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WordPress Toolkit

Must Have WordPress Plugins for 2015

(This article is part of my WordPress Toolkit series)

Best plugin advice?

Keep it simple.

It’s not only good advice when it comes to plugins – it’s good advice for your site’s design too.  This probably goes doubly true for entrepreneurs and small businesses that aren’t in the web-design business.  Why?  Because it’s too easy to go overboard… adding features and functionality until your site becomes slow and distracting (or worse).  This isn’t to say that plugins are bad, or should be avoided, it’s just that you need to be selective about the types of plugins you use and have a clear objectives in mind when using them.  In this case, I’m talking about utility plugins… or plugins that provide you with basic and critical functionality that’s common to most WordPress.

… which is why this is a list of only 5 plugins.

 

Akismet

AkismetAkismet – this one probably almost goes without saying.  It pretty effectively handles comment spam (assuming you allow comments on your site).  It comes pre-installed with every WordPress installation, and just needs to be activated.  Is comment-spam a real problem?  Absolutely.  On popular web-sites the amount of spam comments is up to 85%!  Experience also suggests that it’s even higher for new sites (as in, 99.9%).  Akismet does a solid job at eliminating the vast majority of comment spam.  It also does an effective job at preventing false positives (e.g. legitimate comments flagged as spam).  While some users have criticized the false-positive detection,  by and large Akismet does an excellent job.  Configuration is fairly straight-forward, and there are plenty of Akismet how-to articles available should you need them.

BackupWordPress

BackupWordPress

 

BackupWordPress enables you to back-up your entire WordPress site (including all of your files, and your WordPress database) on a scheduled basis.   It does exactly the job you’d expect it to do.  Mainly, it keep your sites backed-up should something bad happen.  The free version does enable you to get scheduled backups emailed over to you, but your site will quickly grow beyond what email can accommodate.  The $99 bundle lets you direct your backup jobs somewhere convenient, like DropBox, GoogleDrive, Amazon S3, sFTP, etc. and is well worth the cost.

Contact Form 7ContactForm7

 

Contact Form 7 is one of the best contact form plugins for WordPress, which can be particularly useful if your theme doesn’t come with one (or if it’s clunky).  Highly customizable and doesn’t require you to do any coding to make it happen.  It also supports useful things like CAPTCHA, Akismet spam filtering, and more.

WP-DBManager

WP-DBManager

WP-DBManager enables you to keep your WordPress database in check.  You may not realize it yet, but one of the challenges that you’ll encounter as you build out content for you sites is that the number of revisions, drafts, and re-revisions start to add up.  Don’t believe me?  Even this short article took more than a few revisions!  One of the more important aspects of running a successful WordPress site is keeping your database healthy – WP-DBManager enables you to do just that.

WP Mail SMTP

WP-Mail-SMTP

 

Depending on your host, you may or may not need a tool to modify the configuration of wp_mail() such that you can use SMTP.  If you find yourself unable to generate email messages with your host, consider using WP Mail SMTP – configuration is fairly straightforward.

Other Advice

While you could probably spend years playing with the tens of thousands of plugins available, I refer you back to the advice offered at the beginning of this post.  Mainly – keep it simple!  At some point, you’ll probably find a need for some extra bit of functionality that WordPress doesn’t offer out of the box, and when you do… look at your theme first and see if it offers you what you’re looking for, and if you can’t accomplish that way, only then consider adding plugins.  When you check out WordPress Plugin Directory – the comprehensive inventory for all things WordPress plugin related, be sure to check the “Last Updated:” field, and the number of “Downloads” for whatever your interested in, as they’ll give you an idea as to the quality of the plugin your looking at, or at least of the size of the community.  Generally speaking, my suggestion is to stick to Plugins that have either been updated recently, have a high download count (or both), and whenever possible have been recommended to you by someone you trust.

There you have it… my list of 5 Must Have WordPress plugins for 2015.  While by no means an exhaustive list, it’s should be more than enough to keep you busy getting your basic site built-out.

