As the years come and go, trends for web development continues to shift and change. A plugin that used to be the best thing ever in 2012, might not even be supported today – or just completely obsolete with the introduction of Divi, as so many are. I’m looking at you, NexGen Gallery!
So moving into 2020, I thought it would be fitting to put together a list of my favorite, most powerful, most useful plugins that I actually use as a WordPress developer. I don’t expect this list to cover every use-case, but I will say that this covers pretty much every one of my projects in 2019. But first, let’s get some vocabulary out of the way.
What’s a WordPress Plugin
A WordPress plugin, as defined by WordPress.com, is a PHP script or scripts that extend the functionality of WordPress.
They enhance the features of WordPress, or add entirely new features to your site. Plugins are often developed by volunteers, and are usually free to the public.
Plugins are available via the WordPress Plugin Directory. Although plugins you find here are thoroughly tested and considered safe to use, they are of varying quality and are often works in progress.
So the take away here is that plugins vary greatly in quality and scope. There are plugins that the only thing they do is add a simple image to your login screen: A task that can be completed in as little as 5 lines of PHP. There are other plugins that power some of the largest eCommerce websites on the internet.
How did I make this list?
To make this list accurately, I went through my website builds in 2019 and put together a list of which plugins found themselves on which sites. I took into consideration the budget of the sites involved and decided amongst all of the plugins in use, which ones were the best and offered the least push back.
A “Good Plugin”, in my opinion, is a plugin that brings:
- A unique feature that otherwise would have taken far longer than the total cost of the plugin in development time.
- Secure code, that has no recent history of being compromised
- Fulfills its purpose elegantly, effectively, and efficiently.
Also, a quick disclosure: Some of the links in this post are ‘affiliate links.’ This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. This commission is small – like really small. At the time of writing this article, I’ve never even gotten a payout on any of them. And some of them I’ve had for months. haha. But I’m still required to let you know they exist. ;) So there you have it.
When not to use a WordPress plugin
There are plenty of situations when you can use a WordPress plugin. In fact, plugins make the entry-level of WordPress development incredibly low. If you can think of it, there’s probably a WordPress plugin created for it. But when shouldn’t you use a plugin?
In my opinion, you should never use a plugin if:
- You can do the same thing in your child theme’s functionns.php file without adding too many lines of code.
- Your theme already can do what the plugin is doing, you may just need to apply different styles.
- If adding that plugin is going to negatively impact the SEO or page-load speeds so much that it outweighs the functionality provided.
Now with all that in mind, let’s begin!
Although this list isn’t in order of the best, most useful, to the great, but not as useful, if it were Gravity Forms would still be a top contender for #1.
I use Gravity Forms on literally every single website. For the curious, you may notice that this doesn’t pass all the tests above, right? Divi already has a form builder, so why would I want to use a plugin instead? Divi’s form builder is alright. That’s it. It’s not great. It also doesn’t save the entries anywhere, so if that email doesn’t fire out, well you just lost that lead. Worse yet, the lead doesn’t know you never got the email. This is one of my biggest complaints with Divi, but Gravity Forms solves the issue quite nicely. :)
At the time of writing this article, Gravity Forms has 45 extensions, called Add-Ons. With these in mind, Gravity Forms is more than just a simple Form Builder; it is the means of communication between your audience and you.
Long gone are the days of manually creating forms and parsing them into the database manually. Gravity Forms gives you a drag-and-drop Form Builder that can do just about anything you’d need to get done in a form.
For the technically-inclined amongst you, Gravity Forms also has full developer documentation with access to hooks and other APIs. And it’s for this reason that I find myself using Gravity Forms on every single website I build these days. The expandability is enormous and powerful. I can use it for anything as simple as a contact form to full eCommerce, multi-page forms. And it even integrates right into WooCommerce with an extension from Woo! Which takes me nicely into the next plugin on the list, WooCommerce.
If you’ve been working with WordPress, chances are you’ve at least heard of WooCommerce. WooCommerce is, by far, the best eCommerce solution for WordPress. It’s a product, cart, and checkout integration solution in one. With WooCommerce you can roll out a fully functional online storefront, complete with a product catalog and checkout in a matter of minutes. Now, mind you that won’t be the prettiest thing in the world unless you love the default WooCommerce styles for your theme, but it will be absolutely functional. And still way better than anything we had online 10 years ago.
When WooCommerce first landed on the scene, they were sporting a cute little ninja. To be honest, I didn’t think much of them at first glance. I just assumed they were another eCommerce plugin for the market. They quickly proved their worth by becoming the leading eCommerce plugin on WordPress by a landslide.
In 2015, Automattic, the company behind WordPress, did something unprecedented and bought WooCommerce. Now WooCommerce is being developed by the same company that develops WooCommerce on the regular. This was great news for the community and brought some much-needed peace-of-mind to the WooCommerce community, who at the time, were often concerned with a free plugin powering their eCommerce storefront.
Today, WooCommerce commands an impressive 3.17% market share of the top 10,000 websites online. Note that that that percentage is not of the top “eCommerce” websites. Meaning it would be a higher percentage if we removed the websites that are not eCommerce from that data.
WooCommerce is another plugin with a huge library of extensions and it’s those extensions where WooCommerce starts to make its money. WooCommerce itself is still free. But nearly every extension for WooCommerce costs around $80 a year. Extensions, in this case, could open up another Payment Gateway other than PayPal or stripe (Authorize.net for example), or add entirely new features like dynamic pricing for BOGO deals. Honestly, $80 a year is a steal for some of these extensions if you compare it to what it would cost in development time to do the same thing.
