What are Plugins?
If you are just getting started with WordPress there is a good chance you are trying to figure out just what plugins are, and how they add functionality to your WordPress site.
In every WordPress Fundamentals class we introduce to the WordPress Codex [http://codex.wordpress.org/] — the online manual for WordPress. This living repository of WordPress information and documentation has been written and is maintained by volunteers in the WordPress Community. It should be your go-to resource for your WordPress questions.
When I’m learning something new, I always start with the basic vocabulary; so lets start our Beginner’s Guide to WordPress Plugins with the official definition of a WordPress Plugin.
“Plugins are tools to extend the functionality of WordPress. The core of WordPress is designed to be lean, to maximize flexibility and minimize code bloat. Plugins offer custom functions and features so that each user can tailor their site to their specific needs”
As most of you know, WordPress started as blogging platform. As this powerful tool morphed at the hands, and demands, of the user-base, WordPress became a powerful and agile Content Management System (CMS).
To avoid bloating WordPress core code, WordPress Developers designed plugins to add desired features or functions to a WordPress website. Today there are over 30,434 Plugins in the official WordPress.Org Plugin Directory http://wordpress.org/plugins. This plethora of plugins can extend WordPress to give you almost every feature, function, or level of flexibility you could want for your WordPress site.
WordPress Plugins are composed of PHP scripts that extend the functionality of your WordPress site or Blog. Theses pieces of programing code enable enhanced features that were already available, or add otherwise unavailable new features or functionalities to your site.
Where do plugins come from?
Anyone competent in coding can write a WordPress plugin. Most Plugins are designed by volunteers and are usually free to the public. Plugins are written by WordPress users who want something on their web site that is not part of the standard WordPress installation, and write these small programs to add that specific feature.
Where do I find WordPress Plugins?
You can find, download, rate, and comment on all the best plugins the WordPress community has to offer from the WordPress Plugins Directory site.
WordPress Plugins hosted in the WordPress Plugins Directory are considered thoroughly tested and “safe.” It should be noted however that all WordPress Plugins are the responsibility of the author and the user, and they are typically works-in-progress. As WordPress grows and expands it is the responsibility of the site’s owner / administrator to test and maintain the plugin’s upgrades.
I have directed you to the office source of WordPress plugins for a couple of reasons. First, you can access and download these plugins directly from your sites dashboard.
But, more important then convenience is your site’s SECURITY. Getting a “FREE” WordPress plugin from an unknown source is one way to invite malicious code onto your site. By confining your search to the official WordPress Plugin directory, you can find, download, rate, find support forums, and comment on the best plugins the WordPress community has to offer.
What do plugins do?
Plugins can extend WordPress to do almost anything you can imagine
Let’s look at some general categories of fuctions and features that cam be enhanced or extended by WordPress Plugins…
- Administration & Control Panels
- Bookmarking & Social Networking
- Bookstores & Catalogs
- Calendar & Event Management
- Contact Forms & Email
- Content & Content Management
- File Management – Upload & Download
- Navigation & Searching
- Photo Galleries
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
- Sidebar Items
- User Management
How many WordPress plugins are there?
According to the WordPress website there are 30,360 plugins, accounting for 631,448,631 downloads, with more being added every day!
Why plugins are a great option for those new to WordPress
Plugins offer some simple solutions for getting the functionality you need into your WordPress site.
The main advantages of using WordPress plugins:
- Quick and easy to install
- Little to no development experience needed (for most plugins)
- Simple way to add functionality to a site
- Easy to enable and disable
How many plugins can I put on my site?
- Some developers like to keep the use of plugins to a minimum so their sites are easier to maintain
- Some site owners like to use lots of plugins so their self-managed site is full-featured and robust.
- Nobody has ever found a limit on the number of plugins you can have running on your site, but with too many or the wrong kind, your site may take a long time to display pages.
Are there any problems with plugins?
Before we discuss how to choose which plugin to use, lets take a moment to talk about when using a plugin is a good idea, and when a WordPress beginner should take a pass.
