What is a WordPress plugin?
Plugins are packages of code which can be installed on a WordPress website. They provide additional functionality on top of WordPress core.
What do WordPress plugins do?
You can find a WordPress plugin to do almost anything you can imagine. Plugins can help with SEO and accessibility, they can add new custom post types and layouts (like events), and they can make integrations easier (like with Google Analytics).
WordPress core comes with a lot of great functionality, but it is nice to be able to extend WordPress to better suit your needs. In addition, finding the right plugin will avoid adding too much bloat to your website.
What types of WordPress plugins are there?
Like themes, there are a lot of plugin options. The WordPress Plugin Directory contains over 58,000 plugins available to use for free. In addition, there are numerous private plugin developers and sellers as well as plugin marketplaces.
Free (and Freemium) Plugins
Free plugins typically come from the WordPress Plugin Directory. The WordPress Plugin Directory is great because not only are the plugins free, but they also have to pass a series of tests to be approved. In addition, WordPress provides reviews, a star rating, and other helpful data. That said, just because a plugin is in the directory doesn’t mean it has the best quality, so be sure to review my tips in the next section.
What are freemium plugins? Well, many of the best free plugins in the WordPress Plugin Directory also have a premium (paid) counterpart. The free plugin will typically offer limited features and/or support in exchange for the low (free) cost.
While I personally use free plugins as often as possible, certain situations definitely warrant a premium (paid) plugin. If you have tried several free plugins and none of them quite fit your needs it’s time to look for a premium plugin. Premium plugins can be found through a Google search or through a plugin marketplace like CodeCanyon.
Take some time for due diligence before spending money on a premium plugin. Here’s a quick list of items to consider:
- Can you read reviews for the plugin? What are the pros and cons?
- Does the plugin appear to meet all of your essential needs?
- Is there a knowledgebase or other support method?
- Does the plugin have good documentation?
- Is there a refund policy?
- Are you paying for lifetime use or a monthly subscription?
Once you’ve decided a premium plugin is a good fit for you, make the purchase and start testing it on your site. If the plugin isn’t working as you hoped, reach out for support and/or ask for a refund.
Personally, I don’t create custom plugins often. When I do it’s because there isn’t a plugin simple enough to meet my needs and I don’t want to add extra weight to the website.
Must-use plugins are unique because they cannot be added like normal plugins and are often added as a component of a theme. They provide required functionality for a WordPress website. While standard plugins contain a directory of files, must-use plugins are added as single PHP file via FTP to a folder called “mu-plugins.”
Where do I get plugins for my WordPress website?
I typically start my plugin search on Google. I determine the most basic description for the plugin and start searching. For example, if I’m looking for an event calendar plugin I’ll google “WordPress event calendar plugin.” The results of this search will typically provide both free (from the WordPress Plugin Directory) plugins and premium plugins.
Searching for a plugin on Google will also often bring up a lot of comparison articles. Many bloggers will install various plugins with similar functionality and compare and contrast their features and quality. If you feel overwhelmed by the options available to you, these articles can be a great way to understand the differences in plugins. A quick way to find a comparison article would be to google something like “best WordPress event calendar plugin.”
Whether you end up choosing a free plugin from the WordPress Plugin Directory or purchasing a premium plugin, you will need to download and install the plugin to use it on your website. I’ve provided instructions for this in a section below.
WordPress Plugin Directory Search
If you are limiting your search to free plugins from the WordPress Plugin Directory, you have two methods for searching.
WordPress.org’s website makes it easy to search for free themes and plugins. First, go to WordPress.org then click on “Plugins” in the main menu. Next, type your search phrase into the “Search plugins” box and push enter. Click on each of the plugins that appears to match what you’re searching for then look. Compare the description, last updated date, ratings, and active installations (as described above) for each potential plugin. Click “Download” to download the plugin then follow the directions in the next section to upload and activate on your site.
