The Power Of WordPress Plugins

OK, you’ve set up your WordPress theme. You’ve added a custom menu or two and you’ve dotted a few widgets around. But there are still some functions that you’d like your website to perform but which WordPress does not supply by default. This is where ‘plugins’ come in.

‘Plugins’ is a term for a collection of additional (often free) pieces of software that provide extra functionality for WordPress websites. These are the ‘optional extras’ that you may or may not need to make your website behave as you want. Examples of plugins include adding a contact form, creating a slideshow, enabling website security – and more.

They are called ‘plugins’ because they do exactly that: if you install a plugin, WordPress detects that it’s there and makes the connection with it automatically. It will execute the code behind the scenes to do whatever it is that the plugin was designed to perform.

Your website will then provide whatever process your plugin is designed to provide. You may have to configure a few settings to tailor it to your requirements, but that’s all you have to do.

There are thousands of WordPress plugins available but, in this lesson, you’re going to make use of ‘Jetpack’, which is a plugin facility that WordPress automatically provides to all users, plus you’ll install a few others which I consider to be essential.

Jetpack Plugins

Jetpack is, in fact, a collection of plugins provided by WordPress and the big advantage to users like us is that they have been rigorously tested and they’ll be kept up-to-date.

The plugins were originally developed for users of WordPress.com (who are not allowed to install their own plugins) but they became so popular and useful that WordPress now offers them to wordpress.org users (which is us!) as well. I will be recommending that you use a few of these Jetpack plugins and I’ll also suggest some optional ones that may suit your website. I’ll also recommend a few independent plugins that I also consider essential.

To begin using Jetpack you first have to register with WordPress.com: 

https://signup.wordpress.com/signup/?user=1.

This is free and easy and simply involves you supplying a username, password and an email address. You just need to create an account: you don’t want a free blog. WordPress will not use your email for anything other than to confirm your username and password. Don’t worry: you won’t get nuisance emails from them and your email will not be passed on – I can guarantee.

When you’ve registered your username and password the Jetpack screen will prompt you to ‘Jump Start’ and activate a subset of their plugins. You’re not going to do this so just click back to the dashboard for now.

From the dashboard, click ‘Jetpack’, ‘Settings’ and you’ll see a list of all the plugins that you can choose from:

The ones that I consider essential are these: 

  • Contact Form
  • Enhanced Distribution 
  • Protect 
  • WordPress.com Stats

To understand what these do, just click on the plugin’s name on the Jetpack screen and a window will pop up explaining its function. I won’t repeat all the details here because WordPress will explain it all better than I can.

You’ll see that there are many more plugins than those I have recommended and you can decide for yourself which others might be relevant to your website. You don’t have to decide immediately: you can always come back later and activate those you want.

If you hover your mouse over the plugin name you’ll see on the right a link to ‘Activate’ or ‘Deactivate’. You’ll see that some plugins are already active while others need to be activated. To keep your site tidy, I suggest that you run down the list and activate those above and deactivate the others. You can reactivate any of them later.

Some plugins have a ‘Configure’ link. If you click this and find that you don’t know what to enter then just leave the defaults in place.

On the list of Jetpack plugins you’ll see one named ‘VaultPress’. I will return to this one in Lesson 15 Secure Your WordPress Website.

Other Jetpack plugins which I like but consider optional are: 

  • Carousel (picture gallery)
  • Monitor
  • Publicize

Now let’s look at some other plugins which come from independent sources.

Independent Plugins

As I mentioned, there are hundreds of plugins provided by independent authors who make them available (usually for free) to WordPress users. Here are a few that I consider essential to use:

  • WordPress SEO – which I cover in Lesson 17 Search Engine Optimization
  • BackUpWordPress – which I cover in Lesson 15 Secure Your WordPress Website

How To Install Independent Plugins

From the dashboard, click ‘Plugins’. You should see the list of currently installed plugins.

Your list of plugins may look a bit different from mine because some web hosts include some plugins by default. But you won’t have too many plugins when you’re starting out.