Part 6 – Responsive and Mobile

Do you remember a few years ago, when everything looked terrible on mobile devices and that was kind of just the accepted reality of things?  Obviously that’s no longer the case.  Today, web sites need to look great on both the desktop and mobile devices because most of your typical audience is just as likely to be checking out your site from their iPad, as they are from their desktop computer at the office. The ability of a site to display well across all types of devices is called responsive design.  Put differently, its web design that responds and optimizes site appearance and navigation so that the site looks good on whatever device it’s being displayed on… meaning, the site looks good on a computer, on a tablet, or a phone.  It doesn’t matter what you view it on, because the design responds to the environment that it’s being used on.

ResponsiveComparisonR2As an example, here’s a comparison of what this site looks like when viewed from iPhone vs. Chrome on a desktop.  The responsive design enables the content to display in a useful manner on a mobile device.  Put differently, responsive design is about creating a user-friendly site experience, making the site more appealing, and creating a great user-experience across many devices and screen sizes.  While you can build a responsive design yourself, or contract a company to do this for you, in most cases finding the right theme that’s already responsive is often the best approach.  In the prior article in this series, I mentioned several themes which were responsive and useful.

Is responsive really design for me?

The answer is almost certainly yes.  Here’s why… even if you expect that the vast majority of your site’s visitors will be coming in via a desktop web-browser, the reality today is that your site is going to rank better in terms of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) if you have a responsive design that works well with mobile devices.  In other words, Google loves responsive web design and your search results will rank higher automatically just by choosing a responsive theme.  If for no other reason, that’s why you should consider a responsive theme.  Beyond that, one of the added benefits of responsive design is less management effort.  In the majority of cases, one you have a responsive site, there’s no longer a reason to do both a mobile and desktop version of your site.  That means no separate content management tools, or sites to maintain, or having to worry about separate URLs, and building the authority and rank of each site independently.  Which makes sharing content on social media that much easier – both for you, and your audience.  All of that extra stuff (and cost) just goes away.

Okay, so say none of this is you… maybe you don’t think you really care about responsive design, and maybe you just think of your web-site as a “me too”, or “must have” – a placeholder for your business.  That’s fair… many companies, niche companies, and organizations that have very complex or products just have a site because they have to.  But even if all of that’s true of your business – why wouldn’t you want your site to look good on a tablet?  Why wouldn’t you want to automatically improve your page rank?  Why wouldn’t you want  want a new potential avenue for clients?  If you’re going to be making any investments in a site, choose a responsive theme.

Part 5, Theme Recommendations

By this point, you’ve followed the previous setup information and should be ready to begin working with a demo site.    Which means that you’ve chosen a CMS platform, registered a domain name, selected an appropriate web host, configured DNS, and are now either at the point of choosing a 1-click WordPress instance, or your web host has sent you a link to get started.  Fantastic!  Pick a username and password, and click “Install WordPress”.  Then click Log In.

You’ll be presented with the WordPress Dashboard.  From this console, you’ll be able to change everything about the look and feel of your site, create content, and so on.  Good thing too… because by default your site probably looks something similar to this…

WordPressSetup.4

 

Now, before you get started changing your themes, let me introduce you to one of the biggest challenges with working with WordPress today… separating the good, from the bad (and the ugly).  This isn’t a problem unique to WordPress, or themes, or plug-ins… it’s a problem shared by any platform that has hit critical mass.  As with Microsoft Windows, or Android… the problem usually isn’t finding a tool or an app for the job… the real problem is often finding a good tool for job.  Few places is this more true than when applied to themes.  There’s just so many out there, and if you’re getting started, it’s really hard to know what’s good or bad until you’ve invested quite a bit of time building some familiarity.  So, let me try and save you some time.  In general, you want something that’s being actively developed or maintained by an organization was some staying power… you don’t want the theme to disappear next week.  You probably also want something that’s easy to manage.  Because even if you, or some of your technical resources are doing the initial work, it’s likely that you’ll want to turn over maintenance to someone else – marketing, or HR, etc. and in that case, you’ll need a theme that’s not too terribly hard to work with.  Finally, you’ll want something that’s responsive and looks good on mobile  devices (more on this later).