Knowing when to load them, and knowing when its time to deactivate them
Every WordPress Developer was at one time was a WordPress beginner, who looked at the WordPress Plugin directory with the eyes of inexperience, reverently muttered “Shiny… There is a plug in for everything!” and enthusiastically started adding plugins to our sites, enabling every feature and function our little fevered brains could envision.
Then we noticed that using too many plugins, or the wrong plugins placed a drag on the system and hindered our WordPress site’s performance.
The dark side of plugins
Site load time
First, lets address the common worry about plugins effecting site speed.There are specific disadvantages to depending on plugins for your site’s features and functionality.
Is there a tipping point for too many plugins on a WordPress Site?
Is it the nature of plugins to slow site performance?
Everyone, beginners and advanced WordPress users alike, are concerned about site load speed. Fast load times, improves the customer experience, and is rewarded by Google with higher page ranking.
What the heck is slowing my site down…
- Some plugins are written badly. They do what they say, but in a slow and inefficient manner.
- Some plugins fetch information for other websites. If the other sites are down, or if they are running slowly, your site will also take a long time to display.
How plugins affect load speed
It is not the number of plugins on your site that affect load speed — it is the quality of the plugins that you are loading and the operation(s) they are performing. Pippin Willianson, a respected WordPress Plugin Developer who owns PippinsPlugins.com, considers four aspects when evaluating a plugin:
- Does it load lots of scripts, styles, or other assets?
- Does it add extra database queries to each page?
- Does it perform complex operations?
- Does it perform remote requests, like to external APIs?
Upgrades and maintenance
- Plugins are developed by individual WordPress users, who may loose interest in maintaining their plugin to work with the latest WordPress upgrades.
- If this plugin adds an important function to your site, you will not be able to upgrade until your find or write a replacement.
Upgrade plugins as new release become available
- Upgrading your plugins is part of good site security practice.
- Build time into your site maintenance schedule to manage and upgrade your plugins
- When you forget or ignore your plugin’s maintenance, you are leaving your site open to be hacked.
- Plugins are not an inherent security risk — plugins that have not been maintained / upgraded increase the risk of security exploits.
Too much of a good thing can add a lot of ‘management-overhead’
- Managing and maintaining a stable of plugins can become burdensome.
- Using too many plugins, or the wrong plugins, can cause your site a mischief.
- Think carefully about the plugins extending functionality or adding a features to your site.
Watch for the plugins that can devour all available server space
- Some backup plugins are such space hogs that managed WordPress hosting companies like WP Engine have banned them.
- Monitor how a specific plugin is behaving on your site.
- Is it taking up too much space on your server?
- Is that slowing down your site’s over-all performance?
- Plugins may not play nicely with each other – particularly if they do similar functions. This could result in your site acting strangely or crashing.
- You have just entered the “incompatible zone”
- If you are considering adding several plugins, do so one at a time, testing the site before you add the next.
How to know if your plugin of choice “plays well with others?
- When choosing a plugin it’s a good idea to Google or BING the plugin (name + known incompatibilities), to see if other users have documented which other plugins might have an issue with your new darling.
- Your choice of Plugin has probably been downloaded thousands of times, check the reviews on the WordPress Plugin Directory, to see if others have reported a compatibility problem.
- Check WordPress forums to see if any other compatibility problems have been discussed and if they have been resolved with a ‘work-around’.
Other problems with plugins
- Some plugins require you to register with the author’s site, and then you start getting lots of SPAM from them.
- Some plugins just don’t work
How do I know if the plugin is a good fit for my site?
The short answer is:
- You install it and see.
- If you don’t like it, uninstall it.
- There are some processes that can help improve your chances of choosing well…
My responsibility as a user of open source WordPress plugins
As WordPress users expect a plugin developer to spend hours writing code, debugging code, documenting that code and setting up a user forum, just so the folks that use that code can ask questions, and build a user community. How does the developer pay the rent and keep the lights on, if self-same folks that benefit from the plugins don’t donate some cash to the hardworking plugin developers?
