Monday Masterclass: Best Free Plugins for WordPress Websites

This week we joined forces with our users to find the best free plugins for WordPress websites. We also focus on how to choose them for the right balance of streamlining your workflows and processes while keeping your site speed fast.​

Which WordPress plugins should we REALLY be using?

We will review key plugins worthwhile using when creating virtually any new WordPress website.

Fewer plugins, fewer headaches, right? Still, there are some plugins you just can’t do without.

On the one hand, plugins are designed to make our workflow easier. On the other hand, plugins tend to slow down our sites; sometimes causing unexpected hiccups. This is why we should carefully consider which plugins to use on our sites.

If we were to assess the overall types of plugins commonly used on websites, we would have a valid list of the most practical plugins. This is exactly what you will gain from this blog: a veritable cheat sheet to the best free plugins, compiled by professionals and community members. You will get an overview of highly recommended free and crucial plugins you might need for creating nearly any type and genre of website.

Obviously, using Elementor reduces the number of plugins, making some plugins, like those for popups or forms redundant. 

We’ll be going through our list of best WordPress plugins in alphabetical order.

First on our list is the Activity log. This extra-light plugin generates a log of every activity occurring on your WordPress website. Imagine that it works like an airplane ‘black box,’ recording events and alerting you when a post is deleted, a plugin is activated, or if someone is attempting to log in or hack your site. 

This particular plugin was developed by our teams to keep track of content, themes, and elements, as well as tags and taxonomies, media, and WooCommerce.

You can export your logs in CSV and have predefined alerts sent immediately to your email. This plugin is also General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) Compliant as are some others on this list.

Moving on to our next plugin, Akismet, made by Automatic, the company behind WordPress.com.

This is a spam filtering service that filters spam from comments, trackbacks, and contact form messages. The filter works by combining information gathered on all participating sites, and using it to identify and block potential spam.

And nobody likes spam.

In the past, we’ve emphasized the value of long-term SEO. If you’re planning or have already begun using long-term SEO as a content strategy, we absolutely recommend using the Broken Link Checker plugin. It continuously monitors your pages for broken links and sends you an email as soon as it finds one. You should know that there’s a bit of a debate surrounding this plugin. The opposition argues that this plugin is very heavy and uses up a lot of CPU. If you’re worried about this plugin affecting your website’s performance, you can activate it periodically rather than running it constantly. Another solution is to use the online version of Broken Link Checker every once in a while. 

As Elementor users, whenever we need to duplicate a post, we usually save it as a template in Elementor and then insert it elsewhere. An alternative way to do this is by using the next plugin on our list, Duplicate Post Plugin. It can also be used to duplicate custom fields, titles, etc. for new and future posts.

Elementor

After the letter D comes E and we all know what that stands for. Yes, we are including Elementor, and if you’ve been following our blog, you know that we don’t make a habit of blowing our own horn. The reason that the Elementor Page Builder made our list of top free plugins for WordPress is that: a) it is free, b) it’s been getting top ratings and recommendations, from all our users who contributed to this list. And c) it’s designed to help speed up load-time and improve site-communication, by removing the need to install additional plugins for things like popups and forms.

It just so happens that this week Elementor clocked 3 million active installs, a major landmark we’ve been celebrating together with our users. 

We won’t elaborate any further because we feel that Elementor speaks for itself. If you’re a WordPress user and have somehow not heard of Elementor yet, please feel free to try it and form your own opinion. We’d love to know what you think.

And if like many Elementor users, you decide that you want to move on, professionally to a whole new level of features and options and get Elementor Pro, well, we could hardly blame you. And the ever-growing community of Pro users worldwide would be only too happy to welcome you.

There are numerous ways to add analytics embedded code snippets to your site. It would be best to add these snippets directly to your code manually. However, there is an alternative, especially for those who don’t feel confident enough to tinker around with code. 

The alternative is to embed Google Tag Manager *snippets, using the Google Tag Manager for WordPress plugin, that you may recall from a previous Masterclass about funnels, and something we highly recommend for similar tasks. 

