David Else TypeScript/JavaScript software developer | elsewebdevelopment.com

WordPress plugins: The ultimate guide

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WordPress Plugins: The Ultimate Guide

WordPress is by far the most popular content management system. It has been around since 2013 and powers 39 percent of all websites.

Due to its massive popularity, there is a bewilderingly large range of third-party plugins that extend WordPress’ functionality. WordPress is free, open-source software, but its plugins include a mix of free, freemium, and commercial extensions.

In this guide, we’ll review the best free and freemium WordPress plugins. We’ll focus on contact form plugins, antispam plugins, and SEO plugins for WordPress. Our conclusions will be based on the free version’s features, but we will take into account whether the  paid features look useful. We’ll also consider how invasive and annoying freemium advertisements are to determine whether the plugin is worth using.

We’ll cover the following in detail:

What are WordPress plugins?

WordPress plugins are PHP scripts that either enhance existing WordPress features or provide new features for your website. These plugins are often open-source, free, and developed by volunteers.

WordPress relies on third-party plugins to provide functionalities that many other CMSs have built-in. This is a conscious choice by the people behind WordPress, and it has its strengths and weaknesses. On one hand, it creates a vibrant market; the intense competition between vendors creates a wide choice of varied plugins that people need.

That said, missing functionality is inconvenient. For example, most sites need a contact form, but WordPress does not provide one.

Are plugins free on WordPress?

Companies and individuals release free versions of their plugins on the WordPress Plugin Directory with a GNU free software license. Users can rate and review plugins and track the number of downloads. Commercial extensions to the free versions can be sold in accordance with a strict set of rules.

Thanks to this mixture of free plugins and commercial add-ons, many seemingly free plugins are really just a way to entice users to buy add-ons.

What are the best WordPress plugins?

Unless you’re developing the plainest, most basic of websites, you’re going to need to rely on plugins. Choosing the best WordPress plugin is difficult for the following reasons:

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  • The WordPress plugin repository is hard to make sense of. The star rating system favors older plugins that have collected more stars. Often, these are not the best for modern WordPress. Also, there is no way to filter the searches for the criteria you are looking for
  • It is easy to fall for marketing tricks. A huge market with potential big profits attracts shady business practices. Many free plugins are not really free; you may find essential features that need to be unlocked by purchasing extensions. Many seemingly impartial online reviews are actually paid for by the company making the plugin

It’s also crucial to understand the impact of WordPress 5 and Gutenberg. Released back in December 2018, WordPress 5.0 included the new Gutenberg editor. This was a paradigm shift for WordPress because it switched to editing your content in blocks. This shook up the entire WordPress ecosystem and, it’s very important to understand this shift when you’re looking for plugins.

Gutenberg marks a divide between the old way of doing things in WordPress and the new order. Many older plugins have been around for a long time and were created in a pre-Gutenberg world. For that reason, you should be skeptical of any plugin that is not designed for Gutenberg. Many don’t integrate well or take advantage of the new features offered in the latest version of WordPress.

Without further ado, let’s zoom in on some of the top plugins for WordPress, including contact form plugins, antispam plugins, and SEO plugins.

WordPress contact form plugins

Most sites require a contact form. The two most popular plugins clearly illustrate the difference between the highly commercial freemium and actual free, open-source software.

Contact Form 7 and WPForms

1. Contact Form 7

Contact Form 7 has been around a long time, almost as long as WordPress itself. This, in part, explains why it has so many active installations. The other reason is that you probably don’t need another contact form.

The Contact Form 7 plugin enables you to:

  • Create multiple forms. You can insert them on pages and posts using shortcodes
  • Customize forms using simple markup
  • Easily integrate antispam tools. Choose from simple, user-defined quizzes or add advanced, third-party extensions for a thing like Google reCAPTCHA

Contact form 7 has a dated appearance inside WordPress and a fiddly way of creating forms. These are the main negatives, but once you have it set up and running, your job is done. Just build your form with simple markup, and you can create all the tags automatically by clicking them via the menu:

Contact Form 7 Form Design

The price to pay for a fancier form is neverending nagging, bloat, and unwanted colonization of your WordPress GUI.

