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When I first learned about WordPress and went to the plugin ‘store’ I was a bit like a kid in a sweet shop. Look at that! Oh, I might need that! That’s so cool!! I probably added loads within the first few days. Then I started to hear stories about plugins that didn’t work. Or worse, plugins that let hackers access your site because they weren’t updated, and I got a bit cautious. Choosing plugins is something that should be done with a little more caution. But how do you make smart decisions when choosing them?
What are plugins?
Before we start assessing plugins, let’s have a quick reminder that they are, especially for anyone new to WordPress. Plugins are ways to do more with your WordPress site than it can do on its own. There are two main elements you add to personalise your site – your theme and your plugins. Choosing plugins is about looking at the features you need and finding the right solution to the problem.
There are over 50,000 WP plugins in the repository. Lots of them are free, some of them are paid, quite a lot offers both free and paid options. That means a lot of choices. And lots of things you can do. So why not go a little nuts and download loads of them?
Why too many plugins is bad
The biggest reason why too many plugins is a bad thing is down to site speed. How quickly your site loads when someone arrives on it is a major ranking factor for Google. Now there are a few things that contribute to site speed, but plugins are a big one. And because 40% of visitors leave a site if it takes more than three seconds to load, managing plugins is key.
If you aren’t sure how well your site is loading, you can check it out with a site speed tool such as GTmetrix. Some of the results might seem a bit gibberish but there’s lots of help out there to understand the answers. And you get an overall rating too.
The other thing to remember with plugins is that they aren’t a set and forget job. You need to take care of them. This is simple enough – you need to update them when WordPress tells you there is an update available.
Now there is a word of warning here – sometimes plugin updates can go a little wrong. Social Warfare will tell you all about that. Their update recently caused chaos for users and took a bit of work to sort out. Therefore it can be a good idea to take a backup of your site before you do the updates. Again, there are plugins for this – I use WP-Optimize to back up the site, store the backup in Dropbox and to run some optimisation tasks as well. Once this is done, I run the updates.
How to assess a plugin
The question then becomes how do you go about choosing a plugin? The answer comes from a podcast from Sites by Studiopress who offered a simple assessment process. It involves asking a few basic questions.
1. What problem am I trying to solve?
Installing plugins should be done to solve a problem. Yoast SEO is one example – it solves the problem of making sure you have done the major on-page SEO jobs and helps you rate your post. It does more than this as well, even on the free version, but these are the most immediately important jobs.
Another example is a Google Analytics plugin. Not only does it show your stats on your dashboard, but it stores the GA code so when you update or change your theme, the code and the data isn’t lost.
If the plugin doesn’t solve a clear problem, think twice about us it. But if it does, move on with the next question.
2. Is the plugin the best way to solve the problem?
Just because a plugin can solve the problem, doesn’t mean this is the best way to do it. When you are running a business, there’s a lot to do and it is tempting to grab a quick plugin to solve a problem and get on with the next item on the to-do list. But it is worth taking a moment to assess if the plugin is the best way to solve the problem. There may be options or plugins you already have might be able to do the job for you.
3. Is the plugin trustworthy?
Sadly, plugin-related horror stories can be true. Much of the problem comes not from malicious plugins but from plugins that are no longer maintained and therefore are a weak spot. So you want to do some research on the plugin to make sure it is trustworthy. Ideas include:
- Social proof – is there evidence from other users recently that they use the plugin successfully?
- Update date – when was it last updated?
- Compatibility – does it say it is compatible with the current version of WordPress?
- Support – is there support, a website or forum where you can go to get assistance if something goes wrong?
Choosing plugins that match up with these criteria can’t guarantee you won’t run into problems but will dramatically reduce the risk.
4. Does it break anything?
This one can be tricky to find out but if you Google the plugin and look for problems that people are talking about, you can get some ideas. Look for known conflicts with other plugins, especially ones you have or want to add. And before you install a plugin, remember to do that backup, just in case.
You can use this process when you are choosing plugins for a new website or when you are looking at WordPress plugins to amend an existing site. Before you download a plugin, look at it to see is it among the best free WordPress plugins or might a paid option be better? Look at the most popular WordPress plugins and see if one of those is suitable or do you need to research something a little more specific?
And whatever you do, keep up with your updates and backups to protect your site. Better safe than sorry as with many things!
What’s your favourite plugin? Which ones make your ‘must have’ list? I’d love to hear in the comments below!