A lot of the WordPress plugins that you’ll install on your site will be for specific features that you want, not necessarily that you need. But beyond those niche plugins, there are also some essential WordPress plugins that are absolute must-haves for all WordPress sites (ok – maybe 99.99% of WordPress sites – but still most sites!).
For most “types” of must-have plugins, I’ll provide both a free and premium option. And I’ll also share why the premium plugin might be worth paying for. That way, you can benefit from this post no matter what your budget is.
Then, in the end, I’ll share some bonus plugins that aren’t 100% must-have, but are still “nice-to-have plugins”. Let’s get started!
A Caching/Performance Plugin To Make Your Site Load Faster
One of the best ways to make that happen is by using a caching and performance plugin. Without getting into all the rigamarole about what’s happening behind the scenes, I’ll just say that using one of these plugins will usually cut your page load times in half. And that’s awesome!
1. WP Fastest Cache – Free Option
I’ve tested a lot of cache plugins, and WP Fastest Cache is consistently one of the top performers, which is why it has a 4.8-star rating on over 2,200 reviews at WordPress.org.
Beyond page caching, WP Fastest Cache will also help you with other performance tweaks, like minification, browser caching, GZIP compression, and more.
This is one of the best ways to make your WordPress site load fast for free.
2. WP Rocket – Premium Option
The main benefit of paying for WP Rocket is convenience. It’s not guaranteed to make your site load faster than one of the free options – so don’t feel compelled to purchase it for that reason.
But the convenience aspect is great for a few reasons:
- It works “out-of-the-box”. While there are some settings you can configure, you can also just activate it and instantly get a huge benefit, which makes it great for casual users.
- Multiple plugins in one. WP Rocket will give you some features – like database optimization and lazy loading – that you’d normally need a separate plugin for.
- Premium support. If you run into any issues, you’ll get premium support.
Beyond convenience, it makes many of the same tweaks as WP Fastest Cache – page caching, browser caching, GZIP Compression…you name it. Read our full WP Rocket review.
An SEO Plugin To Help Your Site Rank In Google
If you want your site to rank in search engines like Google, you need an SEO plugin because WordPress does not have great search engine optimization controls out of the box. These plugins will implement lots of automatic tweaks to improve your site’s SEO. And they’ll also give you the ability to create custom titles and meta descriptions for your target keyword.
3. Yoast SEO – Free Option
Yoast SEO is the godfather of WordPress SEO plugins. Active on over 5 million sites, It’s massively popular. And it’s also maintained a 4.9-star rating on over 22,000 reviews at WordPress.org.
Beyond that popularity, one of the nice things about Yoast SEO is that it does a good job of making things beginner-friendly. So if you’re not an SEO expert, that alone is a great reason to choose Yoast SEO.
4. The SEO Framework – More Lightweight Free Option
The SEO Framework is a younger SEO plugin that’s growing quickly because of its lightweight, streamlined approach. It also has a 4.9-star rating, though it’s not nearly as popular.
If you’re a beginner, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this one. But if you’ve built a few WordPress sites and have a solid grasp of SEO, I think The SEO Framework makes a great option to handle your site’s SEO.
An Image Optimization Plugin To Make Your Site Load Faster’er
According to HTTP Archive, images comprise a little under 50% of the file size of an average web page. That means you should always be looking for ways to optimize the size of your images in order to speed up your WordPress site.
Image optimization plugins can automatically do that for you in two ways by:
- Resizing your images’ dimensions to a maximum that you set
- Compressing your images with either no loss in quality (lossless compression) or a small loss of quality (lossy compression)
5. Smush – Free Option
Smush makes a great free option because it lets you automatically resize and compress unlimited images without paying a dime.
There are two caveats to that:
- You can only use lossless compression
- The maximum file size for each individual image is 1MB
But most people won’t run into any issues with either of those limitations, which makes this one a great first stop. That’s why it has a 4.8-star rating and is active on over a million sites.
6. ShortPixel – Freemium Option
ShortPixel doesn’t give you unlimited free optimizations like Smush. Instead, you can optimize up to 100 images per month for free, but after that, you’ll need to pay.
So why would you pay for ShortPixel when Smush is free? A few reasons:
- You get multiple compression options. You can still do lossless, or you can do lossy compression with various degrees of “lossiness”. For most sites, the conservative lossy approach is the best balance between file size and image quality.
