Every time I install a fresh copy of WordPress I’m starting with a clean slate. The install is fast, it’s clean, but unfortunately it’s rarely possible to leave WordPress raw.
There are things that need to be done such as security, customization, and all those other things that go along with making a WordPress website yours. Every time I install WordPress there are a number of plugins that I absolutely must have.
I’ll cover those plugins, why I have to install them, and even the order I install them in. Many of the plugins don’t matter which order they’re installed in, but to make the installation of them all easier for me, I like to follow at least somewhat closely to my order.
I’ll explain why a plugin order is important. The most important to keep in their order is the first and the last, I will say that much here.
Keep in mind that I won’t cover the configuration of each of these plugins, that will be for another time.
This is my list of 10 must have free WordPress plugins.
Match Plugins to Purpose
This list is my starting point for most of my sites but in no way is it a complete list. There may be some plugins that you don’t even need. I will describe why I use some of these plugins but there are a few that you may not want to use. Some may not fit the purpose of your website.
It’s always important to match the plugin to the purpose of your website. If you’re creating an eCommerce WordPress website, you’re going to have very different plugins than a personal blog. Always keep that in mind when choosing your plugins. Oh, and always ask “what is the purpose of this plugin?” and “can I do without this plugin?”
Start Your Plugins
Start from the top and work your way down. Not all will be perfect for you, but some of them are an absolute must.
This is one of those must-have plugins from the start of your WordPress installation. Any content management system (CMS) has inherent security weaknesses so a security plugin is a must. You don’t want to have your website hacked or have malware, then you have big problems.
This plugin is a must, especially as you customize your WordPress website more. Inevitably your website will call several different files. The goal is to call as few files as possible from each page of your website. This plugin aggregates many files from your site into just three.
This is one of those plugins that’s not an absolute necessity, but it’s one that I have on ALL my websites. The creative freedom it gives you to format pages any way you like is worth the plugin overhead. Mentioning plugin overhead, I put this on my list because the overhead is so low with this one. It may be one of the smallest plugins you install.
This may be one of the plugins you don’t need, but if you want a bit of formatting freedom, this is a great plugin. You can create special pages and put widgets anywhere you want within the content area.
A premium version is also available which I am now using and love.
This plugin makes it easy to track your website visitors with Google Analytics. It makes it easy to connect to your Analytics account and begin tracking visitors. It also allows you to exclude Admin accounts or any other account type you like.
This is also not a necessary plugin but one that makes tracking with Google Analytics a bit easier.
This plugin is more than just a plugin because of all the modules it has. This is both a good thing and a bad thing though. Jetpack comes with too many modules enabled so it’s important if you do use this that you analyze each module and disable it if not needed.
I do have a love-hate relationship with this plugin. I love it because it has some features that are hard to replicate with other plugins, but I hate it because it is a large plugin and needs to be connected to WordPress.com. If I could find alternatives to all the features I love about Jetpack, I would get rid of it.
This one is a must have to keep image file sizes in check. Every image you upload to your blog will go through WP-Smush and it will compress it. This will make your website more usable for visitors because images will load faster.
You can’t go without this plugin.
This is another must have plugin, although it’s one of those you may not need to leave installed all the time. It’s possible to install the plugin, clean up your database, then uninstall the plugin.
WordPress is a great CMS but it’s far from perfect. As you install plugins, themes, and modify your WordPress installation, the database is bound to get a bit messy. This plugin helps you clean the database up to keep your website running fast.
Everybody has their own preference for spam protection, but you can not skip spam protection. If you have a form or use the build in WordPress comment system, you must have spam protection.
This plugin has proven to be the best and most dependable spam protection on several of my websites. I have heard that it can slow down a website if you get excessive spam, but with a bit of regular database cleanup and using the above optimization plugins, your website should do great.
If you do choose another spam protection solution, my recommendation would be to not use one that makes a call to an external website. You want as few of these as possible and Jetpack already forces you to make one.
Even if you don’t optimize each of your blog articles for search engines, this plugin will benefit you. If you do want to optimize each post, this plugin can provide some excellent guidance.
Install this plugin and take the tour to find some of the cool things it can do to make your website work even better for the search engines.
W3 Total Cache or WP Super Cache (never both!)
These are two of the more popular, and better cache plugins, each is good for different uses. W3 Total Cache is more advanced than WP Super Cache and provides a lot more settings which is part of its benefit and drawback. I use each one depending on the purpose, especially since I’ve run into issues with WooCommerce and WP Super Cache.
Why install the cache plugin last? It makes the rest of your plugin installations go much smoother and quicker. After W3 Total Cache is installed, you’ll be asked to clear the cache each time you install a plugin. If you are installing many plugins, this single added step can add up and take a lot of your time.
Run & Configure
This is just a list of plugins and if you expect to install them and go, you will not be benefiting from all the great features of them. I will spend some time over the next few weeks covering some of the configurations of these plugins.
Not only do many of them need a bit of configuration, several of them need you to manually run them once installed. Some run on their own, such as WP Smush which will compress images as you upload them, but others do not run on their own.
There are so many plugins out there. I’d love to hear from you what your must have plugins are. Please share in the comments below.
Updated February 13, 2016 with added suggestions for the cache plugin.