When you are first starting a blog or website, you can easily spend hundreds of hours online, doing research on hosting, themes, domain names, plugins, etc. I know I did. There is so much information and so many resources out there, and just trying to figure out where to begin can be enough to put you in “information overload paralysis”. To help prevent that from happening, we have put together a list of the products and services we use and highly recommend:
Platform: WordPress. The #1 Blog Publishing Platform. Easily customizable, and what I use for this (and my personal) blog. Both are on WordPress.org, the self-hosted version that allows for a lot more customization (and monetization). See the “Starting Your Own Blog Part I” post for an outline of WordPress.com vs. WordPress.org
Domain names: I use GoDaddy, it’s super easy to buy a name through them, they have lots of support documentation available, and I have always been happy with their customer service. See the “Starting Your Own Blog Part III” post for step by step instructions for how to buy a domain name.
Web Hosting: I am using Hostgator and have been very happy with both their product and customer service. When I accidentally crashed the entire blog by changing something that shouldn’t have been changed, they got it up and running again in no time (and stayed on the phone with me to make sure things were working properly). They have 3 different options, with prices starting at under $4/month for the basic “Hatchling” plan. See the “Starting Your Own Blog Part V” post for instructions on how to set up your blog.
Email Subscriptions: Constant Contact. I really regret not having a newsletter sooner. It is a great way to build a customer base and stay in touch with your customers / clients, and now that I do have one, I use Constant Contact. They have lots of templates, and it’s really easy to set everything up and design a newsletter that looks good and professional.
StudioPress. Everything from StudioPress is SEO optimized, responsive (meaning your site automatically looks good on all mobile devices). All themes come with a bunch of different layout options, and if you get stuck trying to set up your site, their support and forum is great. Or if you prefer to have someone else set things up, they have a list of designers who are all experts on customizing these themes.
ThemeForest is a part of the Australian-based Envato Marketplace. It’s a set of eight digital marketplaces where people can buy and sell digital goods for different creative specialties. It’s sort of like an Etsy for designers, so when you buy a theme, logo, photo, etc. here, you purchase it directly from the creator. The quality of products varies quite a bit, so you need to do your research before buying. I have bought fonts, themes, plugins etc. here and have mostly been happy with what I got. When browsing this “store”, I sort the items by rating, and look for those that have great ratings and lots of sales.
Thesis from DIY Themes is an easy drag-and-drop design, so even if you don’t know anything about code, you can still set up and easily customize your site. They have four different “skins” (the basic layout) to choose from, and you can easily control and change everything, including colors and fonts (usually when you want to change the font on a theme, you have to go into the CSS stylesheet and edit the base code of the site – not fun and it’s very easy to mess up your site this way). They are all SEO optimized and responsive (i.e. works on all mobile devices).
Advanced YouTube Embed
Have you ever embedded a YouTube video on your site, everything’s working fine, you publish the post, it looks great, but when you go back to that post later, the video isn’t there? All that shows up is a blank space in the post? It happened to me all the time, so annoying, but then I discovered this handy plugin. When you install and activate it, it adds a little symbol on your post and page menu, and when you click on it, a window opens where you copy and paste the URL of the YouTube video you want to embed. The next window lets you set the dimensions of the video plus a bunch of other options, and when you click “get code” a new window opens up. Just copy that code and paste it into your post (in Text view). That’s it, all set. Looks good, and the video stays in place. The basic version of this plugin is free. There is also a paid “PRO” version that comes with a bunch of extra features, such as an analytics dashboard where you can see stats on things like which part of the video people watch most, how your site compares to others, etc. Install from the Plugins page on your blog.
Akismet is a spam blocker and comes with most WordPress themes. It makes a huge difference when it comes to the amount of spam you receive (and if you have a blog, you will receive spam messages). In order to activate Akismet, you need an API key, which is a set of numbers that you get from WordPress.com. So even if you don’t want to set up a blog on WordPress.com, you need to go to their site and create an account. Akismet has free and paid plan options: personal, pro and enterprise. If you select personal, you choose the price, from nothing to $120/year. If you go with $0, you’ll get a sad smiley face and just two boxes where you fill out your first and last name. Enter them and click on continue. A new window with your API key and instructions for what to do next opens. Go back to your blog and follow those instructions, and you are all set. If you select to pay something for the plugin, or go with the business plan, you will also need to enter credit card information in that first window. Install from Plugins page.
Great, free plugin that puts a calendar right on your site (once you have installed and activated it, it shows up in the menu under Posts) that lets you put in all your planned posts so you remember when to post what. If you install it on a blog that already has posts, it auto-populates with them, which is pretty impressive. Install from Plugins page.