How much is it worth to you to keep the developer of your ‘must-have’ plugin fully engaged and willing to maintain and upgrade that plugin? If, and when, you receive benefit from the work of others, share the wealth. The health and wealth of the WordPress community depends on how we treat the rest of the community —Please reward the plugin developers that support the success of your site
Easy ways to make sure a plugin will work for you
Go to the WordPress Plugin Directory and check the Following:
- Last Updated
- Number of Downloads
- User Ratings
How do I find the plugin I want?
The good part of having so many plugins is that there are lots of options to choose from.
The bad part of having so many plugins is that finding the right one requires so good searching skills.
Life is too short to learn from my own mistakes…
Start with a Google / Bing search for articles listing ‘Favorite Plugins’ or ‘Best Plugins’ include the current year in your search parameters. The Champ to Chump’ cycle for plugins can be amazingly quick. One miscoded upgrade or funky feature can turn a former favorite into a, “Don’t install this dog of a plugin for any reason” review.
Ask trusted sources: Call your website hosting company — check with others in your Meetup group for plugin recommendations.
Once you have defined the features you are looking for, you refine your plugin search by using the SEARCH BOX in the WordPress Plugin Directory, then install the Plugin of your choice right from your WordPress Dashboard.
What is a minimum plugin set for a beginner-level WordSite?
Every WordPress site has at least six areas of functionality that could benefit from a plugin.
- Comments and Comment Management
- Forms and Forms Management
- Site Optimization Tools
If your site is a store than add a seventh category of plugin
Our Basic Plugin Recommendations
1. For Basic Security add Akismet
One of the only two plugins included with each WordPress.org install, Akismet, is the best-known and trusted spam-fighting tool for WordPress sites. If you don’t have the Akismet plugin activated your site has probably been slammed with hundreds of spam comments. Akismet helps clear out the SPAM comments so you can reasonably engage the legitimate feedback and opinions from your site’s commenters.
Where to find it: http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/akismet/
Cost: FREE (they encourage donations to keep Akismet a top-rated plugin)
You will needed: Akismet API key (requires Akismet account or WordPress.org account through JetPack*)
* More on JetPack later
2. Comments and Comment Management
The Disqus (pronounced “discuss”) comment system replaces your WordPress comment system with your comments hosted and powered by Disqus. This plugin is both a service and tool for web comments and discussions. Disqus makes commenting easier and more interactive, while connecting websites and commenters across a thriving discussion community.
The Disqus for WordPress plugin seamlessly integrates using the Disqus API and by syncing with WordPress comments. Disqus features threaded comments and replies, notifications and reply by email, aggregated comments and social mentions, and powerful moderation and admin tools. This plugin offers a smooth interface that allows you to either manage your comments and discussions outside of your WordPress site, within your site or from the mobile app.
Where to find it: http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/disqus-comment-system/
Cost: FREE (user donations always appreciated)
Needed: Uses the Disqus API so you will need to sign up for Disqus Account
3. For Forms and Forms Management install Gravity Forms
Gravity Forms is what is referred to as a “Premium Plugin.” It is well worth the investment. It is the best form management WordPress plugin available. It provides easy to follow documentation so you will be able to create, manage, test and optimize any type of form your website needs. It has a large user base and it is easy to find answers to individual questions. Gravity forms also has extensions that allow you to tie your web forms to some of the most widely used CRMs like Salesforce.
Where to find it: http://www.gravityforms.com/purchase-gravity-forms/
Cost: $39 (for Personal License – use and support for one site only)
Needed: Willingness to read documentation to take full advantage of this great plugin
4. For Site Optimization we use W3 Total Cache
The W3 Total Cache Plugin offers easy web performance optimization (WPO) using caching, code minification and content delivery network support. W3 Total Cache drastically improves a website’s user experience and page speed without having to change WordPress, your theme, your plugins or how you produce your content. Using this plugin to improve your site’s performance is a great first step if your site user analytics are not were the need to be.
