WordPress is the world’s most popular web platform with over 77 million installs running right now. Many photographers use WordPress to host their portfolios and blogs but out of the box WordPress is a mere skeleton of the powerhouse it can become with the use of a few simple plugins. It was originally designed as a blogging platform but has more recently evolved into an incredibly powerful CMS (content management system) that can be used for a multitude of possibilities. Make no mistake, WordPress is not “just a blog” anymore.
Once you have your theme installed, which decides the overall look and design of your site, you can then add plugins that add specific functionality. Currently there are more than 30,000 free plugins available on the WordPress repository and many thousands more are available from vendors on sites like Code Canyon. I currently run three websites on WordPress and all of them make use of a variety of plugins. Over the last 7 or 8 years I’ve tried many hundred of plugins so I thought it was about time that I sat down and put some of that knowledge down onto a page!
The first thing to understand about plugins is that they are not all built equal. Every additional plugin you install on your website will cause it to slow down in some way. It may be imperceptible (good) or it may add half a second or more to your page load times (bad!). They trick is to be selective about which plugins you install and to do a little research before you install each one, as well as asking yourself “do I really need this one?”
For me, plugins fall into two categories. They either convert my readers into potential customers, or they the user experience on the site better in some way. If the plugin you are looking at does neither of those things then you likely don’t need it. There’s two exceptions to this rule though, an SEO plugin which falls into its very own category and a backup plugin but we’ll get to them in due course. If you are searching the official WP plugin repository for a plugin then make sure you take into account the review rating, the number of downloads and importantly, the date on which the plugin was last updated. There might be an amazing plugin on there which has great reviews but has not been updated in two years. This means the developer has given up on it and if it hasn’t already done so, it’ll likely break with an upcoming WordPress update. Don’t waste your time with it, move on, there’s plenty of other options I promise!
It’s also good to remember that free isn’t always the best option. People tend to get blinded by the thought of 30,000 free plugin options but it’s often better to spend a few dollars and get what is called a “premium plugin”, i.e. one that you paid for. These will give you options for support should something go wrong, something you’re almost universally unlikely to get with the free ones. You wouldn’t trust free computer programs for your work would you? So why rely on them for your website? Food for thought, though that said, many of the ones I’m going to recommend ARE free.
This plugin comes pre-installed in current versions of WordPress but make sure you activate it. It’s the best plugin out there for cutting down on spam comments.
This is really the definitve SEO plugin for WordPress websites and it’s 100% free. It allows you to craft specific titles and descriptions for your posts and lets you preview how they will look in Google search results. It’ll also offer you advice on how to further optimize your page for a given search term. On top of this it lets you specify different titles to appear on social media and even lets you control which photo appears when people share your post on Facebook. Used correctly, this plugin will drastically increase the visibility of your work and website in search engines.
As photographers we are used to backing up our photos but websites often get overlooked. At one point I spend a good 6 months testing various WordPress backup plugins and this is the one that came out on top for me. You can automate backups of your files and databases (posts and pages) and get the backups sent to cloud storage locations like Dropbox or Amazon AWS. My automated routine is simple. Every Friday the plugin backs up my entire site (files, posts, pages, plugins, themes) and uploads a zip file to Dropbox. It maintains 5 past copies of the backup on Dropbox and deletes older ones. Every single day it also runs a smaller backup that just takes the posts and puts them on Dropbox. Since Dropbox syncs to my computer and Time Machine backs that up daily, I also have automatic onsite backups of my sites as well.
Once upon a time my website was hacked and one day a malicious script deleted every single file on my server! Thankfully I had these backups or else I would have lost years and years of content. To be safe, you should always have a backup of your WordPress site before installing a new plugin. These days severe issues on install are very rare but it might happen.
This simple plugin allows to place a huge variety of social network follow buttons on your site. Flickr, 500PX, Google+, Facebook and many many more. I really like the simplicity of this one.
This plugin has come a long way over the last few years. Easily add sharing buttons to the top and bottom of all your pages and posts to encourage people to post your content on their social network pages. Be careful not to add too many buttons though as it can cause pages to load more slowly.
Great Plugins For Photographers
Create awesome responsive image sliders to embed on any post or page. A lot of people seem to use WooSlider but in my experience that slider is way too slow to load and seems to get worse with every passing update. Soliloquy is a much more fully featured premium plugin. For those looking for a free slider plugin try Easing Slider.
When you upload images to WordPress they get compressed. This lightweight, free plugin from Graph Paper Press allows you to control the quality to which images are compressed.
WordPress websites are created dynamically from PHP scripts but often actual content on the page is static. We might update a post of some photos only a couple of times a month. A caching plugin like W3 created static HTML versions of your WordPress pages and serves them up instead of dynamically creating them all with PHP. HTML pages load much faster and cause less strain on your server. If you have an image heavy website (you ARE a photographer right?) then these kinds of plugins are a great asset.
I can’t tell you how many lead capture plugins I’ve tried…… waaaay too many! So I’m going to keep this simple and just say that OptinMonster is by far the best one on the market. Save yourself a ton of time and just go straight to it if you are dedicated to building your e-mail newsletter. It’s not cheap but well worth it. You can add all kinds of subscribe forms on your site, either in the sidebar, post footer or siding in from the bottom of the page. Building a newsletter list is a great way to source potential clients.
Contact & Forms
You’re going to need a contact form on your site and Gravity Forms is head and shoulders above all the free options out there. WordPress actually includes contact forms but Gravity Forms allows you to take it to a whole other level. You can even set it up to create sales and take credit cards for payments. Print sales anyone?
Testing Your Plugins
Why should you be concerned about the speed of your site and plugins? Quite simply because people have extremely limited attention spans these days. If I see a loading wheel on a portfolio website I almost always close the window without loading the site. If you think you might have added a plugin that’s causing some slow down on your site you can use P3 (Plugin Performance Profiler). This is a plugin that will analyze your plugins as they load in the background and display results based on which ones are using the most resources and taking the longest to load. If you have a dud plugin, this will quickly root it out. Once you are done with using P3, just deactivate it until you need it another time, it doesn’t need to run all the time.
The other reason we want keep our sites speedy is because Google is watching us! Did you know that page loading times are taken into account when Google decides where to rank a page on a search result? Google Page Speed is a score out of 100 which they use to help determine crappy old websites which their users (anyone who performs a search) would have a bad experience with. Use the website GTMetrix.com to determine your Page Speed score and monitor it for abnormalities which might be caused by bad plugins. You can run the test, get a score and then see how much your score changes when you install your new plugin. If it’s a particularly badly coded plugin it might affect the score by as much as 4 or 5%
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