When creating a website, there are few options better or more flexible than WordPress. It’s the most popular web building and CMS software available, and much of this is due in large part to the infinite ways you can create a truly unique website.
One of the ways that the open-source WordPress platform achieves this is through the use of plugins.
Immeasurably helpful, but often not fully understood by many first time WordPress users, plugins can do a lot of good and go a long way to making an average site amazing. But if you’re not careful, they can do some harm as well.
So let’s gain a better understanding of these feature-filled add-ons and then take a look some of the best and most essential free plugins available that will take your WordPress site to the next level.
What Is A WordPress Plugin and Why Are They Important?
A plugin is downloadable software that when added to a WordPress site, increases its functionality in some form. From improving performance to providing security to creating a better user experience, the total number of available plugins is massive.
In fact, as of this writing, the number has exceeded over 55,000.
That’s a lot of functionality.
A few things to note though as you start to browse the many options. A lot of the available plugins perform the same task, so there’s a lot of choice for each extra function. Deciding which plugin is the best at what you need it to do is definitely a challenge.
A good example is when you do a search for a Google Map plugin your results will reflect at least 75 viable options, and then plenty more that you shouldn’t even consider.
Yes, there’s a lot of choices.
Before adding anything, determine what your site needs most and then add plugins accordingly. But try to keep your additions to a minimum. Also, consider the type of website you’re managing.
A blog probably won’t need a map or booking plugin, but social media share buttons will be a necessity. Don’t add a plugin just because it’s neat and might come in handy. Keep your site lean and your plugins meaningful.
There’s also a lot of free and premium options so be aware of what you’re downloading and make sure a plugin is really going to help your site before committing any funds to it. In many cases, there will be a free version to try out first or at the very least a one or two-week free trial.
Second, make the plugins you choose count. While they offer plenty of tools that can flesh out your site, too many plugins or the wrong ones can slow it down.
Which is why we suggest only selecting highly rated or widely used plugins. Typically, those will be the best-coded and have been tested time and again by the WordPress community. The more popular ones will also have some level of support from the developer.
Finally, keep the ones you genuinely need updated and get rid of the ones you don’t. Like we said plugins can add unnecessary drag to a site and though a plugin’s feature might be nice to have, it’s only excess baggage if it’s underutilized.
So what are the best free plugins that stand above the rest?
Top Free WordPress Plugins
As we noted, there’s a lot out there in the WordPress plugin store, and it can be difficult determining which ones will work best for your site’s needs, especially when considering the availability of so many free options.
Which is why we’ve pulled together the best, most functional and widely used free plugins. Although we break these down in order of importance, every plugin on our list can be considered the top tier of what will best serve almost any WordPress website.
Even with our few specialized entries, you find plugins that may be indispensable depending on the type of website you manage.
So with those considerations noted, let’s get into our list of the best free WordPress plugins.
Regardless of the website you’re operating, if you’re running it through WordPress, these are the absolute must-haves. Not only do they make life much easier on you, but they also extend the functionality of your site.
From management to security to performance to SEO these five plugins effectively serve as your site’s five senses, elevating it from a basic WordPress website to something far more effective.
Let’s get our list started with one of the most popular plugins available – JetPack. This is a multifaceted tool that actually comes from the developers of the actual WordPress software and covers an incredible array of function for your website.
Some of the features include general site performance monitoring, SEO management, security features, optimization for images, and downtime tracking.
That’s just a sample of what it can do.
You can also add more features like spam protection and daily backups by subscribing to one of their plans.
As great as JetPack is for many people, it does have its detractors, and it’s mainly for one simple, but very good reason.
It’s over-stuffed with features.
Yes, you read that right, Jetpack’s main drawback is that it can be too much of a good thing. As we noted earlier, too many plugins or a combination of the wrong ones can unnecessarily burden your website and slow it down.
If you plan to run only a few key plugins, Jetpack is a wonderful multipurpose tool that gives your website a nice boost in functionality.
However, if you already rely on an above average number of plugins servicing your WordPress site, we recommend either condensing your list through a multipurpose tool like Jetpack or figure out the one or two items you’ll use most from the Jetpack toolkit and download those separate plugins.
