WordPress is one of the most popular blogging platform today, powering over millions of sites. The main reason behind its success is the ease of use. But how do you balance between functionality and simplicity? If you pack everything into the platform, you get an overweight monster that might collapse under its own weight. Having a lean and mean core, on the hand hand, will compromise on the functionality. The answer is, plugins.
WordPress plugins are powerful tools that plug into your WordPress installation to extend the functionality of your website. They bring a whole gamut of features relating to security, SEO, social media, customization, etc. Most of the popular functionalities began as independent plugins and eventually got added into the platform as a feature.
As the plugins are developed independently, you have little control over its quality. They have known to be the cause behind many heartburns over the years. The reasons vary from poor development, lack of support, or incompatibility with your WordPress version, or other plugins and themes. Some of the common problems encountered while using such plugins are:
Eating up too much memory
Causing 500 errors
Crashing the site
Making the site sluggish and unresponsive
Resulting in the white screen of death
That’s quite an exhaustive list, isn’t it? Hence it is essential to make the right decision when it comes to choosing a plugin. Making this choice, however, is not as easy as you think. For example, searching for a plugin that adds support for page categories results in 2154 options to choose from. It is impossible to try out each plugin but yet we need an effective way of narrowing down the list. Read on to learn about some useful tips that will bring this number down from 1000s to 10s quickly and help you in making the right decision when it comes to choosing a plugin.
Use the WordPress Repository
While looking for a plugin, it is always a good idea to start with the official WordPress plugin directory – http://wordpress.org/plugins/. It is here that you will find all the validated plugins submitted by the community. This directory consists of an extensive list of free plugins that is monitored by a team of WordPress experts. An untrustworthy plugin is promptly removed from the directory.
The best and easiest way to find and install a plugin is via the Admin Dashboard. Navigate to Plugins-> Add New and enter an appropriate text to search for a plugin.
Read the description
The plugin description is a short summary of what the plugins does. This hardly takes a minute or two to read through but gives you a good idea of whether a particular plugin matches your requirements.
Counting the stars
Every plugin comes with a rating from 1 to 5, depending on the number of votes from the community. Although not the best factor to gauge how good a plugin is, it gives a rough idea about user experience. It is best to with a rating of 4 and above. However, if a plugin is rated 5 but only users have cast their vote, you’ve got to be cautious.
The version number of a plugin tells you about its development status. One that is under development carries 0.1.x to 0.9.x numbers. The first stable and complete version is numbered 1.0, followed by 2.0, 3.0, etc.
Compatibility with WordPress
The aspects covered so far help you with the filtering process by glancing at the search results. After the initial scan, it is time to plunge into the details of a plugin.
Checking for compatibility is possibly the most important point while selecting a plugin. WordPress changes at a rapid pace. While the core remains stable, these changes can cause incompatibility with the plugin code which can lead to errors ranging from site not working altogether to strange errors in the site. Hence with new WordPress releases, the plugin too must be updated to work perfectly.
Look out for a warning at the top of the screen that says, “This plugin has not been tested with your current version of WordPress.”
The number of times a plugin has been downloaded gives a fair idea of its popularity and thus its effectiveness.
While choosing between plugins, it is safe to go with the one that has the higher download count. Higher the download count, better the choice of the plugin.
This gives the time when the plugin was last updated by its author. An older version could imply abandonment of development or incompatibility with the latest WordPress version.
However, in rare cases, it may also been that the plugin is extremely stable and compatible with all future releases. Unless recommended by a trusted expert, it is wise to go with plugins that are regularly updated.
Is it Supported?
The official WordPress plugins directory can also provide useful information about a plugin. Let us briefly look at what these could be.
Check if there is a link to the support forum or an email address. This helps you get in touch with the author in case of a problem or report a bug. If too many unresolved issues are showing up, the plugin is best avoided.
How are the Reviews?
What better way to determine how good a plugin is than to hear from a user? After installing a plugin, the users have an option of leaving a review. This is an excellent way of knowing if a plugin is widely appreciated or not.
Follow the Stats
The number of downloads may give an indication of popularity but how do you know the latest status? Checking the plugin stats is a good way of knowing the current trends. This gives you the right picture of how the plugin is
faring in the current context?
For example, Plugin1 may have over 30,000 downloads in total but not many users are downloading it these days. Plugin2 has only around 10,000 downloads but the number of downloads per day is much higher than that of Plugin1.
Test it Out
So you’ve followed all the tips and narrowed down to the last 2-3 plugins. What would be the final call? It’s probably best to test them one by one on a staging environment and decide one best suits your requirement. Usability too is important, isn’t it?
Free vs. Paid
WordPress describes itself as being free and priceless at the same time. It is a free to use open-source platform and priceless because of how simple, quick, and flexible it is while creating your blogs and websites. WordPress also includes many excellent plugins that are free to use. People write and maintain these free plugins for various reasons. Some do it for fun as it is exciting to know that thousands of sites run your code. Some do it to gain popularity in the WordPress community, while others release the code that was useful to them for others to benefit.
Apart from the free ones, there are many paid plugins that are available on the Web. These plugins include a good set of features and more importantly, an excellent support team. Having a paid plugin may not always mean a better one, but it brings reliability to the table. You will have a support team that actively works on issues reported by users, keeps the plugin updated, and constantly enhances it. That way you are saved the hassle of monitoring the plugins on your site for updates and vulnerabilities. A typical paid plugin costs anywhere between 30-100$ which may not be a big amount for an important site. After the initial cost, you are only required to pay for major upgrades.
Search for other Reviews
While users can post reviews on the WordPress site, there are many users who prefer using their blogs for doing this. It also allows them to compare a list of plugins for a particular task, e.g. adding a twitter button to your site, and share their review. Always make it a point to look for such reviews while choosing a plugin. While searching for a Page Categories plugin, we found a useful review that provided insights into real-time problems faced by a user:
Plugin or Service?
While plugins are great add-ons to your site, some functionalities are also provided as independent services. Why go for such a service? Consider the example of a backup plugin that regularly backs up your site. One day the unthinkable happens and your site goes down. You want to restore a backup quickly to get your site up and running again. However, when your site crashed, it took the plugin down along with it. What do you do now?
Services, unlike plugins, function independently of your site. In the unlikely event such as a site failure, the service remains unaffected. For example, blogVault is a WordPress backup service that performs daily, automatic backups of your site. You can track your backup from blogVault’s site instead of yours. If your site crashes, your data still remains intact and can be quickly restored from your backup. That way you are assured of an uninterrupted backup service for your site.
Take a Backup
Despite all the filtering process, plugins always pose threats. Hence it is strongly recommended that backup your site before installing the chosen one.