WordPressSetup.3

Beginner: If you’re just starting out and want to get your feet wet without spending hours looking at “free” themes, check out Themify.me.  Themify.me has plenty of good options – as in, themes that look pretty good, are generally easy to work with, and tend to not break your WordPress install.  For your time, it might be worth picking up “The Master Club” offering ($139), as it offers a good value and saves you from having to wade through a lot of junk.  At the same time it gives enough different themes and options to understand what’s possible.

Intermediate: While not necessarily as easy to get started with, the Avada theme from Theme Fusion is a popular and powerful option. At the risk of overselling this, it’s the #1 selling theme on Themeforest, run on more than 85,000 web sites.  While that might sound overused, the reality is that because it’s highly customizable you probably won’t find lots of other sites with a similar look and feel.  It’s not quite as beginner friendly as Themify.me’s stable of quality themes, but Avada pretty looks good with only a modicum of configuration work, and probably isn’t going to disappear overnight.

Advanced: In addition to what standard themes, there are also theme frameworks.  Two of the more popular  commercial theme frameworks include the Genesis Framework, and Thesis.  Theme frameworks allow you to extend the capabilities of WordPress.  You can think of them as platforms that sit on-top of WordPress and enable you to add functionality (e.g. drag and drop site layouts, replace or eliminate plug-in functionality using small code snippets, etc.).  You still need to add a child theme to skin the theme framework and provide a ‘look-and-feel’, so for starters you may just want to stick to the themify.me or Avada route, if for no other reason than economics.  If you really want to go work with a theme framework, let me save you some research.  There are a lot of conflicting articles and opinions discussing Genesis and Thesis.  When it comes down to it, Genesis is probably going to be easier to work with than Thesis 2.  Thesis lost some of its momentum when they released Thesis 2.  When it was released, there was painfully little documentation, and so it was more than a bit confusing for new comers.  Today?  Most of those documentation problems and bugs have been fixed.  Personally, I like Thesis 2…so your mileage may vary .  Unless you have a child theme that you absolutely have to have, and you want to use a theme framework, Genesis is probably going to be the easier of the two to work with.

 

Part 4, DNS Overview

If you didn’t register a domain name when you selected a hosting provider, then you probably did in the Domain Registration portion of this series.  After registering your domain, the next step is to get DNS (Domain Name System) configured so that when you type www.yourdomainname.com, your web-host responds and presents a web-page.

What is DNS?

At 30,000 feet, DNS is a hierarchical distributed naming system for resources.  It translates domain names (e.g. mydomain.com) into IP addresses (111.222.111.222) on the internet.  For the purposes of this article, we’re only really concerned about getting your domain name to point at your web-host.  And fortunately, that’s pretty easy.

What’s an IP address?

An IP address is a unique identifier that matches to your domain name.  IP addresses must be unique on the Internet (e.g. there’s only one 111.222.111.222).  Using a DNS configuration tool, we map that IP address to a domain name. Just because you registered your domain name with, say, GoDaddy… doesn’t mean that your DNS has to point to GoDaddy’s web-servers.  For example, if you registered your domain via GoDaddy, but you’re hosting your web-site on DigitalOcean, you can point your name servers at DigitalOcean. (e.g. n1.digitalocean.com, ns2.digitalocean.com, ns3.digitalocean.com).  In other words, if you login to GoDaddy, and go to Domain Management, you’ll be able to Manage the nameservers. In the above example, if ns1/ns2/ns3.digitalocean.com are listed in GoDaddy’s Domain Management page, that’s all you really need to do (assuming your site is up and configured at digitalocean).  What you’re doing by configuring the name servers there, is telling DNS that DigitalOcean is authoritative for your domain.  Once you do that,  all that GoDaddy is doing for you is pointing at the third-party DNS host.  So, if you want to make changes to DNS (e.g. create subdomains, configure a mail server, setup some types of CDNs, etc.), then you need to do it through DNS management console of your DNS host.  In this example, if you login to DigitalOcean, here’s what the DNS Management Console looks like: DigitalOceanDNSManagment What’s all of this stuff?

