Top 25 Free WordPress Plugins and Why They’re So Damn Popular

Top 25 Free WordPress Plugins and Why They’re So Damn Popular

Ever wondered what the most popular free WordPress plugins are and why they’re so freaking popular? Knowing the answer could help you understand which ones are a must to install on your site (or even what kinds of plugins you should be building).

The more plugins you include in your site, the more you weigh it down and run the risk of longer page load times. Instead of overloading your site, choosing your plugins wisely will not only ensure site maintenance is more manageable but can speed up your site.

Here are the top 25 free plugins from the WordPress Plugin Directory and my insights into what makes them so popular. The list of top plugins in the repository changes regularly so the list below is in no specific order – they’re all knock-outs!

  • WP Smush

    With more than 600,000+ active installs, WP Smush is the only 5-star image optimization plugin for WordPress.

    Compressing your images is one of the simplest and most effective ways to get your website running faster and ranking higher on search engines. And with WP Smush, you can let the WPMU DEV servers do the heavy lifting for you, stripping hidden bulky information from your images and reducing image file sizes without losing quality.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    Since taking on WP Smush after original developer,Yahoo!, let the plugin squander, WPMU DEV has given this plugin a lot of love, including new dedicated smushing servers, an interface facelift, and performance improvements.

    There’s a reason why this plugin is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition – and why it’s the first plugin many WPMU DEV members install on their websites.

  • Contact Form 7

    Contact Form 7 plugin

    This plugin lets you create multiple detailed forms on your site. It has a simple user interface and it’s also easy to setup. You can forget about having only the basic name, email and message field since this plugin does a lot more and works well.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    It’s not the most robust contact form out there, but it’s simple to use which is appealing to many users, especially if you’re a developer and your client needs to create forms on their own.

    Interested in Contact Form 7?

  • Jetpack

    Jetpack plugin

    From simple tools to backups, security, site statistics and more, Jetpack has something for everyone. It’s like installing many plugins, but you only need to activate one.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    Jetpack is particularly useful for those who are moving from a free WordPress.com site to a self-hosted one. If you’re used to the functionality and dashboard you received in your free site, you can get most of it back with Jetpack.

    Beyond that, there are many useful tools included that can help reduce the overall amount of plugins you need to install.

    It’s also maintained by Automattic, the same folks behind WordPress so rest assured, you won’t have to worry about this plugin being abandoned.

  • Wordfence Security

    Wordfence plugin

    Wordfence is a security plugin that covers you from any attack – even the latest ones since it’s continuously being updated on a regular basis. Installing this plugin means you get a firewall along with a ton of additional options for protecting your site. There’s a lot to get through and understand, but documentation is available to help you get through it.

    There’s a lot to get through and understand, but documentation is available to help you get through it. If you would like to try a premium security plugin for free that has robust features, but that’s a piece of cake to use, check out our Defender plugin.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    Since it’s regularly updated to protect you against the latest threats, that alone makes it an enticing option. On top of that, there are many valuable options to help protect your site further including manual scans. Above all, it works well.

    Interested in Wordfence Security?

  • NextGEN Gallery plugin

    NextGEN Gallery plugin

    If the standard WordPress gallery feature just isn’t enough for your site, then it’s time to consider the NextGEN Gallery plugin. It not only creates robust galleries but can also handle slideshows and different kinds of galleries including lists and a compact version. You also have the option to delete and sort images.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    This plugin goes above and beyond the basics when it comes to image galleries. The features also offer a professional feel that is essential for photographers and artists.

    Interested in NextGEN Gallery plugin?

  • W3 Total Cache

    W3 Total Cache plugin

    This plugin creates a cached version of your site so it loads faster for your users. It includes browser, page, object and database caching as well as minification features. It’s full of features so even the most tech savvy developers can get everything they need.

    If you’re looking for an option that’s a lot easier to use but doesn’t run shy of important features, check out Hummingbird for free.

    Check out our post The Ultimate Guide to WordPress Caching for details on caching and what it means for your site.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    Short answer: It works. Most people find a lot of success with W3 Total Cache, but then again, everyone’s site is different so it many not be the best solution for you. That’s why it’s a great idea to test out other caching plugins to see which one works best for your site.

