How to use plugins and get more from your WordPress site

WordPress logoIf your website is built in WordPress you may have seen the “Plugins” menu and been put off by more options to get to grips with. But the key to a truly connected, full-featured site is in here, and you can get started with just a few clicks.

Plugins are program modules to add features that aren’t included in the basic WordPress setup, from social media buttons to a full-fledged ecommerce store. You can add them easily through your WordPress dashboard, and in most cases you don’t need to get any more technical than filling in a few boxes for settings.

If you have a free wordpress.com site that’s hosted for you, one of the main trade-offs is that you can’t add plugins. (Though some plugin functionality is built in – see Jetpack below.) If you’re running WordPress on your own hosting, though, the world’s your lobster.

Let’s have a look at how to add plugins to your site. Then I’ll mention a few specific ones that you might find helpful.

How to use plugins

In the left-hand menu of your WordPress dashboard, look for “Plugins” toward the bottom. That will let you see what’s already installed, and let you add new ones.

If you click “Add new” you’ll get a search box you can use to find the kind of things you’re after. You may get a lot of options! Pay attention to the star ratings. If you hover your mouse pointer over those, you can see how many reviews make up that score. A high rating averaged out from a lot of reviews is a reliable indicator that it’s worth checking out. You may want to click through to the detail page to make sure it’s being kept up to date.

Don’t forget the humble web search: you can sometimes find review/comparison articles with “wordpress plugin [your subject]” that will help you decide. Make sure the article isn’t too old: a lot can change in a couple of years.

Once you’ve found a plugin you fancy, click “Install now” and WordPress will add it for you. It won’t actually start working until you click “Activate”. So you can assemble a list of ones to try, and activate and deactivate them to see how things look.

Caution! Don’t go crazy adding plugins. Each one has the potential to make your site that bit slower, which can put users off, and to introduce security vulnerabilities. So look for reliability in the first place: ones that are widely used and have good feedback. By all means try things out, but don’t fall into the trap of accumulating a long list of plugins you don’t use and forgetting what they were there for. (I found this once when I helped someone sort out their site. It took a bit of detective work to find out which were important.) Remove any you don’t keep using, to keep your site lean and clean.

Some examples

These are only endorsements to the extent that I may have used these plugins or read about them. There are many other good ones, of course. Often they’re produced by enthusiastic folks and released for free to benefit the WordPress community, which is pretty cool.

Akismet

This filters comment spam. Once the internet realises your site is there, you’ll get all sorts of inane “Your website is really great” comments from automated programs that are trying to put links on as many sites as possible to boost their search rankings. Dealing with these individually soon becomes a major pain, even if their English translation is sometimes amusing. (“You most surely have made this website into some thing thats vision opening and important. You clearly recognize so much on them, youve included so many bottoms.” – genuine recent comment attempt for this site.) Akismet identifies spam for you, and is pretty accurate. It’s probably already installed in your WordPress, waiting to be activated. It’s free for personal sites; for other sites you have to subscribe at $5 per month.

Jetpack

This is a set of plugins made by the WordPress folks to give folks who host their own site the same extra goodies as WordPress.com users – like social sharing buttons, galleries and forms. More about Jetpack here. I haven’t used it myself, yet. It looks like there’s some I’d want and a lot I’d choose to switch off. It would depend on what facilities you already have from other elements of your WordPress setup.

Social sharing buttons

It’s important to add some sort of social network connection to your pages and posts if you want users to promote your content on Facebook, Twitter and the rest. There are loads of plugins to choose from. I’d advise against the ones that put a tab to the side of your content that expands into a set of buttons. Often the tab obscures the text of your post, which is shooting yourself in both feet. If you still want one, try it out and play with different browser zoom settings, as sometimes that makes it wander around. (You don’t know what settings your audience will be using to view your pages.)

I went for Social Sharing Toolkit by Marijn Rongen (now handed over to LinksAlpha). It gives plenty of options, but fundamentally you tick boxes to include your choice of the major social networks, pick the button size and tell it where you want the buttons displayed. You can see the medium icon size below.

Woo Sidebars

I actually use a thing called a “theme framework” which will let me set up different sidebars for different parts of the site, but when I installed the shop using WooCommerce (another plugin!) that wouldn’t play ball. So I turned to this plugin produced by the WooThemes folk. It’s a nice simple interface that could be handy if you want to customise your widgets. You create a new widget area and specify which pages it will appear on. Then you can go to the Widgets page and put stuff in it.

Limit login attempts

This is a handy thing I’ve seen recommended recently to improve security. As standard, WordPress will allow someone to keep trying log in to your dashboard indefinitely. That’s an opening for hacking software that tries different passwords until it gets in. This plugin locks visitors out after a set number of failed log-in attempts. Further info here. (Also, make sure to set a good password!)

Exclude pages from navigation

This is a handy little utility by Simon Wheatley. It adds a tickbox to specify whether you want a page to show up in the pages and sub-pages in the navigation bar. That means you can set up pages that are only visible from links you create in other pages or widgets. (I think WordPress lets you set up custom navigation bars through Appearance > Menus, but I couldn’t make that work for me, so this plugin was very handy.)

Contact form

If you want to add a form rather than put your email address where spammers can grab it, a plugin can help. I’ve used Fast Secure Contact Form by Mike Challis, which was recommended by a contact and has a really convincing review score.

 

There we are. I hope that’s been helpful and has helped to dispel any plugin-phobia you may have had! If you have your own favourites, feel free to let us know in the comments.

 

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