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 blogging tools and services we use and highly recommend.
Also see our “How to Start A Blog” series, which features step-by-step instructions for how to set up your own blog.
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
You can either buy your domain name separately, through services like GoDaddy, or buy it together with your web hosting, directly from the host. Some even include a free domain name with certain hosting plans (see below). For step by step instructions for how to buy a domain name, see the “Starting Your Own Blog Part III” post .
I use BigScoots which was recommended to me by a web developer, and I have been very happy with them. They use cPanel, are super nice, and their support is fantastic and very quick. They have helped me out on several occasions, with situations like when I accidentally crashed an entire blog by changing a piece of code I should have left alone. They had it back up again in a matter of minutes. They are also really affordable – their 55CC plan starts at $3.55/month.
Another very popular option is Bluehost. They also use cPanel, setup is super easy, their support is there 24/7, and you can get a free domain name when you sign up. Bluehost plans start at $3.95/month.
Email Marketing / Newsletters
I use MailChimp for all my newsletters and they are great. They have lots of templates that are easy to customize, great subscriber management, and it’s really easy to set everything up and design a newsletter that looks good and professional. The basic plan is free, and comes with lots of great features like free welcome email series, etc.
I personally use StudioPress and I love them. They have something called the Genesis Framework, that makes working with WordPress a lot easier and they have lots of great looking themes to choose from as well. All their themes are SEO optimized, responsive (meaning your site automatically looks good on all mobile devices) and 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.
Another great resource for themes (and lots of other things) is Creative Market. It’s an online marketplace where designers sell their products directly to the customers. I’ve bought a lot of stuff there, including the theme I use on my photography blog. You can find everything from beautifully designed fonts to newsletter templates, logos, social media templates, etc. at very affordable prices. Most items are set up for “the average user” who doesn’t have Photoshop or previous design training.
When it comes to plugins, less is more. Plugins are great and an easy ways to add functionality to your site, but they can also cause a bunch of issues. Sometimes, one plugin clashes with another, and there are plenty that slow down the site. If you are having unexpected issues with your site that you can’t figure out how to solve, try deactivating all your plugins and then activate them one by one and see if a plugin is the problem.
Blog / Website Pre-Launch Plugin
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
Recommended Live Site Plugins
Contact Form 7
Free plugin that after you activate it creates a new menu item on your dashboard called Contact, where you can configure the signup form as you want. Install from plugins page on your site.
Genesis eNews Extended
Genesis eNews Extended is a free plugin that creates a widget that adds a mailing list signup. It’s really easy to set up and integrates with the most common email marketing services (including MailChimp).
Another free plugin (comes in a paid version with more features as well) that helps with security, load times and displaying related content. Jetpack.com
Images can really slow down your site, especially large ones. ShortPixel is a great little plugin that compresses your images (and pdfs) while keeping the original image quality. You honestly can’t tell the difference. It helps your pages load faster, which in turn can help with ranking. When we ran it on this site, it reduced our entire media library by 66%! The free version lets you compress 100 images / month, and there is a variety of paid plans to choose from as well. And you can pay a one-time fee if you are compressing a large library and know you’re not going to need more than 100 / month after that. Highly recommended.
Social Warfare is a fantastic product that puts several important functions into one plugin. With it, you can:
- Set up social sharing buttons that won’t slow your site down (unlike many others)
- Choose which blog post images you want readers to share on Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, etc. (so that you can control what gets shared from your blog)
- Add custom “Tweet this” quotes in your posts
- Add a widget that shows your most popular posts based on the number of social shares
and lots more. It comes in both free and paid versions (some of the features are only available in the premium version) and I highly recommend it!
I love this plugin and consider it a must on any blog. It automatically generates META tags, optimizes your titles, helps you register your site with different search engine webmasters, 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 little status buttons in each post that shows you how that post is doing, both SEO and readability-wise, and a “checklist” of what you’re doing right and what you can do to improve it. Super easy and very helpful! Also comes in free and paid versions.
Additional Plugins to Consider
Depending on which features that are built into your theme, you might also want to take a look at:
Contextual Related Posts
This plugin automatically allows you to display a list of related posts at the end of each article on your blog. Looks nice, and great for keeping people on your site and reading more posts than one.
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.
Limit Login Attempts
If you’re online, chances are that 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.
A powerful spam blocker, and I consider it an absolute necessity. It really helps cutting down on comment, contact form, registration etc. spam on your site. Install from Plugins page.
For more on plugins, also see Starting Your Own Blog Part VI: Plugins