WordPress is the world’s most popular open source content management system (CMS), but its standard set of features leave a bit to be desired for organizations using WordPress to power their blog or entire website. However, thanks to a few free WordPress plugins, you can help boost your search engine friendliness, do a better job with web analytics, create better copy, and much more.
Before you start installing any plugins, it’s a good idea to do a full backup of your WordPress directory and database. Ideally, you should have a test deployment of WordPress alongside your production site to test plugins and other changes before you make them live. In seven years of using WordPress, I’ve never had a problem installing plugins – but there’s always a first time. “Better safe than sorry,” may be a cliché, but it became a cliché because it’s true.
Putting effort into a web presence without analytics is like working with a physical trainer, but not taking measurements or weighing in periodically. Without analytics, how do you know how many people are visiting your site? How do you know which pages they’re visiting, or (approximately) how long they’re staying on the page?
You can buy expensive web analytics software, or you can do what many sites do and use Google Analytics. If you want to get the maximum effect out of the Google Analytics and WordPress combo, use the Google Analytics for WordPress Plugin.
If you’ve ever used Google Analytics with a site, you know that you need to embed GA code into all pages you need to track, which can be a hassle. This plugin does that for you, so you don’t need to hand-edit all pages or worry about re-inserting the code when you change themes.
This automatic tracking feature alone makes it worth using the software, but this plugin does more. For example, it gives you the option of ignoring certain categories of users (editors, admins, etc.) so that they don’t turn up in analytics results. This can be useful if you want to filter out page views and visits from your editorial staff so they don’t skew your numbers. You can also use the plugin to track things like post authors, categories, post types, and tags.
Finally, the GA plugin also lets you anonymize IP addresses sent to Google, so you’re providing less specific information about your visitors to Big Brother.
Along the same lines, if your business is especially privacy-conscious, you can use the Piwik analytics application instead of Google Analytics and the WordPress Piwik plugin. The downside to this is that Piwik isn’tquite feature compatible with Google Analytics. In some ways it’s not as flexible or powerful, though in other ways it’s better. For instance, Piwik is better at tracking downloads off your site, and if you want to generate custom reports it’s much more helpful than Google Analytics. A big downside for Piwik right now is the lack of Funnel Goals, and its user interface is a bit less user friendly than Google Analytics. It also, of course, requires that you set up and maintain Piwik itself. But for organizations that don’t want to provide visitor data to Google – or want an open source solution that can be extended – Piwik is a good choice. Note that if you want to get a taste of Piwik before switching, you have the option of running both systems, as they’re not incompatible.
All in One SEO Pack
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is one of the hottest – and most misunderstood – topics for organizations trying to use the Web to generate business. If you’re looking to optimize your WordPress site for search engines, the All in One SEO Pack is one of the most popular and effective approaches.
This plugin lets you customize page titles, site keywords, 404 title format, and more. For example, some search engines punish sites if they find duplicate content, which is used a lot in SEO bait sites. You can disable indexing of your category and archive pages if they might raise red flags about duplicate content.
The SEO Pack plugin also lets you set a title, description, and keywords on a per-post or per-page basis. This might be useful if you want to set a different page title for a post or page than the title displayed on the post. It also lets you give a description that will be visible to search engines, and custom keywords. What this does in practice is set the “meta” tags for description and keywords, and the “title” tag.
SEO Pack is free, but there’s a paid version of the plugin as well that’s labeled the Pro version. In addition to the features found in the regular version, the Pro version is ad-free, provides access to a support forum, and has custom taxonomy support. In short, there’s not a lot of extra features in the Pro version, but you can get additional support and help support development of the plugin.
The odds are some of your customers will read your website via mobile devices. Unfortunately, the site design that your designers have tweaked to look luscious in standard browsers can be exceedingly hard to read on mobile devices.
