Free WordPress plug-ins make blogging better

Judging from the 150 million sites that make up the blogosphere, anyone can call himself a content publisher. But to stand out from the crowd, a blog needs more than just a stream of original content. A well-designed site needs a functional presentation that offers both author and readers the tools they need to create, find and share information.

A content management system (CMS) is a common way to organize data and tools, and WordPress is one of the most popular CMSs. One reason for WordPress's ubiquity is the availability of over 4,000 plug-ins, offering Webmasters seemingly endless ways to expand and customize their blogs. I've tried many WordPress plug-ins to fill different needs and have discovered 10 that I consider essential. This article describes those plug-ins plus a few more that you may find useful

Some disclaimers: I am not a PHP or SQL wizard, and my sites don't generate high volumes of traffic or revenue; only one entry has been popular enough to crash a server. However, my sites are eclectic in purpose, from static content to daily blogs, covering topics from pop culture to neurological disorders.

Along the way, I've found the following plug-ins to be consistently useful, whatever the environment.

(Note: I tested each with WordPress 2.8, which had just been released -- the software is constantly being incrementally updated, but you shouldn't have any trouble, no matter what version you use.)

Dagon Design Form Mailer

When visiting a site, I expect to find five basic features: "About" and "Contact Us" pages, a search box, an RSS feed and a site map. The omission of a search box is forgivable -- nowadays every Web browser has such functionality built in -- and RSS feeds (which WordPress generates automatically) aren't applicable to all kinds of content. This leaves three basic features, two of which -- "Contact Us" and the site map -- must be created with plug-ins.

To give your readers a way to contact you without exposing your e-mail address, there are several plug-ins you can use to create Web forms. Though nothing beats WP Contact Form for ease of use, I recommend Dagon Design Form Mailer for its versatility. This plug-in allows a variety of input types for your visitors: text fields, radio buttons and checkboxes, dropdowns, calendars and more. Data can be stored on the server or e-mailed to both the sender and recipient.

Wading through these options requires using a somewhat byzantine definition process, but the online documentation omits nothing. I've found this plug-in to be so versatile that I've used it not just for collecting feedback, but also for setting up event calendars, conference registration forms, ticket ordering systems and more. And since multiple forms can be defined for a single site, it can handle each of these tasks on just one domain.

Dagon Design Sitemap GeneratorGoogle (XML) Sitemaps Generator

The author of Dagon Design Form Mailer also offers Dagon Design Sitemap Generator for WordPress. This plug-in creates a site map -- a tool that I've always considered a quick and easy way to get a broad view of a site's content, where everything is found and how it's broken down.

Sitemap Generator requires only that the plug-in be activated and that you have a page (usually with the slug "sitemap") that consists of a simple HTML tag that calls the plug-in. From then on, each new piece of content you add to your WordPress site will be indexed into your site map (unless you specify otherwise on a case-by-case basis).

While you're at it, consider adding Google (XML) Sitemaps Generator for WordPress as well. This plug-in creates a site map specifically in the format that Google uses to crawl your site for content. Submitting your XML site map to Google Webmaster Tools not only improves your site's discoverability; it also provides you with important diagnostics about broken links and inaccessible pages.

Google Analyticator

It's hard to engage with your audience if you don't know who they are. Where are they coming from? What operating system or Web browser are they using? What pages are they reading and where do they go from there?

All this data and more is available via Google Analyticator. Sign up for a free Google Analytics account, activate the plug-in, supply your analytics tracking number, and this plug-in will invisibly add the necessary tracking code to each of your pages. The data compiled can be used to follow how many people come to each page of your site each day, providing useful information that you can capitalize on when deciding what content to offer next or what advertisements to accept.

WordPress.com Stats offers similar but limited analytics from the comfort of your own WordPress dashboard - but if you don't mind giving up your site stats to Google, the data you get with Google Analyticator is surprisingly comprehensive for a free service.

Simple Tags

WordPress 2.3, released in September 2007, added support for tags, with which authors categorize their posts by keywords. But this metadata is cumbersome to manipulate and exploit without a plug-in like Simple Tags, which adds three menu items to your Posts menu: Manage Tags, Mass Edit Tags and Auto Tags. Manage Tags offers bulk adding, deleting, renaming and editing capabilities. Mass Edit Tags lists all your posts' tag fields for manual manipulation of up to 100 posts simultaneously. And Auto Tags will automatically tag posts that meet user-defined criteria.

Additional options for Simple Tags allow it to find particular words in your posts and make them links to the index page for that tag; enable authors to tag not only posts, but also pages; find and suggest relevant tags based on local posts as well as Yahoo searches; and find posts with similar tags and list them as "related content" in the blog, its RSS feed or both.