If you are actively working on your website it will be easier to search for free plugins from the WordPress Plugin Directory directly from the dashboard. First, click or hover over “Plugins” then select “Add New.” You’ll first see a screen showing some featured plugins. Near the top right of the screen is a search box. Enter your search phrase here and WordPress will start searching for a match. Click “More Details” for any of the plugins that look like a good fit then click “Install Now.”
How do I select the right WordPress plugin?
The first step when selecting a new plugin is determining exactly what you need the plugin to do. As mentioned above, it is important to avoid installing more on your website than you really need. Every plugin that you install will add to the size of your website and this could affect performance. Think about the features you need to accomplish with a plugin and start looking for the perfect fit.
Plugin Description and Demo
A good plugin should have an in-depth description and even a demo of how the plugin works. Compare the description and demo to the features that you need. Does this plugin look like a good fit? Great! Let’s dig into the reviews.
Plugin reviews are arguably going to give you more information than the formal description. What are other users loving and hating about the plugin? Do their issues resonate with you? Be sure to read a mix of good and bad reviews so that you have a fair assessment. Now, let’s dive into some stats.
If you are selecting a plugin from the WordPress Plugin Directory, there are several stats that you should check to establish the quality of the plugin. Look at the right sidebar when you’re viewing a plugin and take note of the following.
Is the plugin well supported? A plugin that is being actively maintained will have a small “Last Updated” duration. This means the developers are keeping up with WordPress changes, keeping the plugin secure, and improving the usability.
Compatible Up To
Will the plugin work with your version of WordPress? Just like the “Last Updated” status, the compatibility tells you if the plugin is well maintained. Plugins that are way behind in compatibility will display a note near the tabs on this screen as a warning.
Is this plugin popular? The active installations number will tell you how many people are currently using the plugin you’re considering. The bigger the number the better. Thousands of people can’t be wrong.
Is this a five star plugin? While the number of stars a plugin has is an easy way to determine it’s quality, it’s important to also take note of how many ratings number is based on. The more stars and more ratings the better. There’s a big difference between 1,000 five star ratings and 2 five star ratings.
Finding the right plugin may require installing several and testing their features. Remember to deactivate and uninstall any plugins that you aren’t using before your launch your site. This will reduce hacking risk and website size.
How do I manage the plugins I’ve installed?
Whether you added it directly from the WordPress Plugin Directory or you uploaded it, once it has been installed a plugin will show up on the Plugins page of your dashboard. To get to the Plugins page click “Plugins” in the left panel of the dashboard.
Near the top of this page you will see the “Add New” button for adding new plugins. Below that you will see filters for the various plugin statuses.
- Active plugins have been “turned on” and are able to be used on your site. If you are not using a plugin in this category you should deactivate it.
- Inactive plugins are those which have been installed but have not been activated. If you decide to use one of these plugins you will activate it. Otherwise you should delete it to keep your site clean.
- Recently Active plugins are plugins which you were using but recently deactivated.
- Update Available plugins are ready to be updated due to a new release.
- Must-Use plugins are plugins which you cannot activate, deactivate, or delete. They are required for your site to run properly.
- Auto-updates Disabled plugins are those which must be updated manually. Auto-updating plugins is a new, optional WordPress feature. The setting is off for each plugin by default. (Continue reading to find out why this is a good idea.)
WordPress has made it quite easy to change plugin settings. Next I’ll review the basics.
Activate a Plugin
Any plugin that is currently inactive will have an “Active” link below its name on the main Plugins page. Simply click this link and wait for the activation to complete. Most plugins will add a menu item with settings. Once the plugin is activated, check out the settings to confirm it will work the way you anticipated.
Deactivate a Plugin
Any plugin that is currently active will have a “Deactivate” link below its name on the main Plugins page. Simply click this link and wait for the deactivation to complete. If you’re confident that you won’t need this plugin again, go ahead and delete it.
Delete a Plugin
Plugins must be deactivated prior to being deleted. If a plugin is inactive it will have a red “Delete” link below the name on the Plugins page. Just click delete and all of the files will be deleted. I try to keep as few plugins on my sites as possible. This reduces the size of your website and reduces the risk of being hacked.