Rocket science, brain surgery, SEO.
Okay. Maybe rocket science isn’t nearly as difficult to understand as the other two topics, but you get the idea. These three things are all quite perplexing, and while we know very little about the rocket science and brain surgery, we do recommend Yoast SEO for your WordPress site.
All joking aside, SEO is arguably one of the most critical aspects of running your website, but also one of the most difficult to manage.
Titles, descriptions, keywords. And meta. So much meta.
Yoast SEO assists you in understanding what’s going on and therefore helps you to develop a site more likely to get picked up by the major search engines of Google, Yahoo, and Bing. And not just cursory glance, but to establish and maintain a stable presence in their rankings.
The Yoast SEO plugin does this by providing an analysis of your page to improve readability and your use of words and titles. It also directs you to optimize a primary keyword and create more informed meta titles and descriptions.
All of that is just the free version. There is also a premium option that expands on those core concerns including increasing the keyword optimization up to five.
Google XML Sitemaps
Another method of managing your SEO is with the Google XML Sitemaps plugin.
As the name suggests, the plugin generates an XML sitemap which makes your site far easier to index. A website that is appropriately indexed is more likely to be ranked by the major search engines including Google, Yahoo, and Bing.
Beyond that, the plug also notifies those same search engines anytime your sitemap is updated or when you add new content or perform any site updates.
The continued advancement of all forms of technology has brought with it an increasingly sophisticated variety of methods to attack it. All websites are targets, and yours is no exception.
Thankfully, as hackers and online thieves become more brazen in their attacks, the level of security to keep them at bay continues to get better and better. The Sucuri plugin is without question one of the top options available for WordPress.
Sucuri provides an incredibly robust website firewall that secures your site against any number of attacks including brute force, DDoS and malware.
Other protections it furnishes include auditing of security activity, malware scanning, monitoring of your file integrity, and reviewing blacklists regularly. Plus, should anything be amiss, you are instantly notified.
Though we strongly recommend Sucuri, should you opt for another security plugin, make it a top priority, do your homework, and be sure it protects your site. You and your users will be happy you did.
W3 Total Cache
We’re positive that you’ve heard our next sentence on numerous occasions, and we’ll go ahead and keep the streak alive. The speed of your website is one of the most important things to stay on top of while building and managing it.
Not only can a slow performing site dampen a user’s overall experience, but your site’s speed has a significant bearing on your SEO. Slow is bad. Fast is good.
W3 Total Cache addresses this problem by temporarily storing your site’s data to improve the load times of pages or posts. Even better it offers several different methods of caching including browser, database, object and of course page and post options.
It doesn’t sound like much, but a fast website will give you a considerable advantage with both users and SEO.
Good to Have Installed
These plugins straddle the line between necessity and optional and in many cases could be considered essential depending on the type of website you run or your personal preferences.
Though they are a tier below the top five, don’t underestimate the power of these four plugins and their ability to make your site run smoother and provide a better overall user experience. Those two enhancements alone will keep people coming back and entice new visitors to make the journey.
Ah yes, spam.
It’s both a highly questionable meat substitute and an insanely annoying part of our technology-based culture. For purposes of this article, let us address the latter.
Though we commonly associate spamming with phone calls and emails, spamming the comments sections of websites has become a massive issue in recent years. Unfortunately, this trend shows no signs of stopping.
The WordPress endorsed plugin Akismet (its made by the same group as WordPress) can help you combat the problem by reviewing comments and kicking out anything that’s problematic.
In addition, you can access each users commenting history and identify rogue comments or links and get rid of them.
Like most of the other plugins on our list, there is also a paid version which increases the spam oversight.
Many people who manage a WordPress website will tell you that MonsterInsights is an essential plugin that you absolutely need to have installed to help you track your Google Analytics. No questions asked.
While we agree that Google Analytics is an absolute for any WordPress site, MonsterInsights is not.
Yes, the MonsterInsights plugin does make it easier to track and manage certain aspects of the Google tool, but its status as a necessity is really a judgment call.