- There’s no file size limit.
- It supports something called WebP images.
ShortPixel also had the best lossy compression performance in our image optimization plugin comparison.
A Backup Plugin To Keep Your Data Safe And Secure
If you’re using a managed WordPress host, your host probably automatically takes backups for you, so you don’t need one of these plugins.
For everyone else? You absolutely need a backup plugin. By using one of these backup plugins, you can automatically back up your site on a set schedule so that if anything ever goes wrong, you have a working copy of your site. Don’t lose your site because you couldn’t take a few minutes to set up automatic backups.
7. UpdraftPlus – Free Option
- Automatically run backups on a schedule that you set.
- Automatically store your backups on external services, like Dropbox or Google Drive
- Easily restore from one of your backups if you ever need to.
I use the free version on all of my sites and find it does a great job. Plenty of other people do as well, which is why it has a 4.8-star rating on over 2,800 reviews.
8. VaultPress – Premium Option
So what makes VaultPress different from UpdraftPlus? Well, that depends on the plan you choose.
At a basic level, it’s really just more convenient. VaultPress automatically offloads your backups to the VaultPress cloud interface. This interface makes it super easy to manage backups. And you can also restore from any backups with the click of a button.
If you’re willing to pay for the business tiers (those start at $99 per year), you’ll find even more differences like:
- Security scanning. VaultPress will automatically scan your backed up files for malware.
- Real-time backups. Rather than daily backups, VaultPress offers a real-time approach that backs up your site every time there’s a change.
- Lifetime storage. The cheaper tiers only store backups for 30 days.
A Security Plugin To Keep Your Site Safe From Bad People
Like automatic backups, if you’re using a managed WordPress host, you can probably skip this one because a good managed WordPress host should already have most of this stuff enabled for you. If not, using a security plugin is a great way to keep your site safe from malicious actors.
You’ll still need to do other stuff – like consistently updating your WordPress site. But a security plugin can handle a good bit of the security burden for you.
9. Wordfence – Freemium Option
There’s only one option here – Wordfence. It sets your site up with:
- Web application firewall to block malicious traffic
- Malware scans
- File integrity monitoring
- Content scanning to catch maliciously injected URLs
- Live traffic monitoring
- Lots of other smaller security tweaks
There’s a reason it’s active on over 2 million sites while it’s maintained a 4.8-star rating on over 3,200 reviews.
The premium version expands on many of these features and adds new ones – but the free version should be fine for most sites.
A Form Plugin So That People Can Get In Touch With You
No matter what type of site you have, you probably need, at a minimum, a contact form so that people can get in touch. And if you want a contact form, you’ll need a contact form plugin.
10. WPForms – Freemium Option
Again – just one option here because I think WPForms does the best job for most sites.
It gives you a simple drag-and-drop editor that makes it easy for even beginners to create a custom form.
The free option is great for basic contact forms or feedback forms. And if you pay for one of the Pro versions, you can also get more advanced with stuff like:
- Email marketing service integrations
- Surveys and polls
- Conditional logic
Read our full WPForms review for a look at everything it can do.
An Anti-Comment Spam Because People Love Spamming WordPress
Because WordPress is so popular, it’s a juicy target for comment spammers around the world. An anti-spam plugin can automatically catch most of this spam so you don’t need to manually moderate it.
Akismet is the anti-spam plugin from Automattic (again – that’s the company behind WordPress.com). Once you configure it (which requires getting a free API key), it will automatically check all new incoming comments and filter out the ones that look like spam.
While other anti-spam plugins exist, I’ve never had a need to try them because Akismet does a great job by itself. It will catch most spam automatically and has very few false positives.
A Social Share Plugin To Help You Get Shared On Social Media
This is probably the least “essential” of these essential WordPress plugins, but I would still say that 99% of WordPress sites can benefit from a quality social share plugin. These plugins help your content get shared more on social media by adding “share buttons” that let your visitors easily share your content to the social network of their choice (you can see them in action at the top of this post).
12. AddToAny – Free Option
AddToAny is a free solution that makes it easy to add share buttons for over 100+ social networks. It also includes a neat “universal share button” that lets visitors choose their preferred network from the entire list.
