Tips on how to select WordPress plugins

One of the greatest strengths of WordPress is the huge range of plugins that make sites capable of doing just about anything.

Conversely, one of the greatest weaknesses of WordPress is the huge range of plugins available.

Why not just sit there on the fence then Chuckles?

To clarify, I believe both statements are true.

In the right hands, the huge choice of plugins can make just about any kind of site possible with WordPress.

In the wrong hands though, plugins can turn a previously fine WordPress site into a crap fest swimming through molasses.

A moment ago, the WordPress plugin repository reported that it currently contains 59,738 plugins. Each and every one free to install.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that can be quite the draw to the new WordPress site owner. Many seem to go off on one like a kid in a candy store, hyped to the max on industrial grade refined sugar and methamphetamine.

If that sounds a bit familiar, I’ve got some tips for next time down the page, but first what’s the problem with plugins?

Why plugins may be bad

Plugins can slow down a WordPress site, hence the advice that you should only install plugins that you need. However, just because plugins can slow a site down, it doesn’t mean that every plugin does slow a site down.

Some people will suggest that you shouldn’t install more than X number of plugins. On one hand that’s good advice as it encourages site owners to think carefully about which plugins they will install.

On the other hand, the number of plugins you need to install depends on what you need your site to do. If you need to install 49 plugins to get all the functionality that you need in your site, then install 49 plugins.

I read an article by a hosting company who had big sites running on their platform with more than 100 plugins installed without any issues.

The problem arises when poorly written plugins are used. With so many plugins available, at least some are going to be a bit crap.

The WordPress plugin repository deserves some blame here. There are many plugins on offer there that haven’t been updated for years. When security issues arise, plugins are removed. However, as WordPress has changed, technologies have advanced, it’s possible that older plugins will slow down new sites or even break some functionality.

Fortunately, there are some simple tips to help you avoid picking plugins badly.

Choosing plugins the right way

Firstly, don’t jump into the plugins screen straight away.

Have a plan

Think about what you need your site to do. What functionality is essential and what is just nice to have?

There are some base plugins that should be installed on every site to maximize security and performance. Beyond those, decide what you really need and keep to that list when looking for suitable plugins to cover those needs.

One plugin per need

This probably sounds obvious, but installing several similar plugins is oddly common.

What happens is that the site owner has a list of requirements.

They install plugin #1 which is great, but it doesn’t do thing A or thing B. So they install plugin #2, which does much the same as plugin #1, but also thing A, though not thing B. Hence they install plugin #3 which does much the same as plugin #1 and plugin #2, but also thing B.

We know that plugins can slow a site down, but in this case, the site now has three plugins doing the same thing, so potentially three plugins each slowing the site down.

Worse than that, possibly, because each one is doing a similar job, it’s possible that they may conflict and stop each other working correctly. Even if that’s not the case right now, one future update might change that and screw your site without you realizing it.

Don’t install multiple similar plugins. Pick the one that does most of what you need. If you really need the other features, pay a developer to add that functionality. You may be surprised how affordable it is, though not always.

Select carefully

You should be very deliberate with your plugin choices. Having made a plan for what you need, do your best to pick the most suitable plugins.

When looking for a plugin from the repository, you’ll be able to see some key information about each plugin listed. In the Add Plugins screen, each plugin has a More Details link.

Click the More Details link to open a pop-up with more data about the plugin.

The most important things to consider here are:

  1. The Last Updated entry lets you know whether the plugin is actively maintained. If a plugin hasn’t been updated for more than a year, in most cases I would be reluctant to install it. I would make an exception if the plugin is doing a very simple job, but for plugins doing more complex jobs, it’s not desirable to rely on a plugin that isn’t being updated. This could lead to problems if a WordPress update changes functionality that the plugin relies on.
  2. The Active Installations entry shows how popular a plugin is. While no guarantee of quality, the greater the number of sites using a plugin, the more confidence you can have in it doing what it’s meant to do without causing problems. If you have the choice between two similar plugins, one installed on 10,000 sites and one on 1,000 sites, I’d advise you to select the one with the higher number of installs.
  3. The Average Rating is arguably the most important of these three indicators. These ratings are left by other site owners and should give you a realistic indication of how happy other users are with the plugin. You can also see more in depth feedback from other users in the Reviews section. Generally favor a plugin with a significantly higher rating than a similar plugin less well reviewed. You may also notice a big difference between the number of reviews that a plugin has compared to other similar plugins. This is probably because some authors are very proactive about chasing reviews, often displaying notices in WordPress admin with a link to review the plugin. That’s likely to skew their feedback in a positive way because, unprompted, users are more likely to complain rather than praise a plugin. When prompted, the principle of reciprocity means that more satisfied users will take a moment to leave a positive review.

What about paid for plugins?

I’ve focused on just free plugins so far, but obviously there are many paid for commercial plugins to choose from.

Generally the situation here will be better, mainly because the developers are being paid. That’s quite an incentive to work at a plugin and with the most popular plugins, individuals or teams will be working full time to maintain and improve plugins.

Of course, not all paid for plugins are going to cover the cost of full time development, so you should still exercise care when picking plugins.

Avoid free paid for plugins

There are some paid for plugins that you should definitely avoid though.

These are the free paid for plugins. By that, I mean plugins that are sold by their own developers, but are offered for free on other websites.

Getting paid for plugins for free can be hugely attractive and, beyond possible copyright issues around names and brands, perfectly legal.

The problem is that many sites like these offer plugins that have been hacked so that when installed, third parties can take control of a website and do whatever they want, such as displaying their own adverts, redirecting users to other sites or even compromising users’ devices.

Plugins are great when they’re not crap

Plugins can make your WordPress site the exact tool you need to push your business forward. They really can be great when used with thought and care.

However, when thrown at a site with plan or consideration, they have the potential to damage not just your site, but your reputation too.