There are several different types of records, including A, CNAME, MX, SRV, and NS records.  If you’ve already configured your nameservers to point at DigitalOcean, then any changes you make here will be translate into behavior changes when folks type your web-address.  So, if your WordPress host is running on DigitalOcean, then all you need to do is create an A-record at point it at the IP address of your digitalocean WordPress server.

Where is my IP Address on DigitalOcean?  You can find the IP address of your DigitalOcean WordPress server by clicking on “Droplets”, and matching the IP address of your WordPress server (e.g. in our example, we’ll use 111.222.111.222). DigitalOceanFindMyIPAddress A-Records After you have that, click on the DNS in the left hand navigation column and create a new A-record.  In most cases, you’ll want to create a new A-record for “www”, and match it with your IP address. Alternatively, you could use [email protected] matched with your IP address.  Using the [email protected] symbol, is a reference to the root domain itself.  So in practice, here’s what this means…you probably want folks to reach your web-site by going to https://www.domain.com – so create an A-Record to point from www.domain.com to your IP address.  You probably also want folks who just type http://domain.com to reach your domain name, so create a second A-Record pointing [email protected] to your IP address.  That way, folks typing www.domain.com, or just domain.com will be directed to your IP address.

CNAME Records

A CNAME record works as an alias of the A record.  That way, if an A Record’s IP address changes, the CNAME will follow to the new address automatically.  You might want to go ahead an create a CNAME record to point www to the root domain via [email protected] And then you can also use a wildcard to direct any mistyped records (e.g. wwq.domain.com) to domain.com by pointing an “*” to the root domain [email protected]

MX Records

An MX (mail exchanger ) record is a type of resource record for record that specifies the mail server responsible for accepting email messages on behalf of a recipient’s domain, and a preference value used to prioritize servers.  While beyond the scope of this article, the lower preference value (e.g. the lower number), the higher delivery preference, meaning that sending mail servers will look first to the highest priority to deliver (e.g. lowest number).  You can assign multiple records the same priority level to provide a type of load-balancing, or you can assign backup servers based if you have design considerations where the backup server is limited in some manner (e.g. high-latency internet connection, etc.).

Part 2, Managed vs. Budget WordPress Hosting

Did you check out Part 1?

In a market with an almost an unlimited number of choices, why is it so hard to find the right WordPress host?  After all, aren’t all of the building blocks low, or no-cost?  Between WordPress, Linux, inexpensive computing, and an endless supply of commodity providers that all look alike, doesn’t this resemble a perfectly competitive market? At least, it seems to at a glance, doesn’t it?

But if that’s the case, why is your current host so bad?

And why are there so many articles on who to choose, and why to choose them? (FYI… most reviewers are compensated though an affiliate program.  I’m not.).

It’s with you in mind, that I put together this article.  My goal is to present the topic from 30,000 feet, help you understand where the market is, and help you make the right choice.

Small Business Owners, Freelancers, and Startups 

If this describes you, and your business is doing anywhere from zero to $30 million in sales, then you probably don’t want to host your own WordPress site.   Temping as though it may be, particularly if you have a stack of servers in a datacenter somewhere, or a huge vSphere licensing investment, it’s still probably not worth your time to do.  On top of that, I just don’t know of many startups, freelancers, or small businesses that resemble what I just described.  Is it possible for you to host your own WordPress site?  Sure, you can technically do that with your residential high-speed connection and an old workstation with a LAMP stack running on it.  In fact, I bet someone on your team already pitched that idea, didn’t they?

… and that will work just fine, right up until the time when one of a thousand things that you didn’t know to plan for happens.  Then… you’ll have a mess.