How many times have we had to reorganize posts and pages, as well as customized elements? Well, our guess is that the Intuitive Custom Post Order plugin was designed by someone else who had to reorganize their content one time too many because this is a tool that you can use to visually switch the order of your posts and pages very easily.

If you’ve been managing sites long enough, you’ll know how often posts are renamed, deleted or recreated, and how annoying it can become. Redirection is a plugin that was designed to ensure that a proper 301 redirection is created to the modified page URL, so all that link juice leads to the right place.

Speaking of site speed, a subject that many of us are concerned with – and for a good reason – image optimization is another way to accelerate your site. A good, free way of achieving this is by trying the Smush Image Compression and Optimization plugin. It includes a truckload of useful features, including Lazy Loading, Bulk action, automation, and all while preserving the high quality of your images.

Users were also impressed by another plugin, with many similar features, the Compress JPEG & PNG plugin by TinyPNG. Like all the plugins we’re suggesting, you’ll want to try these out and decide what is right for you.

Security is essential for everyone involved, including the visitors, no matter how small your website. 

WordFence proves to be an excellent tool for beefing up your security, with relatively simple procedures, for tasks such as changing your login URL and running malware scans, and much more.

We all want our visitors to feel safe on our sites, we all want our data and content protected, and maximum protection is exactly what this plugin provides. This plugin has also sparked a heated debate online as to whether this app affects the site’s speed.

Criteria for Evaluating Plugins

Let’s zoom out for a moment and ask a fundamental question: how do you benchmark plugins, what are the criteria?

Take WordFence as an example. We know the task we need the plugin to perform, and we’ve used this necessity as a search term on WordPress’s library of free plugins. And we’re left with a few hundred results. The first thing we’re going to look at is Dominance. Is the app topping the charts? How many active installs are there?

Then, Specs or specifications. What versions of WordPress will this work with? When was it last updated? Read the description and features, make sure that it covers all the aspects of the task that you need the plugin to perform.

We’ll also want to make sure that the installation and configuration are not too complicated.

We want community trusted plugins

My father always says that experience is the best form of education, but other people’s experience is even better because it’s free. In our community, we believe that the experience is shared, and therefore, more valuable and trusted. How can you check the level of trust? By looking at the current rating of the plugin and how many times it has been rated. Or, what about reviews? What do other users think about their performance? What do my colleagues think about it? What about asking fellow members of my online community or group if they would recommend it? Are there any known conflicts with other plugins? If so, which ones?

Speed

Speed is a topic that we’ll be devoting an entire masterclass to in the near future. In the meantime, here are some tricks of the trade that both our Pro users and we recommend.

The simplest way to test the level of influence a plugin has on your site’s speed is to check the speed before and after activating each plugin and clock the difference.
You can use Google’s PageSpeed Insights or chrome extensions such as Page Load Time and Checkbot: SEO, Web Speed & Security Tester. Pingdom has a free speed test on their homepage, as well as a free trial for their highly recommended tool designed to analyze your site for issues that could be slowing down your site. 

Another great tool that many of our users recommend is Query Monitor, designed to analyze your site for issues, to include conflicts between plugins. Something that does not happen as seldom as we’d like to think.

A challenging facet of website design and management is caching; something we use to help speed up our load time and keep impatient visitors from bouncing. We know that this list is dedicated to free plugins, but both our users and we find that when it comes to caching to really speed up your site’s load time, WP Rocket is invaluable. This plugin is well worth the investment. You may have heard us mention WP Rocket in previous masterclasses because they are responsible for a slew of great tools for caching and compressing images.

Last but not least is the Yoast SEO plugin. A plugin that truly needs no introduction, especially as we’ve discussed it a couple of times, including in our last SEO masterclass. Even so, there’s a chance that this isn’t the first time that you’ve heard of Yoast, and if you’re still not sure why you’ve heard it before, you should try it for yourself. By the way, the All in One SEO Pack by Michael Torbert is another good option for the same job.

Summary

We’ve gone over the basic plugins recommended for almost every imaginable website you will need to create.