    Interested in W3 Total Cache?

  • All in One SEO Pack

    All in One SEO plugin

    This plugin works to optimize your site for serch engine optimization (SEO). There’s not much setup required and it’s easy to use. The basics are included for free, but if you need a lot more advanced features, a premium upgrade may be best.

    If you want all the features you could want in an SEO plugin, but all for free, check out SmartCrawl.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    It’s simple and automatic. Since SEO helps improve your site’s ranking in results for the top search engines (read: Google), having at least basic optimizations can help give your site a boost.

    Interested in All in One SEO Pack?

  • Advanced Custom Fields

    Advanced Custom Fields plugin

    This plugin lets you create your own custom fields and also includes many different field options. For most users, it’s all you really need. You can choose from basics such as text, email and password fields as well as more advanced fields such as a WYSIWYG editor, file upload and color picker.

    If you need a lot more features and flexibility while still being able to produce professional custom post types and not just fields, check out CustomPress for free.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    Many sites don’t need to go beyond the many field types that are available. It’s also simple enough to use and gets the job done well. If your needs are somewhere on a sliding scale of quick and fairly complex to simple, then it’s a plugin worth considering.

    Interested in Advanced Custom Fields?

  • Regenerate Thumbnails

    Regenerate Thumbnails plugin

    This plugin provides one function which is to resize your thumbnails once they have already been generated by WordPress.  This gives you the option to change the sizing of your thumbnails down the road in case you decide on different dimensions to complete your site’s styling and design.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    Regenerate Thumbnails has a simple function and if you need it, it’s useful. It’s a handy tool, but it’s not necessarily one you need to have around all the time unless you upload images by the truckload.

    Interested in Regenerate Thumbnails?

  • WP Super Cache

    WP Super Cache plugin

    WP Super Cache helps speed up your site with browser caching. It has multiple ways of doing this including Mod_Rewrite so you can serve up HTML copies of your site as quickly as possible. This feature is especially handy if you experience high traffic at times.

    You also have the option to clean up old cached files that aren’t needed any longer to help reduce the overall load on your server.

    If you require a lot more features and power behind the caching plugin you use while still being a cinch to use, you can check out Hummingbird – and for free.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    t’s popular because it works well with most sites, though, many users may find their setup is too robust or otherwise incompatible with WP Super Cache and turn to other plugins.

    This is just the way it goes sometimes since there are so many sites out there with differing setups and requirements. This plugin is worth a try in a live testing environment before pushing it to your production site.

    Interested in WP Super Cache?

  • Duplicate Post

    Duplicate Post plugin

    Duplicate Posts has one main function which is to let you copy posts whether they’re in draft, pending or already published.

    It’s particularly useful if you want to update a post, but don’t want to take a published post offline in order to edit it since it would ruin your search engine ranking. It can also be helpful if you created a particularly stellar post and want to publish a similar one, but want to be able to make quick changes.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    It’s not really a useful plugin if you don’t need it, but if you find you do need to copy posts, then you won’t be able to run your site without it. In such a case, it’s incredibly convenient.

    Interested in Duplicate Post?

  • WooCommerce

    WooCommerce plugin
    With WooCommerce, you can build an online storefront that looks professional and works well. It has many features available on its own, but also has many other plugins that act as add-ons so you can have access to all the features you could ever need or want. It’s also backed by the folks behind WordPress making it a trustworthy option.
    The add-ons are created by a large WooCommerce community so the chances of not being able to find a certain feature is pretty slim, although, these add-ons can also be WooCommerce’s Achilles’ heal. If you find you need to install many plugins to get all the features you need, you run the risk of slowing down your site.
    This is where a premium option such as MarketPress comes in. You can get all the features you need in one compact plugin that’s also super easy to setup and use. Plus, you can now get MarketPress for free.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    WooCommerce is popular because it’s a professional option that works incredibly well without a hefty price tag. Though, it may be worth noting that there are many features that are available that do require an investment such as many popular payment gateways.