If you want a flexible free option, this one is a good starting point.
13. Social Warfare – Premium Option
Social Warfare has a free option, but most of its best features are in the premium version, which is what we use here at WPLift.
Beyond adding stylish share buttons, it can also help you:
- Customize how your content looks when it gets shared
- Include share counts (how many times your content has been shared)
- Create Click-to-Tweets
- Use a special image for Pinterest
Check out our full Social Warfare review for more about why we use this plugin at WPLift.
An Email List Building Plugin If You Want To Grow An Email List
This one is only necessary if you want to grow your email list. But if you do, you’ll absolutely need a list building plugin because WordPress doesn’t have any functionality for this and most email marketing services’ default form solutions aren’t very helpful.
14. MailOptin – Free Option
MailOptin lets you create simple popup, sidebar, or in-content optin forms that you can connect to a variety of popular email marketing services. In the free version, you can create up to 3 different email opt-in forms, and this is one of the more feature-rich free plugins that you’ll find.
Read our full MailOptin review for more details.
15. Hello Bar – Premium Option
Hello Bar is a premium option that lets you create eye-catching popups and notification bars. It’s not limited to email opt-ins, but it does make a great way to collect more email addresses or promote any other offer.
For the premium price, you also get more detailed features like:
- Lots of triggers, including exit-intent
- Targeting rules to control exactly where your forms appear
- A/B testing
- Built-in analytics
Eight More “Maybe Not” Essential WordPress Plugins, But Still Nice To Have
Bonus time! Here are eight more plugins that aren’t 100% must-have WordPress plugins for every single site, but can still offer something helpful no matter what type of WordPress site you have.
16. Elementor – Design Beautiful Pages With Drag And Drop (Freemium)
Elementor is a WordPress page builder plugin, which means it helps you design pages using simple drag-and-drop editing. If you’ve ever wished you had more control over the design and layout of your content, a page builder like Elementor is a great choice.
You can learn more by reading our Elementor review.
17. Shortcodes Ultimate – Spice Up Your Posts (Free)
Shortcodes Ultimate is kind of like a more lightweight version of Elementor. Rather than giving you a visual, drag-and-drop interface, it gives you a variety of shortcodes that you can quickly insert into your content to add some new styling.
18. Smart Slider 3 – Create Flexible Sliders/Carousels (Freemium)
It gives you an easy-to-use interface from which you can create sliders and carousels that include:
- Post content
- Custom text
If you want to add sliders to your site, give it a look.
19. Cookie Notice for GDPR – For The Europeans, Or Others Who Care About GDPR (Free)
20. Code Snippets – An Easier Way To Manage functions.php Code Snippets (Free)
If you find yourself often adding code snippets to your functions.php file, the free Code Snippets plugin will be a lifesaver. The benefits of using the plugin over functions.php are:
- Each code snippet is separate and has its own title, which makes it easy to stay organized.
- You can choose whether to run code snippets on just the front-end or back-end (or both)
- You can individually activate/deactivate snippets
- Your snippets will come along for the ride if you ever change WordPress themes
21. Simple CSS – An Easier Way To Manage Custom CSS (Free)
With that being said, I still prefer the Simple CSS plugin because:
- It lets you add custom CSS from both the WordPress Customizer or your regular dashboard
- You can add custom CSS to individual posts or pages
- Your custom CSS will come along for the ride if you ever change WordPress themes
22. Quick Page/Post Redirect Plugin – Easy 301 Redirects (Free)
If you ever change your site’s URL permalink structure or the slug for an individual post or page, you need to set up a 301 redirect to ensure traffic gets redirected to the right spot(s). While you can do this manually, that’s a pain for most users, which is why a plugin like Quick Page/Post Redirect Plugin can be helpful.
It lets you set up and manage redirects right from your WordPress dashboard.
23. Schema Pro – Schema Markup Without A Content Box (Premium)
While schema markup doesn’t directly make your site rank higher, it can make your site more visible in the search results, which is a great thing.
Of all the schema markup plugins that I’ve used, I like Schema Pro because it lets you add schema markup to your site without needing to display an ugly front-end content box.
And that wraps up my list of must-have, essential WordPress plugins. Now over to you – do you disagree with any of these plugins? Or do you think a plugin should be added to the list? Let us know in the comments!