Of course, there are many more plugins for more specific uses, and advanced sites, such as booking or membership plugins. You can choose plugins in those categories on a case by case basis.

We hope this review of the best plugins for WordPress is helpful and inspiring. Now you can apply the tools you gained to evaluate plugins on your own and assess if they meet your needs. Try out some of these free plugins to professionalize your site today.

About the Author

Simon Shocket
Simon Shocket
With a background in graphic design and animation, Simon began his writing career in the entertainment industry, followed by a fruitful career in advertising, before moving into hi-tech journalism. Simon also performs with several bands and musical productions. After all, he was born in Manchester, UK, and that’s a lot to live up to.

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Comments

60 Responses

  1. Thanks for this great article!
    I consider “Activity Log” and “WP Rocket” life savers 😉
    For images I had perfect results with ShortPixel which is similar to Smush. It’s always great to have quite a few alternatives available.

    Additionally, my own “Toolbar Extras” plugin fully integrates with Elementor and helps site builders save time and get more productive. Lots of Elementors around the world are already loving it. And, it is completely free on the official WordPress repository: https://wordpress.org/plugins/toolbar-extras/

  2. Some good stuff on this list. I would switch out Yoast for Rank Math SEO though. Rank Math is totally free, has no ads and has a mind-boggling list of features. And is much easier to use than Yoast.

    (I have no affiliation with Rank Math)

  3. I recently stumbled upon WP Hide, that can rewrite default locations for the login page and wp-admin directory. I renamed mine and it deflects 99% of the standard attacks on WordPress, especially in combination with WordFence. You can even rename your wp-uploads and wp-content folders, plugin folders, etc etc.

  4. I’m surprised there aren’t any free caching plugins on this list! There are several that improve site speed better than WP Rocket in actual website tests.

    W3 Total Cache is the most effective all-in-one solution I’ve seen, but requires some in-depth configuration.

    Cache Enabler is the most effective one that I’ve used that you just install and go in one click.

  5. It’s a clear article but teh question of the millón is:

    How many plugins do we ought to have in one website? Does it exist a máximum?

    Speed? it’s a question due to server.

    1. Elementor sends out a weekly email with more in-depth instruction on various topics. You can sign up for the weekly newsletter in the footer and you can browse the various topics in the Monday Masterclass tab at the top of this blog in the dark blue bar.

  6. Great post!

    I use WP form plugin on my sites which I build with Elementor.

    However, I realize the form is far from my expectation. In fact, it shows a scattered form after pasting the shortcode into Elementor.

    How can I fix this?

  7. A good article but let me disagree only for Broken Link checker.
    It’s pretty “heavy” and checking for broken links can be done online.
    All other stuff is great though .
    It would be good if you posted links to those plugins you considered the best.

  8. Great list! Curious about WordFence though – we tried to use the plugin about 2 weeks ago and we received an email from WordPress stating that the plugin was on their “disallow” list and they would be removing the plugin from our site. I even reached out to WordPress support this morning to confirm that the plugin is still not allowed they said it is still not allowed. How are other people using the plugin without WordPress removing it from their site??

    1. Hosting companies “ban” certain plugins only because they conflict with or duplicate services or processes they ALREADY have on their servers.
      It’s not because they are bad plugins or cause problems. They simply do the same thing the server/host already does and would, therefore, waste resources.

    1. Yoast we mentioned, ACF is for advanced sites not for every site, Gravity forms is great but again, not needed for most sites since you get forms using Elementor Pro.

  9. Yet another “must-have” type plugin list that skips the most important thing of all.
    BACKUPS!!

    Your list should start with a Backup solution since that’s the first plugin anyone should install.
    Whether it’s a WP based system that pushes backups to offsite storage (GDrive, Dropbox, etc) or a service like Blogvault or ManageWP, a solid backup system is a site owner’s #1 priority.

      1. I use UpdraftPlus for backups and it works great. Pushes a full set of zipped archives to a remote server. It’s enough to even rebuild by hand if you like, although the plugin obviously supports restoring as well.