  • Google Analytics for WordPress

    Google Analytics for WordPress plugin

    This plugin helps you check on your site’s statistics through Google analytics. It’s easy to setup and use and has all the basic features most users need.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    Instead of having to switch between interfaces to check on your site’s analytics, you can conveniently do it all from one place in your admin dashboard.

    Interested in Google Analytics for WordPress?

  • Google XML Sitemaps

    Google XML Sitemaps plugin
    Google XML Sitemaps is a simple plugin that creates an XML sitemap so search engines have an easier time finding your site. It also notifies search engines when you create new posts and pages.
    While this is a great plugin on its own, it doesn’t off any other features that could be helpful in boosting your search ranking. There are other options such as Smartcrawl which is a premium plugin that you can now get for free. It has all these features and more including displaying your Moz ranking and page optimization.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    This plugin works well and when used with other free plugins, it can really pack a punch, though, you’re better off grabbing one plugin that has all the features you need to prevent your site from being bloated.

    Interested in Google XML Sitemaps?

  • Really Simple CAPTCHA

    Really Simple CAPTCHA plugin
    The Really Simple CAPTCHA plugin offers, well, a simple feature of adding CAPTCHA to your forms, but can’t work on its own. It’s meant to be used in tandem with a form plugin such as Contact Form 7.
    This plugin adds an extra field to your forms which asks users to verify they’re not a program designed to fill out forms since bots are responsible for a lot of spam. While this plugin does help reduce the number of spam entries, it’s generally not considered the best option since you’re placing a barrier between the user and your site.
    The more hoops you make your visitors jump through, the less likely they are to jump through those hoops. A far better option would be to use a plugin that adds a similar step for bots to fill out, not regular visitors.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    CAPTCHA has been a popular choice for reducing spam for quite some time. Since this plugin only works when used with one of the top free plugins, it makes sense that Really Simple CAPTCHA would match it in popularity.

    Interested in Really Simple CAPTCHA?

  • WordPress Importer

    WordPress Importer plugin

    The WordPress Importer is designed to transfer your site and its contents. You can export your site so you can load it onto a fresh install or import your site from other blogging platforms.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    This plugin is useful when you need to import or export your site, but isn’t necessary to keep installed when you’re not using it. Since you can access it through the Tools tab in the admin dashboard, it’s usually tucked away enough that most people forget it’s even there. I know I’m guilty of that, big time.

    Interested in WordPress Importer?

  • Akismet

    Akismet plugin

    Akismet effectively reduced comment spam on WordPress sites and is maintained by the WordPress team. It works in the background so once you can install it, you can forget about it while Akismet works to protect your site.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    It works well and saves sites from a ton of spam. At best, spam is annoying and bloats your site and at its worst, it can lead to many serious threats such as DDoS, XSS and XML-RPC attacks. This being the case, it’s no wonder why this plugin is so popular.

  • TinyMCE Advanced

    TinyMCE Advanced plugin
    TinyMCE is the program behind the What You See is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editor that you’re presented with every time you write a post or add content to a new page.
    This plugin activates some advanced features such as being able to create tables and gives you more options for lists as well as the ability to set certain styles such as font without having to dig into any CSS.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    Creating content is at the heart of most WordPress sites and this plugin makes the process easier. It’s especially helpful for those who don’t have a lot of time to be editing code or for developers who create sites for clients who need more options in the editor.

    Interested in TinyMCE Advanced?

  • WP-PageNavi

    WP PageNavi plugin

    WP-PageNavi adds fancy pagination to the bottom of your blog so it’s easier for your visitors to get around. Instead of displaying the default Older and Newer links to navigate posts, this plugin adds page numbers and arrows to navigate through them.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    Advanced pagination is not so much a luxury these days than it is a necessity. Most (if not all of) the top companies and sites use this kind of pagination since user experience is an important part of what keeps visitors from leaving. Anything you can do to make browsing your site easier and more pleasant for your users is a step in the right direction.