To install any plugin, from the dashboard, click ‘Plugins’ then ‘Add New’ at the top of the screen. You can access the plugins you need several ways from here, but the quickest way is to click on the ‘Popular’ tab and see what comes up.

You will probably see some of my recommended plugins straight away.

To install a plugin, all you have to do is click on ‘Install Now’ on that plugin’s listing and confirm that you really do want to install the plugin. Then WordPress takes over, installs the plugin on your website automatically and then all you have to do is activate it.

If you can’t find the plugin on the ‘Popular’ page, then the other way of locating a plugin is to search for it. Instead of clicking on ‘Popular’, use the ‘Search’ box on the ‘Install Plugins’ page. Type the exact title of the plugin into the Search box and click ‘Search Plugins’. You may be presented with more than one choice so be sure to pick the one that has the exact title, and then install the plugin as above.

OK, you’re nearly done. Just let’s finish by using one of the Jetpack plugins to add a Contact page.

Add A Contact Page

Now, let’s quickly add a ‘Contact Us’ page. From the dashboard, click ‘Pages’, ‘Add New’. Enter a title such as ‘Contact Us’ and then click on the ‘Add Contact Form’ button you’ll see beneath the Title box.

You can add some surrounding text if you like, and then click ‘Publish’. Easy – you just got yourself a ‘Contact’ page.

While you are going through this exercise you may well see other plugins that look interesting and that you are tempted to install. By all means explore what’s available and install more plugins if you can see a use for them. My advice, when looking for plugins, is to choose only those with three or more stars and do not install a plugin that has not been tested with the version of WordPress that you are using.

You can find out more about a plugin by clicking on ‘Details’ against that plugin on the ‘Install Plugins’ page.

There are many, many more plugins that you can use and I leave you to discover and install them yourself. But a quick word of advice if this is the first WordPress website you have ever built. Don’t overload your website with plugins if you cannot justify that they are necessary for the functionality of your site.

Plugins can clutter up your site and slow it down and can, from time to time, conflict with one another. And, as with themes, plugins can become out of date and can stop working if the plugin’s author has not kept up to date with the current version of WordPress. So, take it step by step and be a little self- disciplined in your use of plugins, at least at first.

And, as you will see, some plugin authors ask you to make a donation to help fund their activities. It is entirely up to you whether you do this: if you have found a plugin useful then it’s a nice optional gesture to make a small donation.

FAQ

I’ve been advised to use ‘Google Analytics’ to keep track of my website visitors. How do I do that?

‘Google Analytics’ is the system used by most professional webmasters and this provides an extensive breakdown of how many visitors your site attracts, what pages they view, the bounce rate, where they come from – and a lot more.

As a starting web master, the Site Stats facility provided by Jetpack is usually quite sufficient until your website begins to get volumes of traffic. Then you should consider upgrading to Google Analytics.

To use Analytics you need to have a Google account (free, and easy to set up) and you have to sign up to Analytics. All this is explained in https://www.google.com/analytics/.

When you have added your website to your Google account, you are provided with a snippet of tracking code which you have to include on your website. This operates in the background and invisibly monitors your visitors so that Google can present you with a detailed breakdown of your website traffic. You can see the daily results of this by logging into your Google Analytics account.

There are various plugins which enable you to add the tracking code to your website and the one I currently favor is ‘Google Analytics by Yoast’. This sits comfortably with the Yoast SEO plugin mentioned above.

Search for this plugin as explained above, install it and copy and paste your tracking code as directed.

If I want to use a plugin that is not available via the WordPress website how do I do this?

There are some third-party plugins which are available either free or for sale. The plugin will be supplied in the format of a .ZIP file. Do not unzip the file – store it somewhere on your computer and then from the dashboard click on ‘Plugins’, ‘Add New’, ‘Upload Plugin’. You should then be able to follow the prompts and upload the .ZIP file. Then you can proceed as above.


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