First, Google, as with most of its services, makes it as straightforward as possible to access your tracking data and reporting. Second, the Google site is far more robust with its full complement of reports and management options. Finally, if you already have a lot of plugins working with your WordPress site, adding one more could slow your site down more than you’d like.
Now, with all of that said, MonsterInsights is an excellent shortcut. You get the vital parts of your analytical data without ever leaving your WordPress dashboard. Additionally, if you’d rather avoid the details and prefer the 30,000-foot view, MonsterInsights is by far the best option to narrow the Google Analytics reporting.
If you’ve never used or never noticed the built-in WordPress search function for your website, don’t fret. Not too many others have either.
If you have a lot of content and a lot of traffic, then a robust search function is key to creating a better user experience, and the WordPress option just won’t cut it. Relevanssi, however, will not only cut it, but it also does some serious slicing.
More than just a simple search function, this plugin allows the user to search using keywords or with phrases and quotes. Also, it sorts the results by relevance, which one would usually think is a given, but as the WordPress search demonstrates, that’s not always the case.
The free version of the plugin can also highlight the search text and allows a small level of customization. Of course, there is the premium version that increases your ability to tweak the settings considerably, but we do believe users will find the free version adequate for most websites.
Unless you are running the absolute most basic of blogs, images are a huge part of any website. Not only do they add a strong, visual appeal to your web pages, but they also serve to increase and improve your website’s marketing power.
Unfortunately, there two significant downsides with adding pictures – they take up a ton of space and can significantly slow down your website’s speed.
You can solve this in one of two ways, compress the images yourself, which is incredibly tiring and time-consuming or get the WP Smush plugin.
WP Smush assists you in the compression and optimization of images across multiple formats, including GIF, JPEG, and PNG. Not only that but it allows you the option to compress the files manually, automatically when you upload them, or 50 at a time in what the plugin calls the bulk smush.
Even if your site only deals with a handful of image files at any given time, it’s still a nice option to keep handy to optimize space, maintain a speedy site, and perhaps most importantly, save you quite a bit of time.
One note though. While we have WP Smush listed as “Good To Have Installed,” if you are a photographer or run a website that demands a large number of high-resolution images, consider this plugin a must-have essential.
Helpful Additions, But Not Required
Our next set of plugins fall under the category of add when necessary. Creating and launching your site is more about developing content and building an audience.
After a few months, if all goes according to plan, you start looking for ways to work out lingering issues in your site and seek out more advanced techniques to engage and further build your audience. These three great add-ons will help you do just that.
However, if the need arose to clean up your plugins to improve site performance, this batch, though tough to give up on, would get the ax before the nine plugins we reviewed above.
Broken Link Checker
An often overlooked aspect of any website is broken links or pages. Few things will cause a user to jump from your site faster than trying to view something that’s not there. Perhaps even worse, broken links are not helpful for your SEO.
What’s the best way to handle this minor dilemma that can have major repercussions?
A plugin, of course. The best one we’ve seen that also fits our criteria of being free is Broken Link Checker.
Upon install, merely set it up and off it goes, running in the background while checking and then alerting you to any issues. If you have a ton of content, this process may take some time, but once you get through the first run, you can set up an ongoing schedule for the plugin to run its check.
Social Media Share Buttons and Social Sharing Icons
Though we may well be reaching an over-saturation point for social media, that abundance of online shares and likes is very much to your advantage.
Not just to build your site’s social media credibility and grow your audience, but also have Google, Yahoo, and Bing notice your web presence and increase your overall reach.
Few things do this better than the use of social media buttons, and there’s no better plugin than Social Media Share Buttons. A very flexible plugin with options galore, it allows you to add buttons from over 200 social media buttons and choose one of 16 different designs.
You can even include an option for your visitors to share a post or some content the old fashioned way – through email.
If you need to engage with users or customers, one of the most efficient methods is through a contact form. From our experience, WP Forms is one of the best ways to create the exact form you need.
WP Forms offers a drag and drop editor for creating the perfect contact form and starts you out with a number of templates from which to choose your baseline setup. Everything from requesting a quote to signing up for a newsletter to simple or blank forms that let you create your own from scratch.
From there you drag the fields you need into place and drag out the ones you don’t. There are even choices for required and optional fields. Most importantly the forms are highly responsive and ensure your mobile audience can reach you as well.