  • Page Builder

    Page Builder plugin

    This plugin lets you layout your pages the way you want without coding. It also uses the same basic WordPress interface so it’s easier to use to build stylized pages that fit your site’s design.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    You can create functional pages that are easy on the eyes without needing to worry about coding it yourself. If sometimes (or all the time) you or your clients would rather just drag and drop page elements into place rather than worrying about programming languages, this is the plugin to consider installing.
    If you want to drag and drop your way into creating your entire site intuitively on the front-end and optionally being able to add some extra CSS or Javascript to jazz things up a bit, you can try our Upfront theme framework for free.
  • Disable Comments

    Disable Comments plugin

    As I mentioned earlier, spam can not only be annoying, but it can be downright dangerous for your site or network. Rather than sorting through comments and finding spam, this plugin lets you disable the comments feature altogether. It also prevents users from overriding this option.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    While this plugin may not be for everyone, it can certainly help reduce all comments spam. Also, if you’re planning on using a third party comments system, this plugin is even better since it disables the default system so you receive much less spam. No matter which camp you sit in, it’s an effective option for reducing or even halting spam.

    Interested in Disable Comments?

  • Google Analytics Dashboard for WP

    Google Analytics Dashboard plugin

    The Google Analytics Dashboard for WP plugin is another one on this list that links your site with Google Analytics and displays them for you in the back end. You can track the basics such as traffic sessions and sources, but also more detailed  features such as average page speed and information on user engagement.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    Most of the features you need from Google Analytics can be seen and handled right from your admin dashboard when this plugin is installed. The convenience is definitely a plus, but the sheer amount of features you get also helps sweeten the deal. Many advanced users won’t ever need to switch back and forth between pages, at least most of the time.

    Interested in Google Analytics Dashboard for WP?

  • TinyMCE Widget

    TinyMCE Widget

    With this plugin, you can add a WYSIWYG editor to your widgets since it lacks this feature by default. With this plugin, long gone are the days where you have to use only HTML to your text widgets to add the rich content you need for your site.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    This plugin makes it super easy to add rich text and dynamic content to your widgets without code. Its simplicity as well as the fact that it makes adding content easier gives this plugin a winning score.

    Interested in TinyMCE Widget?

  • UpdraftPlus

    UpdraftPlus WordPress Backup plugin

    UpdraftPlus is a full-featured backup plugin that also handles restores. You can also store your backups in multiple locations and schedule them as well.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    You get all the features you want for free. What’s better than that? Well, I suppose when you get that plus a whole lot of other plugins, themes and services all for free.

  • iThemes Security

    iThemes Security plugin

    iThemes security has great features such as scheduled scans, two-factor login authentication, password security and quite a few more options. It’s also easy to setup and use, though, there are some advanced features that could break your site.

    That being said, there are clear warnings and documentation to help you along the way.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    All the features you need to protect your site are included free and the only premium upgrades are for other services such as backups.

    It may be helpful to note that Defender has similar features with an easier interface and there are tons of other plugins, themes and more all included for free.

    Interested in iThemes Security?

  • Clef Two-Factor Authentication

    Clef Two-Factor Authentication plugin

    This plugin effectively replaces passwords while still providing the security of being stronger than a password. It works by letting you sync your mobile phone to provide fast and protected logins.

    Why Is It So Popular?

    Security and user experience are among the top priorities for most sites that require many users to login because without them, the personal information and engagement of your visitors becomes at risk. Two-factor authentication is fast and easy to use while still providing a lot of security, especially given how easy it is to forget one of many passwords.

    Interested in Clef Two-Factor Authentication?

Wrapping Up

Are you using any of these top WordPress plugins? Even if you’re not, you now have a bit of insight as to why they’re so popular so you can make an informed choice.

For more details on picking the best WordPress plugins for your site, check out one of our other posts A Thoughtful Guide to Picking the Perfect Themes and Plugins for Your WordPress Site.

If you want to know how you can find and install more free WordPress plugins, check out another one of our posts How to Find and Install Hundreds of Free WordPress Plugins from GitHub.

There’s also a ton of premium WordPress plugins that you can get for free at WPMU DEV.

Jenni McKinnon
Which of these plugins are you using? Which one is your favorite? Do you have any favorites that aren't on the list? Share your thoughts in the comments below.