Now running on Kinsta WordPress Hosting

Yesterday I moved this blog over to Kinsta WordPress hosting. Kinsta is a premium WordPress provider that utilizes Google Cloud Platform containers. You shouldn’t see any changes to the blog. But if you see anything missing or links broken, please let me know…..via contact form, twitter, or leaving a comment. I also moved from MaxCDN over to KeyCDN for all static content. That’s an under the hood change which should be 100% transparent.

If you are in the market for a premium WordPress experience, I highly recommend Kinsta. I did extensive research, trials, and digging to find the best platform. Several other providers I tried just didn’t cut it and performance was terrible. Kinsta checked the boxes for all of my requirements and comes in less expensive than my previous provider (WPEngine).

Top WordPress Plugins You Should Use Pt. 2

In Part 1 of this series, Top WordPress Plugins you should use, I covered the first batch of what I think are useful plugins. This post is the second and last installment covering plugins that I use and might help you out. Of course each WordPress site is unique, and may not benefit from all the plugins. 

​Top WordPress Plugins

​1. OneSignal Push Notifications - You know how some sites ask you if you want push notifications in your browser for updates? Well this is a plugin that can do that for you. This is becoming more popular, and instantly lets your readers know when you have a new post. It is very customizable and easy to configure. 

​2. Print, PDF & Email by PrintFriendly - You know when you find that blog post you need to print? Well if you just use a browser's print function the result can be less than pretty. This plugin removes the excess 'junk' like sidebars and many ads so the printed result is nice and clean. You can also print directly to PDF, or send the blog post in a nicely formatted email. 

​3. Really Simple SSL Pro -  Want to enable SSL on your site, check for mixed content, conifigure HSTS, then this plugin is for you. There's a basic free version, then a Pro version with even more features. The author is extremely helpful and responsive, should you have any questions. Highly recommended. 

​4. Schema Pro - Schema Pro is a plugin by the same company that created the Astra theme and other WordPress plugins. It helps your SEO by enabling search engines to better consume your content. They have a number of schema available, such as review, article, product, recipe, etc. Installation and configuration is super simple. 

​5. Simple Social Icons - There are a bazillion social media plugins, but this one is clean, simple, and free. It allows you to add low-key social icons to your site. Many, many options which are highly configurable.

​6. Social Login - If you want to enable social media logins for your WordPress comments or your WordPress admin login, this is the plugin for you. I first tried another plugin, and it was slow, buggy, and just very poorly written. This one, on the other hand, is easy to configure and adds minimal bloat to your pages. it supports nearly 30 social logins (e.g. Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.)

​7. Social Media Widget - Social Media Widget lets you add social media icons on your site so that readers can easily follow you on various platforms. Quite configurable and easy to use. Free. 

​8. Social Warfare (Pro) - Social Warfare Pro is an amazing plugin that adds icons to let your readers share your content via Twitter, LinkedIn, and many other platforms. The bar can float over your page, or be configured in a number of other ways. Top-notch technical support, and I'm very impressed. Top pick! 

​9. Thrive Architect - Thrive Architect is a visual editor for WordPress that lets you construct visually rich content with drag and drop ease. I'm using this right now to write this blog post. I recommend it for blog posts over Beaver Builder or Elementor Pro. If you want a page builder for constructing a new site, I recommend Elementor Pro. Thrive is very flexible and has a lot of modules.

​10. Updraft Plus - Everyone needs a WordPress backup and restore plugin. Even if your hosting service does backups, you still want an 'off site' copy in case your provider goes belly up, gets hacked, or suffers a catastrophic data loss. This plugin also can migrate your WP site to another hoster with just a few clicks. Highly recommended, and connects to a number of cloud providers such as DropBox, OneDrive, Google Drive, Amazon S3, etc. 

​11. WP Retina 2x Pro - Today many devices have ultra-high DPI screens, or so called "retina" screens. This is particularly true on phones, tablets, and those lucky enough to have 4K screens. This plugin makes sure high res images are served on those devices. Easy to use and configure.

​12. WP Rocket - An amazing top-rated plugin to speed up page loads on your WordPress site and also performs deep page caching. Minifies CSS and JS, as well as many other functions. Significantly improves GTMetrix, Pingtom, and other page testing results. Well worth the money. 

​13. Yoast SEO - Last but not least, is Yoast SEO. It's a must-have plugin for optimize your SEO and improving your ranking in search results. Free and Pro versions available. 

Using SSL on WordPress? Not All Hosting is the Same

Introduction

I'm a huge fan of WordPress, and I've had this blog hosted on WordPress for many years. Given my security background, I always try and make my site as secure as possible, while not breaking functionality. One important feature, both for SEO and security is SSL. All you need a SSL certificate, right? Nope! And that's the basis of this post.