  10. I’ve found on WooCommerce sites with Elementor that the schema produced by yoast is broken – specifically the product rating portion of the schema, which fragments and causes the other sections of the schema to fall apart.

    I switched to SEO Press Pro, set up a default product schema type for product pages and within a month all of my products were indexed by Google to show rating, price and availability.

    I did this 4 months ago, so Yoast may have fixed this in their premium WooCommerce plugin, but I’ve seen better performance across the board from SEOPress for local SEO and eCommerce, and I don’t think it’s even close.

  11. Thanks for mentioning Checkbot for Chrome (https://www.checkbot.io). I’m the creator – let me know if you’ve got any questions. We have a lot of WordPress users that find Checkbot useful for finding broken links, fixing optimisation problems and resolving duplicate page issues for example.

  12. Wordfence?
    very good plug in but really not light.
    All sistes on that i’ve added wordfence have had a bad speed.
    Is there maybe some specific configuration to apply?

  13. I am not sure about Wordfence. It’s great, but… I think ist better to change login URL, use table prefixes other than wp_, use only trusted and well-maintained plugins and themes, and maybe most important: check carefully who has admin access to the website. Not to forget great hosting (today it is industry standard to have spam-protection, anti virus and firewall on hosting level), IMHO themes and plugins are reason no.1 why websites get hacked. Thats why I avoid Wordfence – it slows down your website.

  14. Hello there, nice stuff.
    I would say that I use Imagify for image compression and I am very satisfied with their pricing plans, very scalable when you have to manage lot of sites.
    All the best! 🙂

  15. I used to rely on the star rating and reviews of a plugin… until I installed a plugin that had good ratings and reviews, and it corrupted all my website’s content, and so I gave the plugin a low rating and bad review, and neither of those were never published!

  16. Without a specific purpose, making a list of best plugins is always shorter than it should be! I’d recommend other plugins as well:

    Autoptimize: For better performance
    Falcon: Also for optimizing website
    Easy WP SMTP: Using SMTP for sending emails
    Members: For managing user roles

  17. It’s a great plug in but I have the latest version and my integration tab is missing. I can’t add any email client to the contact form which makes it useless.

  18. Is there reason to why you mention Smush and not Optimole? I read your blog post about Optimole being the best image optimizer for elementor. This makes me confused. Whats the best?

    1. Helene – there are thousands of plugins.
      It’s impossible to know them all (let alone review them!)- but some come up in the various categories as solid and well known.
      Often it comes down to what people use and are comfortable with.
      Once a plugin is being used and does it job, it is sometimes too hard to be bothered switching, just because someone else raves about it.
      HTH, Dave

  19. A nice article, but just for Broken Link checker, let me disagree.
    It’s fairly “heavy” and it’s possible to check broken connections online.
    All other things are fantastic though.
    If you posted connections to those plugins that you deemed the best, it would be great.

    1. Broken Link checker is not constantly working,
      There is a setting (in hours) to configure how often it runs a check…
      HTH Dave

  20. WordFence seems to cop a bit of flack for being heavy, but I install it on all my client sites (over 100), and I have noticed no issues – I’ve tested with and without it over time.
    I think it is probably more a reflection of the quality of hosting more than anything.
    The other reason I like it is that they are on the cutting edge of WP security, often reporting issues to the WP core team before security issues are known.
    HTH Dave

  21. A lot of hosting companies use Litespeed as the server.
    They have a cache plugin caled Litespeed (boom boom!)
    It is fantastic, and works perfectly for me…
    HTH Dave

  22. To add to this list – Shield Plugin

    It handles site security
    Spam Comment Blockers
    Will let you rename wp-login to something more secure
    Also provides an activity log
    It also gives you two factor login for admins.

    I’m a big fan of plugins that can do multiple things well so I have less plugins and Shield is terrific.

  23. I’m using four of the above, Smush, Askimet, which I find is actually working a little too good, I’m finding notifications for some comments in my spam folder, which aren’t spam, and of course, Yoast and Elementor. While I have mentioned Yoast, I was thinking of replacing All in One Seo on my one site with Yoast, what would your opinion be of that?

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