WordPress Plugins 2014 Review
In “The Skinny on WordPress”, I outlined my basic understanding of how to use WordPress. I used a skeleton as an image to show how the platform has a basic structure that supports its main functions. Plugins are added to this skeleton so that it can perform more tasks. These plugins can be small and lightweight or they can be massive. For example, our forum area on this site uses two plugins which are so big that they have their own websites and communities, BuddyPress and bbPress. BuddyPress allows us to create users and groups and bbPress controls how the forums operate within those groups.
The more plugins you have, the more work you create for your site and it can slow loading time down considerably. So, you really need to think about what you add and whether it is worth the extra baggage. In this post, I would like to share what I have been using on this site and on my other ones in the hopes that we can have a discussion on which are the best plugins out there for what we need done on our sites.
These plugins can be a nightmare! WordPress and all of these plugins are part of an opensource community, meaning that smart, techy people are writing code all over the world and making it available for us to use. This is a wonderful gift on their part, but it is also fraught with pitfalls and torment. As the basic WordPress structure updates to keep up with changes in our technology, all of those plugins also need to update in order for them to continue to play nicely with the code. Many great plugins are authored by geniuses who come up with a great idea, write the code, make it available to the public, but then move on to other things. Eventually, what they wrote can become outdated and no longer works. It can make your site unusable and if you have a lot of plugins installed, the nightmare of what is causing the problems starts and you have to go through each plugin to figure out what went wrong.
Themes also contribute to the puzzle. The Theme is the skin or look that you have on your site, how your pages, fonts, colors and data are arranged. The theme writers also have to keep up-to-date with changes in the WordPress world. Sometimes you might have issues where the theme works well with WordPress and so do the plugins, but they don’t with each other. Then, you have to make a choice: ditch the theme or the plugin. All of these things have forums of their own where people are asking for help and others are trying to pitch in to make sense of things. Often the solutions have to do with re-writing code and for those of us who are not coders, this is indeed a nightmare. I am a tweaker, not a coder, and my problem solving rests on the kindness of strangers, of those who have spelled out what to do in baby tech-speak on these many forums, and to them, I am grateful!
These plugins are all free. There are many plugins that can be bought, but I have found that any plugin needs to be tested first and that even some of the paid ones can be poorly written or extremely complicated to set up, so I am hesitant about going that route unless I have used their free ones and want further options offered in their paid ones.
Jetpack: Created by WordPress, offers lots of increased functionality to the site, including site stats and spam control. It’s heavy, but a must.
Admin username changer: If you have a WordPress site is your access name “Admin”? If so, change it! It’s the default name used by WordPress and most newbies don’t think of creating a unique name, but it makes it even easier for hackers to get into your site. This plugin allows you to make that change.
Contact Form 7: Most beloved plugin used to create a contact form page. Simple and straightforward.
TinyMCE Advanced: Adds extra functionality to your blog’s toolbox. The default WordPress one does not come with the ability to create tables and sometimes having one is essential to format a list of text and images more easily.
WordPress SEO: This plugin installs a box beneath your post where you fill in different fields to increase the chances that it will be found on the web. If you do everything right, a green light pops up indicating that you have done all the right things. Getting this green light is not easy and I have found that having this forces me to be disciplined about how I tag images, use keywords and titles and improve the presentation. I now consider this plugin to be essential on any blog. Having a blog should be considered an investment. Although much of the content might become dated pretty quickly, it will still be out there on the web, doing it’s work to bring you an audience. The comment area can always be used to update content, or a post can be revised or discarded. But, while it’s out there, this plugin helps others find it.
P3 (Plugin Performance Profiler): Allows you to see which plugins are slowing down your site. I have it disabled until I want to do a plugin check and see what is going on.
Featured Images in RSS w/ Size and Position: I found that our blog did not have an image feed and we are on quite a few places where having that image thumbnail is important. This is a lightweight plugin that resolves that. Why don’t we have an image in our feed? I have no idea!
Growmap Anti Spambot Plugin: Ads one more security step in preventing spam by robots. Lightweight.
nrelate Related Content: Fun plugin with lots of design choices that generate “you might also like” thumbnails which link to past posts. This really helps readers find more of your past content. Lightweight.
Portfolio Slideshow: My favorite portfolio plugin. Straightforward large image with small thumbnails to the side or below. I use it on my blog when I want to show a lot of images but keep posts relatively short in length. Example.
RSS Multi Importer: The best plugin that I have found to build a blog roll. See our Member Blog page as an example. It has a ton of options on the back end and is well built. However, the formatting often goes out of whack and many of the images are blurry. Note the posts that don’t have thumbnail images. They also need the Featured Images plugin mentioned above! RSS Multi Importer also allows us to have the blog posts show up on our sidebar, which we have on our Blog Page. Clicks to member blogs have been increasing steadily since we did this. However, I would really like to find a better solution. RebelMouse has a beautiful RSS Feed and I had hoped to use them for our Member Blogs, but they have a limit of 50 feeds and we have over 500 members so we would quickly exceed that total. Their solution is to sign up for a feed aggregator and have that post to their feed. So far, the ones that I have looked at are paid versions and I don’t want to pay for yet one more monthly service. If you know of anything that might work, please leave a comment below!