Where to find it: http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/w3-total-cache/
Cost: FREE (However, we encourage donations to keep W3 Total Cache a best-in-class plugin)
Needed: Willingness to follow step-by-step set-up directions
5. The Only SEO Plugin You Will Ever Need — WordPress SEO by Yoast
If SEO is the question, then WordPress SEO by Yoast is THE ANSWER. If you want your site to be indexed properly and to even have a chance of competing organically, then your WordPress site needs this plugin. Don’t even bother with other SEO plugins or even themes that claim to have all of these features built-in. You will not find a better solution for SEO.
Where to find it: http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/wordpress-seo/
Cost: FREE ((However, we encourage donations to keep WordPress SEO by Yoast the best SEO plugin available)
Needed: Willingness to read very straight forward, easy to follow documentation, or watch one or two of Yoast’s videos. Either will give you an understanding of SEO fundamentals and how to configure and use the plugin.
6. One of your best choices for backing up your WordPress site is the plugin, UpdraftPlus – WordPress Backup and Restoration
UpdraftPlus simplifies backups and restoration. With this plugin you can back up your WordPress site into the cloud (Amazon S3 (or compatible), Dropbox, Google Drive, Rackspace Cloud, DreamObjects, FTP, SFTP, SCP, WebDAV and email) and restore with a single click. Backups of files and database can have separate schedules.
UpdraftPlus is the highest-ranking backup plugin on rankwp.com (ranks in the top 50 out of 30,000 WordPress plugins for quality on rankwp.com – last checked 16th April 2014). This plugin has tens of thousands of users. It is widely tested and reliable with over 700,000 downloads, and ranks in the top 100 most used of all WordPress plugins on rankwp.com.
Where to find it: https://wordpress.org/plugins/updraftplus/
Cost: FREE (However, we encourage donations to keep UpDraftPlus a best-in-class WordPress Backup and Restoration plugin)
Needed: Willingness to follow step-by-step directions for set up and use.
7. eCommerce Plugin of Choice – WooCommerce
For businesses or non-profit organizations that want and need to sell products and services from their website, the WordPress plugin WooCommerce is a best-in class choice. The WooCommerce plugin offers multiple payment integration options, a simple to understand control panel and easy-to-follow documentation to guide you through configuration and implementation. This eCommerce plugin is a universal favorite.
Where to find it: http://wordpress.org/plugins/woocommerce/
Cost: FREE (For list of Gateway extension pricing go to: http://www.woothemes.com/product-category/woocommerce-extensions/?prod_cat=1023&s=&post_type=product&min_price=0&max_price=129&prod_country=0 (Pricing runs from free to $199)
Needed: Payment gateway and merchant account (unless you’re not planning on taking credit card payments)
About that “*More on Jetpack later” notation at the start of this section…
Jetpack by WordPress.org is in a category by itself when discussing plugins. It is practically its own WordPress ecosystem. Since the years since its inception, it has become the ‘Swiss-Army Knife’ of plugins. Go to jetpack.me for a great explanation of the 32-distintive features and functions available in the full Jetpack installation. You can download, install and configure the plugin from the jetpack.me site.
Of particular note is Jetpack’s backup option VaultPress. It is a ‘for-fee’ service that runs from $55 a year to $440 a year depending on the options you chose. Jetpack plugin with all its various components is something every WordPress site owner should be familiar with.
Where to find it: jetpack.me
Cost: Some modules are free where as others relate to for-fee services
Needed: Willingness to invest the time to become acquainted with this powerful and versatile tool. There is definitely a need to read and follow the step-by-step directions for set up and use of each separate component of Jetpack.
These are the notes posted for the Austin WordPress Meetup, April 21st “Beginners Guide to WordPress Plugins” You can find the slides for the presentation at http://presentations.pleiadesservices.com/category/a-beginners-guide-to-wordpress-plugins