In our ever-present quest to improve our travel blog, we have done a lot of back-end work you may not notice on the surface.
One of those is optimizing our WordPress plugins, as these tools are what take sites like ours from a normal blog and transforms them into something special (not to mention helping get a ton of awesome blog traffic too).
A problem we've noticed when it comes to viewing websites is that you can't tell what plug-ins they use outright, and today we wanted to share a breakdown of the WordPress plugins we use and love!
Our goal with this article is to maintain a running list of all plug-ins that we currently use on our sites. As we rotate plug-ins in and out we will update this article accordingly, and all formerly used plug-ins of note will be featured at the end of this article as well as they could still be useful to others!
Ad Inserter – Free with Premium Upgrade
If there is any WordPress plugin that we would deem a work-horse that is absolutely essential for our success, it would be Ad Inserter.
This plugin is like having a developer on call 24/7 to place HTML boxes wherever you want at the click of a button. The free version of the plugin allows for up to 16 custom placements to be inserted practically anywhere on your site. (The pro version of Ad Inserter allows for 64.)
Placement options include at the beginning of articles, at certain percentages inside of articles, at the end, in the header or footer, on specific categories or tags, on individual post IDs, and so much more. It also works with negative features too in order to exclude the boxes from displaying in any of those previous categories too! Going even further, the program also lets you a/b test placements with a rotation tag that will randomly distribute display features in any given box.
Yes, this one really does it all.
This amazing functionality has allowed us to supercharge our affiliate marketing game as we've been able to create custom ad displays in-body, in our footers, and on our sidebar to be inserted exactly where we want and on specific post categories. So rather than testing an ad for, say, Rail Europe site wide, we were able to immediately place it in all of our articles with our Europe category tag (we now make about $50-$100/month just from that one change).
The best part is that since Ad Inserter makes changes site wide you do not have to go into hundreds of posts to make an adjustment. All you have to do is edit one little box of code and you're finished. Truly a must for any blogger!
- Pro tip: This one has a steep learning curve, so be sure to read all the tutorials ahead of time. Figuring out the best settings can be a pain at times if you get into specific inclusion / exclusions.
Pretty Links Pro – Premium
Pretty Links Pro is a premium link cloaking program that is best used for changing the structure of affiliate links for select services. The reason this is useful is because some affiliate programs create jumbled hyperlinks that look, to be blunt, like spam.
The service lets you create a hyperlink with your domain such as livingthedreamrtw.com/hotelbooking instead of whatever jumbled mess the affiliate program offers (think lksdjflksj.com- looks like spam, right?). This is far more trust worthy and is said to increase clicks (however we just bought the service so are reserving judgment for later), but we also only use it on services that jumble hyperlinks to begin with (we're looking at you CJ and Awin!).
The plug-in also allows for a central resource of all links, so if we insert a new link in 100 articles and the affiliate link changes we just change it in the Pretty Links dashboard and all of the links across our site update automatically. Not bad for just under $100/year for multiple sites!
It is important to note that not all affiliate services allow link cloaking, so it is best to confirm with each network prior to changing your link (we know Amazon does not allow this, for example).
Display Posts Shortcode – Free
Display Posts Shortcode does just as its name implies- it generates a shortcode to display a bulleted list of post titles based on a given category or tag.
This one may be hard to visualize, so an example from our Europe category is below:
- Walks of Italy Review – What All Walking Tours Should Be
- Is a Europe Rail Pass Worth It? Tickets Are Cheaper Than You May Think!
- Compete Spending Breakdown for 117 Days in Europe
By inserting a short code into any post or html box, it is immediately transformed into a list like as above. You have control over the tag/category used, how many posts it will display, restrict it to only display posts within a given range, and can customize it from there to display more details like the date published or even an excerpt!
This is really helpful when putting together database pages like our Destinations list because all you have to do is insert the code once for any given tag and it will continually add posts as you go. In fact, we think we're only just scratching the surface of the power this one provides, which is truly saying something!
- Pro tip: Combine Ad Inserter with Display Posts Shortcode for a supercharged related post prompt. Take the above “Europe” category display and put it in Ad Inserter to display 50% of the way down on all posts with the Europe category, and now every post will recommend your newest Europe posts to readers automagically. See if you can find us doing this combo within this post!
Linkify Text – Free
Linkify Text is an interesting plugin that searches all of your pages and replaces selected text with a link.
So say I want all of my uses of the word Paris to go to a hotel booking site, all you have to do is add a line of text in the plugin that is essentially Paris => [link] and boom, it is done.