Syndicate Press: A simple RSS feed plugin that allows us to list other feeds. We are using it to post feeds from similar orgs which have calls for artists, fellowships, etc. I haven’t been able to figure out how to keep images within our column size, but otherwise it’s a nice, lightweight tool.
Members: Powerful plugin that allows you to change roles and capabilities of users registered on the site. Kind of scary because changes are permanent and cannot be reversed to the default. This is especially difficult because WordPress and related user-role plugins assume that you know what the different roles mean and it takes some research to figure that out when you are starting out. Some things are obvious, but others are not.
bbPress Enable TinyMCE Visual Tab: bbPress has a basic editing box for posts which I think is pretty dreadful. As we are a visual group with products, it’s important to be able to load and share images so that we can discuss products, designs, etc. Finding a workable solution for this has been a major problem for me. This plugin increases the ability to format our discussions, but it has not been a stable plugin. It also requires all users to have authoring ability on the blog, which is fine with us, as we are a closed group which encourages member use of the blog, but this could be problematic to others. I would love to find a better option to this plugin and have tried all of the forum ones that are currently available with no success.
GD bbPress Attachments: Enables you to load images and docs to a forum discussion. This has been invaluable during the times when the bbPress Enable TinyMCE hasn’t worked. But, it sometimes duplicates images and that has been annoying. There must be a setting that I haven’t figured out yet. Heavy plugin.
BuddyPress Group Email Subscription: Excellent plugin which has allowed us to offer daily or weekly subscriptions to forum updates. This is important as it encourages member participation and lowers the need to constantly check our forum feed to see if anything new has been posted.
Ads by datafeedr.com: The ad plugin that I am using for our sponsors. Pro: You can place it where you want to: sidebar, below posts, inside of posts, etc. Easy to use and set up, keeps track of click counts, impressions, start and end dates. Con: No way to keep the same ad from showing up at the same time on the page.
Another WordPress Classifieds Plugin (AWPCP): Classified Ads plugin that we are using. Beautiful layout and lots of functionality! Integrated with PayPal. There have been some problems with email notices and users being able to set it up, but their forum is very helpful. It’s a heavy plugin. Ads have their own page, categories, and can show up on the sidebar. I really like this one!
The plugins described above are all ones that I am actively using, almost 20 plugins which creates a heavy load for a site. The bigger your site gets, the more you have to ensure that your server needs are being met. A slow site will drive people away, no doubt about it! One of the fixes for all of this back-end activity is to install yet another plugin, one that caches your page info. From what I understand, the basic idea is that the plugin takes a picture of your content and presents that to the viewer, a much quicker way than having to go retrieve it from the server. The two plugins that I have seen mentioned and reviewed most often are W3 Total Cache and WP Super Cache. Yet, both have conflicted with other plugins that I need, including our forum ones. So, right now this site seems to load pretty quickly, most of the time, but believe that I will have to upgrade it soon on the hosting end.
The beauty of WordPress is that you can grow it into a massive beast with many different capabilities. The challenge is to keep it from getting too messy or confusing for its visitors. Having eCommerce capabilities is certainly one of the reasons why WordPress quickly rose to the top of the opensource options. There are over 460 eCommerce plugins listed in the WordPress directory. I am hoping to work on a solution for Afghan Tribal Arts this year and am looking at WooCommerce as one possibility. Another option would be to use Big Cartel and merge it with WordPress. See tutorial. There are so many options and they all look wonderful when you look at their presentations, but after reading reviews, visiting forums, and processing the potential pitfalls, any one has headaches to deal with. If you are using an eCommerce solution, do leave a comment as I would like to do another post just on that.
We are also using code from Amazon for our Book Shop. Many of our members have authored books which are available there and this has been a nice way to have them all in one place.
Wish List and Conclusion
Posts by Email: This is my number one frustration right now. People who want to receive our blog posts by email can do so, but the default one from WordPress.org is as ugly as sin. The WordPress.com one is beautiful and I don’t understand why the .org ones can’t be the same. Most of us have used Google’s FeedBurner as an optional service for posts by email, but they are retiring it soon. This makes no sense as it is something that the blogging community loves! They have already done away with Google Reader, which was also a major staple used by blog readers.
MailChimp offers an integration with WordPress and that would be the best solution for us as we have our regular email list there already. But, I tried it and it was also quite ugly. There are several MailChimp plugins that are supposed to work with the blog subscribers, but I couldn’t get them to do anything. I suppose that I will have to ask for technical assistance and have them walk me through the options. If any of you have something else that we should look at, do leave a comment!
There are many little whines and complaints on my wish list and I wish things just stayed the same. Who knows where technology will be in five years? Each time there is a big, drastic shift in how things are done, it opens the doors to so many new opportunities, yet it ultimately means a lot of work in making everything compatible. Who knew ten years ago that cell phones would become a major surfing tool? So, we have to adapt, keep on learning and do the best we can to make use of all of these magnificent tools.
What about you? Are there any insights that you would like to share? Questions? I am by no means a tech expert, but I have learned some things along the way and am always curious to learn more. For this post, we are especially interested in learning about other plugins out there that might be important or useful. Let us know what you use along with a link to the Plugin’s site address to make it easy for everyone to find. I hope that you have found this WordPress Plugins 2014 Review of help!
Oh! And, if you like this post and what we are doing with TAFA, do sign up to receive our posts by email in the sidebar! One of these days, we’ll find a plugin that delivers pretty ones! 🙂
About Rachel Biel
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