NOTE: Many plugins will leave settings in your database even after you deactivate and delete them. Over time this will lead to a lot of extra bloat on your website. Before you deactivate and delete a plugin, check the settings for an option which will delete ALL settings/data upon deactivation and deletion.
Enable or Disable Auto-updates
I prefer to keep auto-updates disabled so that I can update them at a time that I’m ready to check for errors. If you don’t want to worry about keeping your plugins up to date on your own, you can enable auto-updates and WordPress will do it for you. Simply click the “Enable auto-updates” link to the right of the plugin name and description on the Plugins page.
If auto-updates are enabled for a plugin and you want to disable it, click “Disable auto-updates.”
Plugin Settings and Details
Most plugins entries will include the name of the plugin and the links listed above as well as a description and some supplemental information. The “View details” link and “Visit plugin site” links will typically be the quickest way to get help with a plugin.
A plugin that is active may have a “Settings” link below it’s name. This will take you directly to the plugin settings instead of having to search for the page in the navigation.
How do I update plugins?
It is essential to keep plugins updated, especially when there are security releases. Plugins that are out of date may stop working as intended. In addition, they may open you up to an increase risk of being hacked. Finally, updating plugins regularly will eliminate the issues that arise when you try to update from a very old version to the most recent version, skipping over several iterations in between.
Like most tasks, WordPress makes updating plugins super simple. That said, there is always a risk of something going wrong. Follow these steps for the safest updating procedure:
1. Backup Your Website
The first step for many WordPress tasks is to backup your website. This way, if anything goes wrong you can easily roll back to the last working version.
2. Update Each Plugin
There are two methods for updating plugins on your website. Regardless which one you choose, I recommend updating one plugin at a time. This will reduce any errors from taxing your server and will help you pinpoint any issues that occur.
First, click the “Updates” icon in the admin bar. Next, click the checkbox next to the plugin(s) that you’d like to update then click “Update Plugins.” When the update is complete you will be given the option to go to the Plugins page or return to the Updates page.
First, go to the Plugins page by clicking “Plugins” in the left panel of the dashboard. Then, for each plugin that needs to be updated, click “update now” in the highlighted box. Typically you will not be taken to another screen after updating this way. You will know the update is complete when you get an “Updated!” confirmation message.
Testing the functionality of your website is essential after updating plugins. Take some time to click through each page of your site and look for issues. Keep in mind the functionality provided by the specific plugins you update. Pay extra attention to features that may have been affected by those updates.
Although updating plugins may feel overwhelming to you, it really is a simple process. That said, if you don’t have the desire or time to keep your plugins updated there are alternatives.
As mentioned previously, WordPress now has an auto-update feature. Enable auto-updates for all of your plugins and you won’t have to worry about keeping them updated on your own. It’s still a good idea to backup and test your site regularly to ensure the plugin updates didn’t cause any issues.
My favorite way to keep plugins updated without worrying about them is letting Flywheel do it through their Managed Plugin Updates add-on. Flywheel hosting plans come with daily backups and their Managed Plugin Updates add-on even completes automated testing after updates. I love Flywheel hosting as it is, but this add-on is a game changer.
What are some recommended WordPress plugins?
There are several plugins that I use repeated for my development projects:
- AddToAny Share Buttons
- Advanced Custom Fields and Advanced Custom Fields PRO
- All-in-One WP Migration
- Insert Headers and Footers
- Print, PDF & Email by PrintFriendly
- Search & Filter Pro
- Yoast SEO
Although WordPress core is feature-packed, I find it invaluable to have such a large pool of plugins to add to a website. There is seldom a feature or function that I need that I can’t find in a quality plugin. Most of the sites I develop use only free plugins, but I also rely on some high-quality premium plugins.
Plugin management shouldn’t be something to be concerned about. The WordPress interface makes things simple and user friendly. Updating plugins is essential and doesn’t take much time if you keep up with it.