The plugin lets you select whether you want all instances of the word to be linked or just the first, and generally we opt for just the first instance as we tend to use city names a lot and it looks a bit too cluttered when we do all of them. (Admittedly, we've noticed some glitches where the first time is not necessarily linked when other plug-ins alter the preceding paragraph).
In this one we went through and downloaded affiliate links for a bunch of different destinations (and networks!) and created a massive database that we could swap in and out with ease. So for a few months we tested links to cities with Booking.com, then moved on to TripAdvisor, and then HotelsCombined, and so on and so on.
This allowed us to perform a lot of a/b tests on if people clicked outbound links on city names, and then optimize around earnings for each (we think HotelsCombined performs the best so far but you can click our link to Paris and see which one we're testing today). Not bad for swapping out links in 500+ pages automatically!
Conversely, you could also use this plugin to do internal linking for keywords on your site. So rather than linking Paris to a hotel booking site you could link it to a related article that your readers may find interesting!
Much like the above plug-ins, this functionality is also great because if I want to change something all I have to do is go through one line of code on the plugin page rather than changing a link on every single post. A true time saver!
- Pro tip: Linkify Text incorporates dofollow links by default and has no option to change this. We had to have a developer go into the plugin to change the links to nofollow for our affiliate usage. This would be an added cost that is highly recommended for all external links.
Social Warfare – Premium
Social Warfare is a premium social sharing plugin that offers a fair bit of functionality. We like this one because it is a light weight plugin that displays social share buttons throughout multiple locations on your site and is incredibly easy to use.
But going beyond these basics, Social Warfare has one perk that is really the sole reason we purchased it- the share recovery feature! This feature allows your to recover share counts if you change your hyperlink structure or move to a secure server (https). As we were blogging for 8+ years prior to moving to a secure server, you can imagine we could've lost a lot of our share count without this feature and that makes this plugin worth it alone.
- Pro tip: The share recovery feature only works once as it counts the shares on a previous link structure and adds it onto the new link structure. So going from non-secure to secure (http to https) would work, but going from non-secure to secure and then later to removing dates from your hyperlinks (http to https with 2071/10/… and then later removing) would pose an issue. If you want to do a hyperlink change in addition to migrating to a secure server, see about coordinating this with a developer at the same time to save a future headache.
Yet Another Related Posts Plugin (YARPP) – Free with Premium Upgrade
YARPP is a simple plugin that shows a “read more” box at the end of your posts and pulls relevant articles from your database based on categories, tags, keywords, and an inputted sensitivity setting.
There are many plug-ins that exist that offer this service, and some people complain that YARPP is rather load bearing, but we like its functionality all the same for now!
- Pro tip: Plan to play around with the CSS on this one to make your read more setup to look its best. Out of the box displays left much to be desired for us.
Yoast SEO – Free with Premium Upgrade
Yoast is a workhorse SEO plugin that allows you to change a lot of behind the scenes details in your articles in order to optimize them for search engines and social media.
We use this plugin a number of ways, but namely to add custom SEO titles and meta descriptions, and also to monitor our readability and target keyword scores as well (something we admittedly need to do more of moving forward). But as there are many SEO guides out there specifically built for Yoast, we're not going to comment on this one more than saying it is a must because, well, it is a beast!
Other Staple WordPress Plugins We Use
While the above are the core plug-ins we use to really help our travel blogs grow and thrive, we do use a few more that we have to note.
The following are a list of other standard plug-ins you should consider using to help your blog. These are more of the staple plugin varieties such that we are not going to spend a lot of time talking about them since their benefits and usage is pretty self-explanatory:
- Akismet Anti-Spam – Adding a layer of security to prevent spam blog comments with this great plugin.
- a3 Lazy Load – A lazy load plug-in that defers loading of images until right when users are about to see it. Helps reduce load times down substantially!
- Custom 404 Error Page – Our theme did not have a good generic 404 page, so this plugin allows us to convert a page into a 404 landing. (Check out our 404 page here.)
- Jetpack by WordPress.com – Additional functionality to your WordPress site with Jetpack. Not entirely necessary and we may consider removing soon as other plug-ins and our theme may cover everything we use.
- Mediavine Control Panel – From our premium ad service, Mediavine. If you have 25,000+ sessions a month we highly recommend joining their service.
- KingSumo Giveaways – A premium giveaway plugin that builds newsletter subscribers for entry. We turn this one on and off when not using. Received free with our membership to the PTBA.
- Kraken Image Optimizer – A premium image optimization plugin to help improve load times and site performance. Included in our hosting package by Performance Foundry.
- Official StatCounter Plugin – A second analytics software that we've used since day one. Not necessary but provides more insights in addition to Google Analytics. We use it mostly because we've used it from the start.
- WP External Links – An external link plugin that converts all links to add the target=”_blank” code to open in a new window. Could be done permanently with a developer.