So sure, it’s possible to host it yourself.  But realistically, in the majority of cases, I don’t buy what your developer or operations folks are pitching.  Unless they have recent specific experience, and it also happens to be a valuable way for them to spend their time (now, and in the future as they maintain the site), then it’s unlikely that you belong in the WordPress self-hosting game.  Why?  For reasons that start with security and reliability, but ultimately end with the business case…. as in, do you actually have a reason to be in the WordPress hosting business?  Think about it this way… unless you reasonably stand to profit the investment you’re making in your WordPress infrastructure, why are you doing it?  Those expensive dev and ops resources that you have messing around with a WordPress VM… their time could probably be spent doing almost anything else.  After all, no matter how smart, well meaning, or capable they may appear to be, the reality is that WordPress hosting has already already been done better, and more cost effectively elsewhere, by companies that are backed with venture capital and can boast hosting north of 150,000 sites.  So yeah, your technical team might be able to get you up and running – but why are you spending your resources that way?  Sure, it’s an interesting Engineering challenge, but does it create any real value for you?  If you have developer or operations folks, the low-hanging fruit surely isn’t in reducing a cost that runs well under $2k per year, is it?  In short, it’s just really difficult to justify self-hosting in today’s market, if it’s not in some way either profitable or core for you to do so.

The Cheap way

(What shared WordPress hosting feels like)

(What shared WordPress hosting feels like)

If you’re a freelancer looking to spend less than $5 per month, then you’ve got plenty of options, my friend.  In fact, the vast majority of hosts are of the 1-click, $5 per month WordPress hosting variety.  I’m sure you’ve seen many of these names before.  Companies like…

HostGator, Dreamhost, BlueHost, 1and1.com, LaughingSquid.com, inmotion, webhostinghub, siteground, godaddywesthost, justhost, site5, hostmonstersiteground, and on, and on.  To the tune of several hundred more.

If you thought differentiating between phone systems was hard, then hold the phone… because these companies are nearly identical.  In fact, several of them are now just brands owned by the same parent company, Endurance International Group.  Have I worked with all of them?  No… there’s just too many.  I can’t tell you precisely what differentiates 1and1.com from HostGator this week, beyond the sale that 1and1.com is running today.  But, guess what?  Their customer services folks can’t either.  Of the handful that I’ve worked with, they’re all fine and good enough for small sites, blogs, and whatnot.  Sure, their support, uptime, and responsiveness all vary wildly, but it’s all the same cluttered marketplace.  I can’t speak to which host is really the flavor of the month, because it changes that often.  But averaging them out, I’ve yet to be impressed, or surprised.  If this seems like the right fit for you – just go ahead and pick whoever is running a sale this week.  And if you stay with them for long-enough, your experience will range from good to bad, and everywhere in between.

Managed way

(How managed hosting feels)

(How managed hosting feels)

If you’re coming at the topic of from a clean-slate, you may already be familiar with the inexpensive commodity hosts outlined above.  Beginning around 2009, providers started offering what’s become known as Managed WordPress hosting as an alternative to shared webhosting.  Since then, several companies have come to market with offerings that recognized there was a market not being served… folks with needs well beyond what the shared hosts could, or were interested in providing.  Managed WordPress hosting is about abstracting out the hosting layer from the WordPress layer environment.  Or, if you have a networking background… if budget web-hosts live at the data link layer, Managed WordPress hosts live in and above the Application layer.  In any event, here’s the general pitch…

Managed WordPress Hosts do everything that you don’t want to do, or that you don’t know you should be doing.

Things like Automated backups, managed WordPress and plugin updates, content delivery network (CDN) integration, and seamless scaling.  Never thought you’d need to be able to handle 50 million visitors a month, did you?  Not a problem, they planned for it and baked it into their solution.  What if you don’t have a clue, and need amazing support?  They have you covered.