Not all SSL Configurations are the Same

Under the hood of SSL are a number of configuration options that you are probably not even aware of. Most of these relate to the supported protocols and cipher suites that can be negotiated with your site. These are generally web server back-end settings. A lot of SSL protocols and cipher suites have not lasted the test of time and are deemed flat out insecure or weak. For example, RC4, is pathetically insecure and should never be used. 

Most quality WordPress hosting companies provide free SSL certificates. So many people think it's just a single click (or even automated) to get your site secure with SSL. Not so! Your hosting company configured which protocols and cipher suites are available. And if your hoster isn't security conscious they can leave your website vulnerable and degrade your site's security. Never for a second think just because you have a SSL certificate that you are secure! 

How to test your SSL

Fortunately, it's dead easy even for a non-techie to test the SSL security of your site. All you need to do is go over to SSL labs and run a test against your domain. After a couple of minutes it will give your site a letter grade, and a lot of tech details about what it found. For example, on my WP Engine hosted WordPress sites I have an A+ rating. With a shared hosting plan with another company I got a poor B score with numerous security warnings. Take a minute and check your site now so you can see a full report.

The "A+" SSL Lab Report

First let me start with a site that passes with flying colors, this blog site. As you can see in the graphic below, it scores an A+ and also uses HSTS. HSTS is a super-strict form of TLS/SSL that you can read more about how to configure in a blog post I wrote here. This test result is from my current provider, WP Engine, using their managed WordPress offering. It's not cheap by any means, but frankly you get what you pay for with hosting, in most cases. 

As you scroll down the report you also get a list of protocols and cipher suites that your site supports. Looking at the report below, you see that none of the cipher suites are tagged as insecure or weak. That is good! Looks exactly like what we want it to. Thank you WP Engine! 

The "B" SSL Lab Report

Recently I got an economical (entry level, shared plan) WordPress hosting account with InMotion hosting, just for experimentation purposes. I could try out new tools, check out another hoster's performance, and see if there was any compelling reason to consider a future move away from WP Engine to something less expensive. 

I stood up a new domain, got their free SSL certificate, and then ran a SSL Lab report scan. I was horrified to see the results. Overall it got a "B" which may not sound bad, but digging into the details really made me uneasy. And I had to contact their tech support, but more about that later in this post.

Looking into the details of the "B" grade you can see that RC4 is supported (very, very insecure) and that forward secrecy is not supported. But let's dig deeper into the cipher suites to see what's going on.

Right off the bat you can see three cipher suites are enabled that use RC4. Really bad! And another three cipher suites are labled 'weak'. Also not good, but not as bad as 'insecure'. Clearly, this is significantly worse than the WP Engine scan. 

Fixing the Issues

Because the protocols and cipher suites are back-end configuration settings, I contacted InMotion tech support to see what they could do. And there was bad news, and good news. Firstly, for the shared plan I was using NOTHING could be done. As the TLS/SSL configuration is set across numerous customers. However, if one went with their VPS plans, individual sites can be configured per customer requirements. If I was on a VPS plan, then the hoster would take care of all the configuration. You should then re-test, and see if the security holes were plugged. An A+ rating is not to hard and doesn't require techie level skills. 

Summary

Even if you have an SSL certificate on your site, that does NOT mean you are optimally configured. Your hoster could be using very insecure settings, but you'd never know without testing it. So if you have never tested your website's SSL, do it immediately. You may be shocked with what is lurking in the results. On the flip side, most of the work is done by your hosting service so you don't need to know what files to configure. I'd just send them a screenshot of the 'bad' results and tell them to fix it. 

You also need to be conscious of which plan you are using with a provider, and how that impacts security. For example, my shared plan with InMotion doesn't allow them to tweak the SSL security whereas their VPS plan would. Whether you want to spend the additional money for VPS (or find another provider that's more secure by default), that's your call. 

Knowledge is power, and knowing where your site's SSL stands is important. It's up to you whether you want to fix it and get an A+ rating or not. If you are running any type of security sensitive transactions like payments or storing personal information, I'd urge you to configure your site for an A+ SSL labs rating. 

Top WordPress Plugins You Should Use Pt. 1

I've been running a WordPress blog for over 4 years, and recently started a 'back end'  plugin refresh cycle. I'm also working on new WordPress site for my photography outlet, and did a lot of research into the best-of WordPress plugins. Most of the plugins I'll cover are fairly generic and could work on a variety of sites (blog, ecommerce, etc.). Some plugins are free, freemium (free basic version plus a Pro version), or outright premium. I encourage you to look at and review each plugin to see if it fills a hole in your WordPress site.

1. Ajax Search Pro - This is an amazing WordPress search plugin that literally has hundreds of logically organized customization options. You can configure multiple search 'engines' all with totally unique settings. This lets you have different search experiences on different areas of your site. It's hard to do this plugin justice with the almost infinite configuration controls you have. Try out the search feature on this blog to get a tiny glimpse of what it can do.

ajax search pro

2. All in one favicon -  This adds Favicons to your site (little icons in the address bar of your browser). It's a simple plugin that lets you upload ICO, GIF, PNG and apple touch icons in a couple of clicks. Great for branding!

