One of the things that can put off authors from setting up their own website is the apparent technical know-how that's required by the process. Many authors stay on free platforms like Wordpress.com or Blogger for years simply because they're easier to use.
But the lack of additional functionality means you're left with a site that essentially looks like everyone else's. You're limited in what you can add to your site and you're also building your digital empire on someone else's land. If Blogger or Wordpress.com ever change their terms of service, your blog could be deleted without warning.
Wordpress can be a really powerful web design tool
Authors might opt to use Squarespace for its ability to host a website and blog combined, much like this one. Or they set up their own web hosting and install Wordpress to run their blog themselves. Self-hosted Wordpress gives you a lot of freedom in terms of which themes you can use, which plugins you can use, and even what kind of design you might end up with if you use one of the Page Builder options.
Wordpress also allows for further functionality through the presence of plugins, small programs that allow your website to do something it didn't do before. There are thousands of plugins to choose from, some of which are dubious quality, and keeping plugins up-to-date can seem a gargantuan task. Still, it's worth it for the new things you'll be able to do.
Here are the top 10 free plugins that your Wordpress blog needs.
1. Wordfence / iThemes Security
You wouldn't work on a laptop or PC that didn't have some kind of anti-virus software or firewall. Wordpress blogs are the same. While hackers are unlikely to crack their way in because they want to delete all your posts, they do have other reasons for hacking you. Often, it's simply to insert advertising or spam. They're also fond of adding malware that can infect those who visit your site.
A good security plugin should be your first port of call
Thankfully, you have not one but two excellent plugins in to choose from. Both of them also offer premium versions with extra functionality - iThemes Security Pro even lets you 'hide' the backend of your site, so a hacker can't get in simply by visiting www.yoursite.com/wp-login.php and guessing your login details.
2. Yoast SEO
If you write fiction, you may wonder if SEO - or search engine optimisation - can really help drive traffic to your website. After all, many people searching for new books will do so on Amazon or Kobo. But if you run a blog (and I recommend that you do), optimising your posts is a great way to drive organic traffic from Google.
The Yoast SEO plugin makes this incredibly easy. Choose your keyword, craft a compelling headline, set your URL, and even create the meta description, the snippet of descriptive text that appears in search engine results. It'll scan your posts to ensure they're SEO compliant. It does much more besides, but that's a simple introduction if you've never used SEO before. Yoast SEO will walk you through the basics.
3. Updraft Plus
No matter how good your hosting, or how up-to-date your firewall, accidents can still happen and your site can disappear. Even updating the wrong plugin or changing your theme can have disastrous consequences. But you'll be okay because you'll have installed a backup plugin like UpdraftPlus.
As with other plugins, the premium version does more, but the free one allows you to back up the contents of your site to cloud storage like Dropbox or Google Drive.
You can set your backup to happen regularly (say weekly), or less often if you don't update your blog on a weekly basis. It'll quietly continue backing up your website in the background. If the worst does happen, you can restore your site via their plugin's dashboard, or manually.
While the number of people leaving comments on posts has drastically fallen since the early days of blogging in 2009 or so, spam comments are still a problem. They can sometimes simply contain links to completely irrelevant websites in the hope that it'll boost the SEO of the poster's site. Or they can be downright annoying.
Akismet is a great way to capture the spam and divert it away from your blog. You can review the comments in your spam queue in case something is legitimate, but largely it'll stop your blog being infested with hundreds of spam comments generated by bots.
You don’t want your comments section full of this!
5. EWWW Image Optimizer
The more images your blog has, the longer it takes your website to load. That can potentially cause visitors to click away before they even reach your content. And Google doesn't like websites that provide a poor experience for the visitor.
Compressing the images is the best way forward. It won't reduce the quality (as simply downsizing the image itself will) but it will make the file size smaller. There are other plugins available but EWWW Image Optimizer is very simple to use. Once you've optimised your existing images, it automatically optimises images as you upload them in future.
6. Social Warfare
Sharing your content on social media is a great way to get it in front of more eyeballs. But you want to make it easy for visitors to share your posts to their own networks of choice. Social Warfare is an incredibly simple to use sharing platform that lets you add buttons at the top and bottom of your posts, as well as floating buttons at the side of the page.
You can add your own Twitter handle if you want it to be automatically added to tweets too. And by adding the share counts, you can encourage people to share if they see others have too.
7. W3 Total Cache
Just like not optimising your images can slow down your site, so can not using a cache plugin. Put simply, a cache plugin generates static HTML files which your server loads much faster than dynamic pages. WP Super Cache comes automatically installed with Wordpress. After you activate it, there's a simple 'enable caching' button and then you're done. So it's great for beginners.
But if you're a more advanced user and you like a little more control, then W3 Total Cache is the better option. With more settings, it allows for a more flexible set of customisations. But either plugin will help serve up your website that bit faster, getting visitors to your content more quickly.
8. Google Analytics for WordPress by MonsterInsights
If you're focusing your efforts on growing a blog to support your book sales, then it's a good idea to get on board with Google Analytics. It will let you pinpoint which posts have been successful and which have had less traffic. You can see exactly how many visits each post has had in a given period and you can even see where your traffic comes from - so you know which platform to focus your marketing efforts on.
Understanding your Google Analytics takes time to master but it’s well worth the effort
This plugin lets you easily connect your Wordpress site with your Google Analytics account so you can keep an eye on how your traffic is doing.
It's absolutely essential that you have your contact details somewhere on your site. After all, you want readers to be able to get in touch with you. Your social media handles and an email address are usually sufficient.
But contact forms can be a super-quick way for people to contact you. They don't need to fire up their email client, and it's a simple question of filling a few boxes on a website. Their message comes to you in an email, and you can send a direct reply.
WPForms Lite offers drag-and-drop functionality so you can make your contact forms as simple - or as complex - as you like. Then you can append them to whichever pages or posts need them. But just remember, the fewer fields to fill out, the better responses you'll get.
10. The plugin for your email provider
One of the watchwords of marketing since 2015 has been 'email list' and the trend towards email marketing shows no signs of abating. Different email marketing providers have their own pros and cons, but many of them have their own plugins now. Convertkit allows you to add popups or scroll boxes to your posts, advertising your opt-in offer to visitors. You can also add sign up boxes to the ends of your posts.
Whichever provider you use, if they have a plugin then make sure you use it. It'll make your list building efforts a lot easier, and you'll get more out of your subscription to the provider's service.
Over to you! Which Wordpress plugins do you swear by?
Looking for feedback on your author website? My Complete Marketing Toolkit includes a full assessment.