So, you’ve decided to start a self-hosted WordPress blog, confident in the knowledge that there’s a wealth of plugins out there that will enable you to customize your site. Getting this blog started has not been without a few ups and downs. There has been a fair amount of experimentation, plenty of learning, and a few false starts as well. After the first week or so of twiddling with the available settings, it’s time to get serious. Here’s my list of essential WordPress plugins that no startup site should be without.
Backup Probably Wasn’t Your First WordPress Plugin
… but it really should have been. Your pristine WordPress install is like a shiny new toy, with settings to fiddle with and options to try. You will invest a significant amount of time and energy getting things exactly as you want them, and that’s in addition to your content. What if you were to lose it all? There are plenty of WordPress plugin options to back up your entire site, and it is worth trying some out before you choose one. Backing up what is often a significant amount of data can take some time, produce large files, and need some system tools made available by your hosting provider. You may have to ask them (or plead, or beg) for some settings changes. It is no good if your backup run takes forever to complete, or brings your site to its knees.
There are many things you should consider when choosing a backup plugin. Does it backup both files and databases? Will it back up all of WordPress itself – it’s very easy to “accidentally” change some core file or hack a theme, and you want those changes backed up too. Does it back up any other pages you may have manually created on your server? Can backups be run both automated and manually? Perhaps most importantly, a good backup plugin needs to have active and responsive technical support. Online Backup for WordPress and UpdraftPlus both are excellent in this respect.
The temptation for a backup solution is to look for a promise that you can “set it and forget it”. Do not do this. At the very least, you should test whether your backups actually work – it is no use finding faulty files after disaster strikes. Test them out – get a free hosting account somewhere and be sure you know how to restore a backup, and how long it will take. Having a second copy of your site running is a good idea anyway, as it gives you a place to experiment (and an easy switch if your main site fails). Make sure you have multiple backup copies, and you can go back to an older one when you need to – with the myriad of plugin permutations out there, even the most benign of updates may cause issues, and you may not discover them for weeks. Dropbox is a simple way to keep historical versions and off-site copies. Get in good habits of making sure you have an up-to-date backup before installing updates or juicy new features. When disaster does strike, you’ll be glad you did.
Getting Social with Comments and Sharing
It’s vital that your new site integrates well with social media. You want visitors to your blog to comment using their existing Facebook or Twitter accounts, without having to fill out a form or give an email address. You also want those readers to want to share a link to your post with a single button click. Put simply, the easier you make these options, the more likely they will do so. If it is too much effort, they are unlikely to bother. Adding social media share and login buttons makes this as simple as possible for your readers.
Installing the Jetpack WordPress plugin from wordpress.com is probably the easiest way to get all of this, and so much more. Many installations already include this box of goodies, and you merely have to enable it. While there are other WordPress plugins that revamp the comment system, a single install gets you commenting, sharing, and automatic posting to your social media accounts as soon as you publish a new post. The Jetpack WordPress plugin does need a wordpress.com account, which is in itself a good idea; yet another community which you can use to promote, share, and discover content. The plugin comes with dozens of other features, but the social media integration is enough alone.
Search Engine Optimization is for Everyone
SEO is something any publisher on the Web needs to know a little about. A blog is all well and good, but you have to get readers, and if you can get a steady stream of visitors by “organic” discovery from search engines, you and your site will thrive.
WordPress SEO by Yoast is an impressive WordPress plugin that packs a huge amount of good advice, resources, and features in one install. The most obvious addition provided by the plugin is an extensive set of suggestions that appear below your posts as you edit and revise them, making sure that you choose a focus for your article, stick to that topic, use the keyword appropriately, as well as other style details such as including images with relevant descriptions, subheadings, and readable content. There are other powerful features as well, such as generating sitemaps for webmaster tools, and providing an easy way to enter site ownership validation codes. This is barely scratching the surface of a powerful suite of SEO hints, tips and help, all in a single WordPress plugin.
There are of course thousands of other WordPress plugins that could have made this short list. I am particularly happy with Simple Tags, which helps further in providing tags as navigational aids for your growing site. Redirection is also good to have, especially once your blog starts taking shape and you wish to reorganize. Once you have published a post, you have let a genie out of the bottle. Once you have shared your links, got indexed by search engines, and hopefully got your link to appear on other sites, you’re obligated to make sure that link stays valid – practically forever. A redirection WordPress plugin can help you manage that.
Armed with these basic startup WordPress plugins, the real work – and hopefully the fun – can begin. You can produce content that search engines will love, engage your followers on social media, connect and network with fellow bloggers – and always be sure that your work is safe against site failure.WordPress plugin image from Sudharsan G at Technoskillonline. Data backup icon from Icons8 Metro Style Icons by VisualPharm (linkware). Growing Social Media original image by mkhmarketing (CC BY 2.0). Orange WordPress logo added by me and used according to WordPress Trademark Policy. PageRank image by Felipe Micaroni Lalli (CC BY-SA 2.5).