes the site to slow down. (They also said this about sumome, which is another VERY popular free plugin – for email collection.)
I finally moved away from shareaholic when I started getting emails complaining about “all the pop up ads” blocking my content… (turns out shareaholic was running ads ON MY SITE, even though I had turned off their permissions to do that!) When I moved away from shareaholic I LOST ALL MY SOCIAL SHARE COUNTS.
This is devastating. Social share counts may be a vanity metric, but I also believe that they are a metric that gives new visitors an idea of your credibility in the online space. I have posts that have been shared over 50,ooo times… that now show social shares of 200.
The worst part of all this? The plugin I’m using now is super light (won’t affect site speed) and costs 29 whole dollars per year.
I gave up my share counts to save 29$ per year.
If you can afford it, I would recommend starting out with a paid sharing pluging like Social Pug or Social Warfare plugin, and saving yourself this trouble down the road. (It also solves all the problems for image optimization for Facebook and Pinterest, but we will get to that.)
I am currently using Social Warefar, but it has had it’s share of issues with updates over the past year. You should do some research before deciding on one… and if you are just starting out this is NOT something you need to decide TODAY. (It’s unlikely that flocks of people are landing on your site wanting to share right now anyhow!)
Email Collection Plugin –
I started out with the free version of sumo, and fortunately, the damage done is not long term. Sumo is also very resource heavy and slows down your site terribly. However, as soon as I switched, the problem went away with no long lasting ill effects. (I am now using Thrive Leads, and I used to REALLY love it… but they’ve done an update and I’m not sure I would recommend it anymore.)
Hellobar is a good option for beginners who want a cheap pop up type thing. (I have the paid version, and I love it, but the free version does work).
How install free plugins in WordPress
→ Go to the “Plugins” tab on your WordPress dashboard, in the list on the left hand side, & click “add new”.
→ In the search box – on the right hand side at the top (# 1 below) – enter the name of the plugin you are looking for, and hit enter. Locate the plugin in the list it brings up, and click the install now button (# 2).
→ It will install, and you will see a screen like the one below. Click “active plugin”.
→ It will take you to your installed plugins list (you could also access this list by clicking “installed plugins” right above the “add new” that you used before). The plugin will already be activated, since you clicked activate plugin. Here you can access the settings, and set the plugin up (if necessary). I always at least look around in the settings and see if there’s something that needs to be done.
→ THAT’S ALL! Installing a plugin is NOT hard.
Using the plugins
Depending on the plugin you’ve installed, it might add a tab right into your WordPress dashboard for you to access the plugin. Instructions for how to use most of the popular plugins will be available via google (everything is available via google) or right from the developers (if you’ve bought paid plugins).
Sometimes learning to use a plugin to the best of it’s functionality takes a little trial and error. I just fiddle with them until I win. (And google. Always google.)