Fanciest Author Box
This is a great plugin that automatically creates those “about” boxes that you see at the end of the posts on this blog. There is a basic, free version called Fancier Author Box which has tabs for the author’s bio and latest posts, and a paid version called Fanciest Author Box, which also shows social media icons (and links to the author’s profile on each), provides automatic Google authorship verification, and comes with several other customization options as well. We use the “Fanciest box” on this blog; we love it and it’s a bargain at only $10. www.codecanyon.net
Genesis Simple Edits
Great for those of us who use the Genesis framework and don’t want to mess with the code in the stylesheet. This free plugin adds a simple page under the Genesis settings where you can easily modify the post info (byline), post meta, and footer area. Once you have installed and activated the plugin, you’ll see it listed on the menu under Genesis. Install from Plugins page.
jQuery Pin It Button For Images
You know how when you mouse over an image on this blog, a little “Pin It” button appears? That’s what this plugin does. It makes it really easy for readers to pin anything from your blog, it’s free, and comes with lots of customization options. Install from Plugins page.
Limit Login Attempts
If you’re online, chances are someone at some point will try to illegally access your site. Sad but true. This free plugin helps prevent that. If someone tries to log in to your site and fails after a certain number of times (you set the number), that IP address gets locked out and you get a notification email (so that you can permanently block that address). Install from Plugins page.
This plugin automatically creates those little images with the heading “You might also like” that you see at the end of every post on this blog. It’s free, has a few customization options, and you set it up right on their site. www.linkwithin.com
Meeting Scheduler by vCita
This is that “ask a question” window you see that pops up in the bottom right of the screen on the blog. It is designed to be a meeting scheduler, and is actually a whole system for managing and invoicing clients, but it works great as a way for people to contact you for any reason. It comes with a lot of customization options and is really easy to set up. The basic version is free, with three levels of paid upgrades if you want more features. I think it’s a great tool, and saw an immediate increase in reader interaction as soon as I installed it. www.vcita.com
Peter’s Random Anti Spam
This is another spam blocker, and I consider it an absolute necessity. It really helps cutting down on spam comments on your posts, and reduce the amount of emails you receive (if you have your blog set up so that you approve all comments before they are published, you’ll get an email for each one, so that can really fill up your mailbox quickly). Install from Plugins page.
SeedProd Coming Soon Pro
If you are building a new site, or need to do construction work on your current one and want to do it behind the scenes, it is a good idea to have a landing page on your site’s home URL to let your visitors know what’s going on (and ideally also have a sign up window so that you don’t lose potential subscribers just because your site is down). When I was building this site, I used SeedProd and was very happy with it. It is super easy to set up, comes with lots of customization features, is integrated with all the major email marketing services, and looks great too. SeedProd is a paid plugin, and totally worth the investment (I tried a few free “coming soon” plugins but gave up on that quickly). SeedProd
This is that floating bar you see on the left side of your screen of the blog, with several different social media icons. It is a free tool that makes it really easy for your readers to share anything on your blog. You can install it right from your plugins page, and it comes with several good customization options and they have just added a tracking feature on their site, so you can get an easy overview of how much and where your content is shared (you need to have Google Analytics on your site for this to work). Install from Plugins page.
Subscribe To Comments
You know how when you leave a comment, there is a little checkbox asking you if you would like to be notified of follow-up comments via email? That’s what this plugin does. Install from Plugins page.
Use Google Libraries
Free plugin that can help your site run a lot faster by loading certain libraries from Google’s servers instead of the ones on your site. It works great and really increases the speed. When I installed it on Animal Massage Guide, the old site for this blog, it went from taking 4.59 seconds to load to 2.32 – a huge improvement! (tested at http://tools.pingdom.com/). Install from Plugins page.
There are many, many backup plugins to choose from, some paid, some free. The WP-DB-Backup is free, and I have used it for many years now and have (so far) been very happy with it. You install it right from the plugin page, configure a few basic settings, and it’s ready to go. Install from Plugins page.
WP Contact Form III
The Contact Form plugins can be tricky. The one I use on this blog, WP Contact Form III, is free and I really like it, but it does not work on all themes. There are lots of contact form plugins available, and it took me a long time to find one I’m happy with. If this one doesn’t work for you, another one that seems to work almost everywhere and gets good reviews from others is the “Fast and Secure Contact Form” created by Mike Challis. It looks good, is easy to install, and best of all, has a “captcha” field which helps prevent spamming. Install from Plugins page.
This free plugin helps you clean up your blog, either on an automatically scheduled basis or manually, and removes things like post revisions, spam comments, unapproved comments, etc. Install from Plugins page.
WP Super Cache
Another free plugin. This one helps your site load faster by creating html versions of previously visited pages rather than loading and compiling the whole PHP code and then building the page from the database. Another very popular option is the W3 Total Cache, which I use on my personal blog and also have been happy with so far. Install from Plugins page.
Yoast’s WordPress SEO
Genesis comes with great SEO features already built in, so you don’t necessarily NEED an additional plugin for SEO, but I highly recommend Yoast’s SEO plugin for a number of reasons. It automatically generates META tags, optimizes your titles and tweaks a lot of other stuff “behind the scenes” which helps the search engines find your blog. And my favorite feature is that you get a little status-button in each post that shows how that post is doing, SEO-wise, and a “checklist” of what you’re doing right and what you can do to improve it. Super easy and very helpful! Install from Plugins page.
For more on plugins, also see Starting Your Own Blog Part VI: Plugins