3. Anti-Spam by Clean talk - This is an amazing plugin that stops 99% of the spam hitting your site via contact forms, comments, contact emails, orders, WooCommerce, etc. I've found it much better than Akismet. You can read my full review here

anti-spam by cleantalk

4. Astra (Pro) Theme - I'm using this for my new photography site, and hopefully this spring convert this blog over as well. It's an amazingly customizable and responsive WordPress theme. It also works seamlessly with page builders such as Elementor and Beaver Builder. There's also a free add-on called Astra Hooks, which let's you "hook" into various elements of the Astra theme via the customizer. 

astra pro theme

5. Child Theme Configurator - This lets you easily create a child theme from your parent theme. Using a child theme is always advisable, so that customizations you make to the theme stay around even if the software vendor updates the parent theme. Great for use with Astra! 

child theme configurator

6. Customizer Export/Import - This plugin allows you to export and import your theme customizer settings, right within the customizer. Great for building a new site, so you can try out various options and roll-back/forward as needed until you get things just right. 

7. Imagify - WordPress page load times are critical, and Imagify will strategically and automatically compress images that you upload to your WordPress site. It's a paid service, and for bloggers, I recommend the "semi hidden" single purchase quota plan vs. their monthly or yearly plans. It's fully automated, and even compresses all thumbnails that your theme creates on the back-end. It can also do bulk compression, great for using it the first time. A 500MB one time plan runs $5.99.

imagify

8. iThemes Security (Pro) - A spectacularly well designed security plugin that has a number of modules, including two factor authentication, malware scanning, and a lot more. I just upgraded to the Pro version, and really enjoy the added modules such as 2FA. Highly recommended, and WPEngine friendly (they disallow many 'security' plugins due to poor performance).  

ithemes security pro

9. iThemes Sync - As a companion to iThemes security, this is a SaaS offering which lets you manage one or more WordPress sites and the iTheme security settings. It supports SSO, meaning once you authenticate to the iThemes Sync portal, you can immediately pop into your WordPress management console. Supports 2FA, and free up to 10 managed sites. What I really like about this, even for a single site, is the ability for it to notify you when ANY updates are available (plugins, theme, WordPress core, etc.). I have it configured for a nightly email if updates are available. You can have it auto-update your site if you wish.

ithemes sync

10. Microthemer - Ever wanted to tweak your WordPress theme? Change a color here, spacing there, widget header colors, etc.? Well normally you'd need to be a CSS expert (which I am not). This tool provides a visual way to select objects/areas on your live site, modify dozens of properties, and then either 1) automatically apply them to your site in the background or 2) Export the CSS so you can put it in the theme customizer or other file. I found it very helpful in changing the look of Astra Pro to better suite my tastes. 

microthemer

Summary

As you can see, there are a number of WordPress plugins that are applicable to a wide variety of sites. This list doesn't cover all the plugins I use, but which I feel are some of the most useful. Some are free, others are freemium and others are paid. I didn't want this post to get too long, so coming up will be a Part 2, covering another batch of plugins that I really like. 

CleanTalk anti-spam WordPress Plug-in Review

I’ve been running this blog for a number of years (since 2009), and one thing that really irks me is the amount of spam comments my blog gets. I use comment moderation (sorry for sometimes being way behind in moderation, BTW), so my blog isn’t full of spammy comments. Spammy contact emails can happen as well. But it can obscure real comments that I need to moderate. For example, over the last few years my blog has over 9,500 spammy comments:

CleanTalkNeedless to say, I’m not manually reviewing/deleting 9638 comments! I’m starting up a parallel photography site on WordPress, and thought it was about time to find a new anti-spam solution. I had previously been using Akismet, which clearly was not doing a good job. In fact, I would call it a poor to very sucky job. After some research, I found CleanTalk.  Reviewers said it was much better than Akismet, which was music to my ears.

I disabled Akismet and installed CleanTalk. I gave it approximately a week, to see how well it did. It’s vastly better, and blocked more than 4,600 spam attempts. Only 4 got through and that was before I enabled the SpamFirewall option.

Since enabling the SpamFireWall options, I haven’t had any slip through! Yippee! While I don’t expect any solution to work 100%, CleanTalk is a most significant upgrade and well worth the small fee. Speaking of fees, yes, it’s not a free service. Depending on the number of sites, number of years, and their add-on packages, it still is quite the value. For example, I did 3 web sites for 3 years and it was a whopping total of $38.

They do have a mobile phone app as well, but frankly, don’t bother. While I appreciate their attempt at adding a mobile dashboard, it’s pretty pathetic. And, it’s not like you need to routinely access the service. So for me, it’s just a set it and forget it service and ditch the mobile app.

If you run a WordPress site and tired of spam, give CleanTalk a try. It has a free trial period, which proved to me that it works as advertised and held up to the positive reviews.