How to use the quiz feature to block spam

I have found the most effective method to block spam is built into Contact Form 7. All automated generic solutions seem hackable, including the Really Simple CAPTCHA plugin by the author of Contact Form 7.

Asking the user a question that only a human could answer works best. You can see the full markup for multiple random questions in the screenshot above. It appears on the form as:

Spambot Confusion in Contact Form 7

Styling Contact Form 7 with Ultimate Addons for Gutenberg

Contact form 7 was designed in a pre-Gutenberg world, but there is currently nothing better that is built explicitly for Guttenberg. Luckily, you can use the free Ultimate Addons for Gutenberg extension, which features the Contact Form 7 Styler block. This enables you to style forms without resorting to manual CSS, includes a lot of great free blocks, and comes highly recommended.

2. WPForms Lite

WPForms Lite is the most popular alternative to Contact Form 7. Its main selling point is the ease of use in creating forms and a huge number of features and integrations, most of which are paid for.

Is WPForms free?

WPForms Lite is free, but if you want the additional features, you’ll need to purchase a plan that suits your needs.

Built-in features of WPForms Lite include:

  • Create multiple forms. Insert them on pages and posts using shortcodes
  • Drag-and-drop contact form builder
  • Prebuilt form templates

Additional paid features include:

  • PayPal, Stripe, Authorize Net, Constant Contact, AWeber, Mailchimp, GetResponse, Campaign Monitor, ActiveCampaign, and Drip add-ons
  • File uploads
  • Geolocation data
  • Surveys and polls
  • Signature add-on
  • Form abandonment
  • Form templates pack
  • Webhooks

Pros and cons of using WPForms

The main selling point of WPForms Lite (with no add-ons) over Contact Form 7 is the drag-and-drop form builder. It is more modern and easier to use:

WPForms Simple Contact Form

The main drawback is the incredibly aggressive and annoying ads built into every area of the plugin. Whenever you try to do anything, you’re constantly reminded of some feature or other you need to pay for. The omnipresence of marketing ploys is obnoxious. This is essentially the only reason why WPForms isn’t the top choice over Contact Form 7.

Advertising inside the GUI

Inside the GUI, there are ads for related extensions, unrelated extensions, and other companies. Take, for example, the email marketing integration settings:

WPF Forms: Marketing Integration

If you want to integrate a third-party email marketing company, you need to pay. But instead of discretely mentioning this, the majority of your GUI space is turned into a massive advert.

To make matters worse, the only free integration is with Constant Contact. They have no free plan, so this seemingly free option is actually just an ad for another company.

Inside your WordPress GUI, a WPForms menu will appear to access features. Half of these links are actually advertisements.

WPForms Menu

  • Entries: Full-page ad for an upgrade to enable saving form data to the database
  • Addons: Full-page ad for add-ons you can buy
  • Analytics: Full-page ad for an unrelated plugin by the same company
  • SMTP: Full-page ad to get you to buy their WP Mail SMTP plugin
  • About us: A photo of the team and lots more ads

If you decide to continue your research on the best contact form plugin for WordPress and search Google for wpforms vs contact form 7, you’ll find:

Google SERP: WPForms vs. Contact Form 7

Have a look at who published the top article; can you guess what the conclusion might be? It is, of course, a massively biased piece of advertising posing as a genuine comparison.

Should you use WPForms?

There is nothing technically wrong with the free product, and WPForms is not the only WordPress plugin to use underhanded marketing tactics and aggressive in-app advertising.

Here’s why you might want to give WPForms a chance:

  • The GUI and ease of use is better than Contact Form 7
  • The paid extensions might be what you are looking for
  • If you have no objections to your WordPress installation turning into a giant advertising billboard, it is a solid plugin for creating forms

Antispam plugins for WordPress

If you have comments enabled in WordPress you will very soon be a victim of comment spam. These spammers always seem to find you, and before you know it you can be flooded. Having some kind of comment spam protection is mandatory. Of course, you don’t want actual users to have their comments blocked, so a good solution is needed.

Antispam Bee

Luckily, the best comment spam plugin for WordPress is free and open-source. Antispam Bee blocks spam comments and trackbacks without captchas. Originally developed by Sergej Müller and now maintained by the pluginkollektiv, Antispam Bee was build with data protection and privacy in mind.