The 12 plugins detailed above are recommended for any website – from business to blog to ecommerce and any other internet presence that may land somewhere amongst those three. They help with security, speed, SEO and general overall management.
However, what if your web endeavors require something a bit more specific?
A restaurant will have different needs versus an online t-shirt seller whose requirements will also differ from those of a real estate firm.
As we’ve already explained, that’s the beauty of the WordPress plugin. There’s just so many of them. Whatever the need, there’s a greater than zero chance you can find an exact plugin to fit an exact requirement.
Whether yours is a restaurant, medical office, or some other form of business that is reservation or appointment driven, having a booking option on your website can be a huge boost for your business.
The positive customer service implications are pretty clear as more and more people look to book appointments online. However, the right booking plugin can also help your business run smoother, and you to be more organized. The Booking Calendar plugin is the perfect tool to address all three considerations.
Allowing you to take total control over your online booking, the plugin features a customizable and responsive selection of calendars that fit your website regardless if someone is using a desktop or mobile devices to complete the booking. Plus, all of the appointments are stored directly to your database, and you can import and export items to and from your Google Calendar.
WP Google Maps
For most websites, like a blog or online based business, a map plugin is in some regards like a flashlight. It’s helpful to have when you need it, but the need for it is rare. With physical, brick and mortar businesses, it’s a different matter.
A map plugin can quickly work its way up to essential depending on the business. Organizations with multiple offices come immediately to mind. So too does real estate or property management firms that in some cases can have hundreds of local, regional or national locations that need to be mapped.
If you’re looking for something straightforward, but incredibly flexible, then WP Google Maps will be your best option.
You can create a map in a matter of minutes with functionality that includes adding markers tied to an exact address, locator functions, street view without leaving your site, and maps that are responsive which means when they are viewed on mobile devices the map’s integrity, and visual appeal will remain intact.
There is a premium version that doubles the number of features, but we recommend trying out the quite powerful free download first.
Free WooCommerce Plugins
If you operate an ecommerce store through WordPress, then we’re fairly certain you’re already running the most popular sales solution they have in WooCommerce. But guess what. There are ways to optimize that fantastic piece of software even further.
Yep, even the plugin has plugins.
Although WooCommerce is a robust sales tool on its own there a few things that can be overlooked when you get your online store up and running. Here are three that we recommend for increasing your store’s functionality.
For your ecommerce to be successful, you need to figure out ways to maximize the time a shopper spends on your site, and convert their visit to sales. Which is why you may be losing a ton of money if you’re not employing the use of OptinMonster.
With this vital plugin, you can build your customer email list and create targeted campaigns to increase your conversions. Once you get accustomed to the plugin, there is a premium version that we highly recommend upgrading to as it can prove a real difference maker in your ecommerce success.
YITH WooCommerce Wishlist
If you haven’t yet added a wishlist function to your ecommerce site, you’re probably losing some money here too. Just because somebody doesn’t buy today, doesn’t mean they won’t come back at a later date to complete the transaction.
A YITH WooCommerce Wishlist will help your customers remember what they liked and were contemplating on their last visit. People love to browse or share their lists with others before committing to a purchase. When they do return, that wishlist can help get them to the checkout a lot faster.
WooCommerce Gift Cards
Adding an option to purchase gift cards to your online store is an easy way to gain additional purchases, especially when the holiday season hits. Consider that people love to buy gift cards because it’s easy, and the recipients tend to purchase over the gift card’s limit for much the same reason. That’s a win-win for you.
The WooCommerce Gift Cards plugin is a nice little addon that can help you increase sales and drive future traffic to your store.
Plugins are indeed an excellent way to extend the functionality of the already robust WordPress platform. In most cases, they serve to help you manage your site better while making it a more attractive draw for users and search engines.
Just remember only choose the ones that will serve current needs and never to hold on to a plugin that doesn’t fit your site’s current status or goals. An underutilized plugin will always do more harm than good.
Realize that early on it may take some trial and error. Ultimately, once you find the right mix of plugins that effectively serve your site without sacrificing performance, you’ll truly see your website take off.