Here are some of the bigger Managed Hosting names:

  • Pagely – A self-funded company that recently moved their infrastructure over to AWS – the original Managed WordPress host.
  • Flywheel – Focused on design and ease of use
  • WP Engine – Perhaps the biggest name in Managed WoWordPressosting, they’re now VC-backed, but have experienced growth-pains this year
  • Synthesis – Known for security
  • Pressable – Known for reliability
  • mediatemple.net – Now owned by Godaddy, but operates independently

The fact that many small businesses don’t think they need some of the features are, perhaps, a different conversation.    While your site might not ever serve up the number of visitors that TechCrunch, or CNN do, many of the features that Managed WordPress hosts bake into their platform are nice to have, and given that the cost runs somewhere between $49 and $200 per month, it’s still quite affordable.  Most importantly though, they’re doing all of the heavy lifting for you.

Is Managed WordPress hosting for real?

Here are a couple of the most common criticisms of Managed WordPress hosting.

“It’s just a higher-cost version of shared hosting”.

“So you’re charging me for something I can do myself?”.

Are these accurate? Or, more importantly are these legitimate? I don’t think so.  Look at it this way…  budget web-hosts are incentivized to maximize the density of their environments, as-in stacking as many customers as possible onto a piece of hardware so that they can still profitably run those $1.00 per month promos.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, Managed WordPress hosts are in the business of having happy customers that don’t even think about “hosting”, and rightly assume that the Managed WordPress Hosts are in the business of making sure the back-end is always capable of providing their end-customers with a great experience.   Put differently, would you rather have the budget host that’s putting out fires everyday?  Or would you rather spend a few hundred extra dollars a year to not have to worry about it?  Perhaps the biggest differentiator though between Managed WordPress hosting and budget hosting is support, because they’re incentivized to deliver the best customer experience possible, in order to continue justifying the premium they charge.

Of course, it’s true that you could probably do it all yourself.  But is that really the most valuable thing you, or your team can be doing for your business?

The Hard Way

So what’s left?  Virtual Private Servers (VPS).

If you’re coming at this as a SysAdmin, a web developer, or from an Engineering background, the most tempting option is usually the hard way.  I wish I could say that I just didn’t understand the temptation… but I get it it, even if I don’t agree with it.  Before you go down this path though, think about what your time is worth.  What’s the opportunity cost to rolling it yourself?  More than that, unless you’re a Linux admin by trade, one who just so happens to also be a web developer, and loves tweaking Apache or Nginx, setting up MySQL databases, and the like… then it might just be that your time is more valuable doing something other than re-inventing this wheel.

VPS environments are pretty much what they sound like… dedicated virtual machines that you rent from an infrastructure company.  This is nearly identical to the “I can host this myself” approach to things, except that most of these providers have a solid and redundant infrastructure.  Meaning, when something breaks it’s usually your fault, not theirs.  With a VPS you get a dedicated operating system, where you have root access and can do anything you want on the virtual machine.  If you’re a SysAdmin, it’s just like logging into vCenter and deploying another instance of CentOS from a template.  The primary difference though is that the VPS instance is usually housed in a datacenter that’s built for availability, as opposed to your corporate datacenter which may or may not have things like multiple utility providers, or Internet connections.

Which VPS to choose?  Well, he’s a list of several hundred options.  If you must go down this path though, I’ve had good experiences with DigitalOcean.  From a cost standpoint, DigitalOcean competes in the same cost range as the shared web-hosts, as well as the VPS variety.  The difference though is that DigitalOcean doesn’t suck.  You can even think of DigitalOcean as AWS-lite with a cost resembling the commodity web hosts of the world.  They don’t yet have a platform that’s as massive as AWS or Azure, but you can spin-up “droplets” (VMs) similar to the way you would bring up new machines from templates in vCenter, or on AWS/Azure.  Snapshots?  Sure thing.  Backups?  Of course.  Their big differentiator though is that their VMs run on SSD drives.  And before you ask… Yes, they’re quite fast.

My Recommendation:

Why over complicate this?  A Managed WordPress host is there to take care of the details.  Sure, you can get a lower cost platform using a shared host, but your mileage will vary.  Of course, you can always build your own WordPress environment, or run a VPS instance – but it’s not usually a high-value use of Engineering resources (even if you have the technical expertise).  For managed WordPress hosting, I like Pagely based on their history, reputation, and the fact that they’re self-funded.

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