Antispam Bee enables you to:

  • View statistics on the dashboard
  • Trust approved commentators. Authors with previously released comments will always be trusted
  • Look in the local spam database. Antispam Bee compares the comment with previous known spam
  • Validate commenters’ IP address. The analysis takes place directly in the blog without external services
  • Use regular expressions. Analyse the comments for patterns; for example, it might treat three or more links in the comment as spam
  • Blacklist or whitelist comments from specific countries using IP

Spammers have many devious methods up their sleeves, and Antispam Bee knows about them. All the detection methods can be turned on and off in the plugin settings page and are fully documented.

Antispam Bee does not use external services by default, so it is fast, secure and GDPR-compliant. Other plugins such as Akismet rely on filtering comments through their servers. You can set Antispam Bee to allow only comments in certain languages. This requires an external service, but it’s optional.

WordPress SEO plugins

Search engine optimization is important if you want your site to get visitors. It is a very big subject. While a plugin can’t write the fantastic content you need to get hits, it can keep an eye on your on-site SEO. This includes but is not limited to:

  • Taking care of social media integration with APIs such as Open Graph and Twitter Cards
  • Generating a site map and other structured data for search engines to use
  • Linting your content for title lengths, keyword use, and readability

The two best SEO plugins for WordPress are The SEO Framework and Yoast SEO. Let’s examine both in detail.

SEO Framework and Yoast SEO

1. The SEO Framework

The SEO Framework has no advertising or spam to annoy you. The company makes money if you purchase a paid plan that includes extra features, but it does not harass you to do so.

Its built-in features include:

  • Visual traffic light indicators that show if the post follows SEO best practices. Cryptic appreciations are revealed on hover over:

  • Social media integration. Outputs Open Graph, Facebook, Twitter meta tags, and embed scripts (used by WordPress, LinkedIn, and Discord)
  • Automatically generate structured data markup. This includes breadcrumbs and a site links search box
  • Optimize robots meta dettings, which includes disabling indexing the second or later page of any archive to prevent duplication errors
  • Webmaster integration settings, which adds Google, Bing, Yandex, Baidu, and Pinterest verification codes

The only notable features the SEO Framework plugin lacks are keyword optimization options and readability scores. If you require keyword optimization, you will need to purchase a plan and use the focus extension. This basically counts the number of occurrences of a handful of keywords in various places in your page/post.

2. Yoast SEO

Yoast SEO is widely considered the best SEO plugin, and it has a vast number of downloads to prove it. The Yoast plugin analyzes your posts and makes suggestions to what improve its search rank.

This may seem like a massive advantage, but I would argue that it is not. It is not actually proven to work. Only Google knows exactly how it crawls, evaluates, and ranks pages on the web.

What does the Yoast plugin SEO do?

Here is an example of some of the insights Yoast offers:

Yoast SEO Screenshot

The keyphrase feature is the most useful because it keeps you focused on your subject. The downside of all these insights is they can distract you from writing a great article if you’re not careful. You can waste a lot of time trying to get a full score and forget that what really matters is writing good content.

Should you use Yoast SEO?

Other than SEO analysis, the features are almost the same as the SEO Framework. The advantage of the SEO Framework is that it doesn’t relentlessly try to sell you the premium upgrade. It doesn’t approach the horror show of WPForms Lite’s advertising. Yoast SEO once tried to put a giant advertising banner across the WordPress dashboard, but the user rebellion was so great that it had to back down.

Conclusion

Plugins are central to WordPress. The best way to discover and download plugins is through the official WordPress Plugin Directory, which can be hard to navigate if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

The right balance between a genuinely useful free plugin and a freemium plugin that is mainly an ad for a paid extension is hard to strike. Companies and developers certainly deserve to get paid for great products, but for some, the incentives to twist the Plugin Directory’s rules are too great.

Often, a basic, high-quality, free plugin is all you need, but it is easy to get sucked into sneaky marketing and end up using something that is bloated and annoying due to excessive advertising. Especially if you’re creating a site for a client, this can reflect poorly on you.

David Else TypeScript/JavaScript software developer | elsewebdevelopment.com

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