Rather than suffering through creating a site design for mobile devices from scratch, take a look at WPtouch. The WPtouch plugin adds a theme that mimics an iPhone-style application and serves up mobile-friendly pages when your site is viewed from a mobile browser. Though iOS devices are the primary target for WPtouch, it also works well for Android, Palm, BlackBerry, and other mobile devices.
WPtouch does more than slap on a coat of mobile-friendly paint. It gives you the ability to redirect to a mobile-specific home page, exclude categories or tags from the mobile site, and enable or disable commenting on the mobile site. WPtouch has a set of user agents that it looks for by default, but it also allows for custom user agents, which is useful if you find that your visitors are coming from a mobile browser or device that’s not already recognized.
Finally, WPtouch provides an optional “restricted” mode that prevents other plugins from loading scripts in the header and footer of WordPress. This may be useful if you have another plugin that’s incompatible with or not optimal for mobile browsers.
Jetpack and After the Deadline
The Jetpack plugin is actually a collection of plugins, including a Twitter widget, the Sharedaddy plugin for sharing posts via social networks, and a plugin to make it easy to embed video from sites like YouTube. While nice, none of the aforementioned plugins are really that compelling for professional sites – but the bundled After the Deadline (AtD) plugin is.
If you or your co-workers are writing copy (or proofing it) in WordPress, After the Deadline is a life-saver. In addition to spell checking, AtD gives you the ability to check grammar and look for complex phrases, passive voice, redundancy, and quite a bit more. It can be humbling to see AtD in action, but you want readers to take your copy seriously, right? Grab Jetpack and enable AtD, even if you use nothing else from the collection.
Company Web sites are living things, constantly growing, evolving, and (unfortunately) moving. This is particularly true if you’re migrating from another CMS or site management tool to WordPress. If you need to manage page redirects (301s) and track 404 errors, then the Redirection plugin is what the webmaster ordered.
The Redirection plugin keeps a log of 404 errors, and allows you to remap those to pages that do exist on your site. Yes, you could trawl through Apache logs for 404s, but the Redirection plugin makes it easy to track these errors and remap them using the WordPress dashboard.
You can also use Redirection to set up normal redirects – you’re not limited to pages that are 404ing. The plugin gives you the option of redirecting based on a user’s login status, or redirecting users based on the referrer. This means you can set up custom URLs for, say, banner ads, then redirect to a standard sales or informational pages. Redirection also lets you automatically add a 301 redirect if a post’s URL changes.
Redirection does not require Apache .htaccess files or support – it’s entirely based on WordPress, so you don’t have to have full access to your web server. This is particularly useful for companies that are on shared hosting plans.
More Essential Plugins
While the above plugins address common business needs, certain plugin belong on every WordPress site. For instance, Akismet and Bad Behavior are essential to any WordPress site that allows user comments. Akismet helps filter out spam in comments, and is extremely effective. I’ve been using the service for years, and it’s rare to get false positives or for Akismet to miss real spam. The Bad Behavior plugin doesn’t filter spam – it analyzes HTTP headers, IP addresses, and other information from incoming requests, and blocks requests that match the profile for spammers. In other words, it prevents the “bad guys” from even reaching the site in the first place. Ideally, WordPress would come with the Akismet and Bad Behavior plugins installed and enabled by default.
The WP-DB-Backup plugin is another no-brainer for any and all WordPress installations. As the name implies, WP-DB-Backup lets you make backups of the WordPress database. This means you don’t have to manually do a
mysqldumpor have phpMyAdmin installed to make backups of your database. Do be sure to make backups early and often. The only complaint I have with this plugin is that the author has removed the option for scheduling backups that are saved to the file system. You can schedule a backup to be sent via email, and you can manually run a backup that will be saved to the server you’re hosting WordPress on – but because of a perceived security issue, he’s taken out the option to save to server with automated backups.
WordPress is extremely useful on its own, but the real power of WordPress becomes apparent when you start exploring the plugins that extend its functionality. Start with these five, and your company’s WordPress site will be off to a great start.