WordPress 2.8 brings some of these tools into the CMS's core functionality, and if you prefer to write in a stream of consciousness without categorizing or linking your posts, then Simple Tags won't prove useful. But if you're a metadata junkie, then this tool will help both you and your readers find what you're looking for.

All in One SEO Pack

Search engine optimization (SEO) is "black magic" according to one Computerworld developer. Nonetheless, there is some value to writing content and code specifically to improve a site's ranking in search engines such as Google.

If you want to make it easier for search engines to find your blog, you can write keyword-laden headlines or rely on WordPress's SEO-friendly features. But neither of those options will do much to distinguish your blog or its pages. With All in One SEO Pack, you can define a description and keywords for your site and each individual post, using the post's tags by default. All this information is put into your blog's HTML, where readers won't see it but search engines will.

Your main audience should always be your readers, and your blog should be written for them. But the behind-the-scenes magic of All in One SEO Pack will help your audience find you in the first place.

Exec-PHP

WordPress is written in the versatile scripting language PHP. However, PHP code can't be used directly within blog posts - not without the Exec-PHP plug-in.

Why would you want to embed PHP code in a blog post? It depends on how wily you want to get. If you need to disable WordPress's automatic formatting of line and paragraph breaks, a single line of PHP code can do it. Some plug-ins are meant to be used as sidebar widgets, but with PHP they can be called from within a page or post instead. Or maybe there is no plug-in to accomplish what you want to do in just a few lines of custom code.

By default, WordPress does not enable embedded PHP code, partly because of security concerns: Should malicious or broken code find its way onto your site, WordPress will safely ignore it without this plug-in. Any user who can edit your site can take advantage of Exec-PHP, so be sure you know and trust your content providers before activating this plug-in.

NextGen Gallery

WordPress 2.5 introduced a robust media library for uploading and managing files, but the library is best suited to storing individual pictures or PDFs to embed or link to in your posts. For full-fledged photo galleries, look to NextGen Gallery.

NextGen accepts image uploads via HTTP or FTP in both graphic and Zip format. Once placed into a gallery, each picture can have its own title, description and keywords, as initially defined by the images' Exif, IPTC or XMP metadata. Galleries can be sorted automatically using this metadata or manually via drag-and-drop, and related galleries can be grouped into albums - sort of a gallery of galleries. Configurable thumbnails and display sizes ensure the pictures fit into your WordPress theme, whether viewed individually or in a Flash-enabled slide show that offers both mouse and keyboard navigation.

Photoblogs - sites that focus almost exclusively on still media - would be better accommodated by integrating with a dedicated photo service such as Flickr. But if your site only occasionally needs to present image albums, or you want everything bundled into WordPress without signing up for another service, NextGen has you covered.

Subscribe to Comments

In the best blogs, authors aren't just speaking their minds, they're engaging with their audience. You want to cultivate and respond to your readers' comments, and a good way to promote discussion is to make it as easy as possible for readers to reply to your posts.

Subscribe to Comments adds an optional checkbox to your comment form. WordPress normally requires an e-mail address from all comment authors; Subscribe to Comments uses this information to inform comment authors of all additional comments posted after theirs. Comment authors can choose to unsubscribe themselves at any time, or the blog's administrator can manually unsubscribe users.

Without this plug-in, visitors to your site may leave questions without ever coming back to see the answers. Subscribe to Comments is an easy way to encourage back-and-forth not just between blogger and reader, but also among readers as well.

AJAX Comment Preview

You wouldn't publish a post without first clicking the "Preview" button in order to see it as your readers will see it, would you? And shouldn't your readers have the same option? When they write a response to a blog post, they'll find a "Preview" button beneath the comment field if the AJAX Comment Preview plug-in is installed.

With AJAX Comment Preview, readers' comments will be translated into their final appearance without the page needing to be refreshed; comment authors will then be able to tweak their text before clicking "Submit Comment." Not only a handy proofreading tool, AJAX Comment Preview is also an excellent way for your readers to test whether your site accepts HTML, BBCode or wikitext markup languages.

But wait, there's more!

While these 10 plug-ins make WordPress a more powerful platform, there are many others that provide basic or fun features.

For example, every blogger needs to think about how to handle spam; fortunately, WordPress comes bundled with Akismet, an excellent place to start (and, in most cases, stop) dealing with the problem of junk e-mail.

If you haven't upgraded to WordPress 2.8, which auto-adjusts for daylight-saving time, the Automatic Timezone plug-in will perform the same function.

Easy Admin Color Schemes changes the aesthetics of the WordPress administration panel, while WP Greet Box presents custom greetings to visitors tailored to the site they're coming from, such as Facebook or Twitter.

There's much more that WordPress can do, but these plug-ins will ensure that you're well equipped with tools that meet the most basic needs of a professional blogger.

What other plug-ins do you recommend? Leave a comment with your suggestions!

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