All-in-all, WooCommerce is an extremely powerful plugin that is quite literally powering some of the multi-million dollar eCommerce businesses I’ve worked. And the smaller ones too! :)
Advanced Custom Fields Pro
Like WooCommerce, Advanced Custom Fields is another powerhouse of a plugin! It gives you the ability to add custom fields to any post or taxonomy – custom or default. And when you combine it with Divi, it takes things to a whole other level! I wrote on that exact topic here if you’re interested!
Another very quick use-case for ACF could be something like a Real Estate website. After you create the custom post type for the properties, you could then jump into ACF and create custom fields for that post type. Those fields could be things like “Street Address”, “Bedrooms”, “Bathrooms”, “Price”, etc. And in a relatively short amount of time, the back-end data structure is ready to go! It’s because of use-cases exactly like that one, that ACF made it on this list.
Between its incredibly extensive documentation, easy-to-use dashboard interphase, and stellar customer support; ACF has become a staple in my WordPress arsenal.
Don’t take my word for it though, look at ACF for yourself. Their landing page does a pretty great job of explaining exactly why it’s amazing! :)
SG Optimizer is a pretty niche plugin if I’m being honest. But, I find that I’m loving the freedom it’s giving me and the features truly make a difference. SG Optimizer, which stands for SiteGround Optimizer, is only available to websites hosted on SiteGround. If you didn’t know, SiteGround is probably the best hosting available at the moment for the price. They’re a little more expensive than your traditional EIG subsidiary, but their services and customer support are miles ahead.
Honestly, if you’re still hosted on one of the SIXTY hosting providers coming out of EIG, you’re doing it wrong, but that’s okay because here at Zealous Sites, we can get that sorted out and get you moved over to SiteGround hosting in as little as a few days.
So what does SG Optimizer do exactly? Well, it’s more of a convenience-centered tool than a feature-improving one. I know this sort of goes against what I said before about when to and when not to use a plugin, but the convenience this provides is worth it and it does also give caching, minification, image optimization, and a few other features that wouldn’t be readily accessible in the hosting dashboard otherwise. So I’m going to say it’s okay. :)
Website Load Speed is a crucial part of SEO these days, and any plugin that can decrease the time it takes for a page to load is a huge win in my book. There are a number of other plugins that do something similar for websites running on other hosting providers, but I haven’t found any that do it as well as SG Optimizer, except for maybe Autoptimize. But, use any minification plugin at your own risk. JS and some CSS files need to be loaded in a very specific order, or you’ll be left with some unexpected monstrosities.
I talk about SEO pretty often because it might be the most important marketing tool you have at your disposal. You need a website. But a website doesn’t automatically bring you in sales unless customers see that website. You can get customers to that website via things like Social Media or even printed mailers (yikes), but the most passive way is SEO.
Yoast SEO is by far the best SEO plugin on WordPress at the moment. It’s what SEO Specialists are using these days to really help drive traffic. And it’s what I use on my website to help me review blog posts to make sure they’re written “okay” for SEO. haha. Yoast SEO is free, but there is a premium version that gives you a few more features. To be honest, at the time of writing this article, I use the free one, but the Premium one would be nice. :)
The Events Calendar
This is another plugin that might be a little niche, but it’s definitely the best of its class. The Events Calendar, a name a little bit too on the head, in my opinion, is an extremely powerful calendar plugin. Tribe, the developers of this baby, really outdid themselves when they went head-to-head with the previous best-in-class, Time.ly’s Events Calendar.
The default styles for The Events Calendar by Tribe are honestly really good. They’re bold and spacey and beautiful. They’re good and generic enough to make this plugin pretty much a plug and play in most cases. But, should you need more customization, the plugin is built in such a way that you can easily theme it to your needs.
It has its downsides though. For example, in order to get Recurring Events, you need to have the Pro version of the calendar. And even with that, scheduling multi-time, multi-day events is a bit of a headache. I’m still not sure the best way to do that, to be honest. I’ve seen a few different methods, and I don’t know which one is best. But those are pretty weak complaints when in the past my complaints were things like “Why isn’t this plugin responsive in 2019?” So, I’ll let it slide for now.
The Events Calendar by Tribe is truly a great plugin.
Coming Soon Page & Maintenance Mode by SeedProd
Coming Soon by SeedProd has somehow snuck onto this list. I think it’s probably because whenever I need to quickly take a website offline, I panic search “Coming Soon” in the WordPress plugin repo and this is always on that first page of the list. It’s delightfully easy to use and hasn’t caused me any trouble. And it’s free!
Bulk Page Creator
This plugin is one that I only use for a few seconds every development cycle. Rather than needing to go into the Dashboard and create each page manually, I just load this puppy up and type out the sitemap separated by commas and boom – every page on the site is no created, with parents, and all in draft mode. I of course then need to go through each one manually to populate them with content, but this does save me a ton of time since it lets me work out the navigation and header before ever populating a page of content. I delete the plugin shortly after I use it because it has no use on a live site, but man does it save me time in development. That’s a huge win for me.
That’s About It!
Okay not really. There are dozens of plugins out there that could just as easily be on this list, but these are the ones that I personally find myself using most often. WordPress is a powerful CMS and I hope these plugins