- WP Last Modified – Our theme does not provide a good option to display last modified instead of published on date, so we use this plugin to do so. Could be done permanently with a developer.
That's it, all of the plug-ins we currently use to help our site grow and thrive!
Plug-ins We've Used in the Past
In a way, sharing the plug-ins we currently use is only half the story. To paint the full picture, we have to also share the laundry list of plug-ins we've used in the past and why we've moved on from them to our current list above.
In some cases we removed plug-ins because they added too much burden onto our server. In other cases we removed them purely because we found a better option (featured above). Other times there was a plugin conflict and we had to remove one. When applicable, we'll share why we removed them to share a more detailed view into our thoughts.
That being said, the below plug-ins are not necessarily bad, and when we used them we enjoyed their functionality completely such that you may still find them useful!
- Monarch – We used Monarch for side bar buttons displaying our fan count; however, like other plug-ins below we removed it for being an unneeded burden on our server. We since replaced our social profile buttons with static images and a text count of total fans that we update when we hit milestones.
- Monarch is run by Elegant Themes (our theme provider). If you use them you may get this one for free depending on your package.
- SumoMe – SumoMe offers a suite of tools (from social sharing to heat mapping) that is really powerful for helping your site grow. We used this one for social shares (amongst other things) and enjoyed their offering to limit our plugin count. Admittedly, this one did put some strain on our server and affected our load times, but we moved away from this one because they did not offer share recovery for when we migrated to a secure server (https).
- Facebook Comments Plugin – A plug-in that is no longer supported for Facebook comments. This one glitched and we had to remove it. Then we couldn't find a good substitute that would keep our comments from prior to switching to https. I'll miss all those comments, but I'll take a faster loading site as a side perk.
- OIO Publisher Software – Oio Publisher is a plugin that allows you to host display CPM ads via an integrated invoicing system. Counts impressions, clicks, etc. and automatically rebills the customer based on total impressions received. We removed this one because Mediavine has this feature built in to their service and we are required to provide exclusivity.
- Revive Old Posts – A plug-in that will continually re-share old posts on social media. We used this for Twitter, but at one point got dinged for being a potential automated account (which wasn't totally wrong). We're not sure whether or not this plug-in caused that, and also don't care about Twitter in the slightest, but we removed it anyway as an unnecessary burden on our server.
- Slide Anything Responsive Content – Slide Anything is a plugin that converts your standard, static HTML boxes into a fully custom slider that can be inserted anywhere via a shortcode! We use this one for A/B testing and have it turned off right now as we are finished with our testing. We occasionally turn it back on as needed, however.
- WP Google Maps – A map plugin that allows you to embed Google maps onto your site. We removed this as it was a bit glitchy (and added load times) and Google's own iframe embedded map works just fine- albeit a little less pretty.
- Be sure to go for the pro add-on for added functionality which we found was essential.
- Interactive World Maps – A premium map plugin that allows you to embed custom maps onto your site. We used this on Living the Dream to highlight countries that we had articles from. We removed this one because it conflicted with another plugin.
- ONet Regenerate Thumbnails – A free plugin that allows you to refresh thumbnails if sizes change site-wide. We removed this one because
- OptinMonster API – A premium plugin that allows you to display pop-ups for newsletter subscribers. Works quite well at what it is designed for but comes at a ~$200/year price tag. We removed this to reduce our page weight and instead now just use a MailerLite generic sign-up box displayed at the end of our posts via Ad Inserter. Read our Mailerlite review here!
- W3 Total Cache – A workhorse caching plugin that helps optimize your site for performance. As we have moved to Performance Foundry, they manage our caching issues for us (through ways we do not know) and we no longer use the plugin.
- Broken Link Checker – Broken Link Checker is a plugin that, when active, continually scans your site to find broken links and returns them in a report. This one is a major server hog and is one you'd only want to turn on and off when you want to run a scan. We have since removed this because Performance Foundry has requested we do not run such loads on our server. Now we use Xenu Link Sleuth (a free desktop app) for the same job which admittedly is much better at the task anyway.
- Q2W3 Fixed Widget – A simple plugin that allows a sidebar widget to become sticky and scroll down with the reader. Great for preventing white space and allow an ad or affiliate prompt to stay with a reader as they scroll. We removed this one because Mediavine requires a sticky sidebar ad without competition.
- WP About Author – Our theme did not offer a good author box at the end of articles, and this plugin worked out quite well! We removed this one to reduce our site's load time as we found author profiles did not add much value overall.
Check back soon for more updates as we plan to keep this one a running guide to our current plugin setup!
Do you have a favorite plugin we need to know about? Comment below to share!