February 8, 2016 | Sarah Danks
If you use WordPress for your website(s), blog(s) or both, you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with the concept of plugins.
Plugins are software downloads that enhance the functionality of your website/blog. If you want your site to perform above and beyond the mere WordPress platform, then plugins are your friend.
With the right plugins, you can expand the capabilities of your site to:
- add a form, calendar, or slider;
- easily update SEO data;
- customize sidebars, headers or other design aspects;
- monitor your blog comments;
- back up all the website’s information;
- add a floating social bar (but make sure it works well!);
- compress images/content for quicker performance;
- add structured markup data;
- and a myriad of other functions.
And all you have to do to find and download these plugins is search online and voilà! You’ll find more plugins than you can count.
But, just like you should never hop into a shady guy’s van (especially one with Free Candy painted on the side), you should beware the strange plugin!
Add one bad plugin and it can either break all the rest of your plug-ins or your entire website. Yikes! We don’t want that.
So how do you go about making wise choices when it comes to plugins?
Ensuring Plugins are Safe to Install
The first rule of plugins is: you do not download un-supported plugins.
The second rule of plugins is: YOU DO NOT DOWNLOAD UN-SUPPORTED PLUGINS!
Okay. For real, everyone. Before downloading any ol’ plugin, you’ve got to do your homework.
The best way to ensure a plugin is okay is: check out the support behind said plugin. Does it have good support? Yes? Then download away. Go in peace to love and…
…install that plugin and reap the benefits of your new functionality (and your wise decision).
But, but — “How do I KNOW if it’s supported well? What does that even mean?!,” you cry in consternation. Well, have no fear, I’m here to tell you.
You don’t need to put every plugin under the microscope, but there’s some basic research you need to do. When you find information about this plugin, some things to look at are:
- What’s the activity on it? Are people downloading it like crazy, or has it not been downloaded in a long time?
- Has it been updated recently, or is it just sitting there — a past, lonely version?
- Are people talking about it? And, if so — how are they talking about it?
- Is it rated well?
Does the plugin have good ratings/downloads?
Take, for example, Yoast’s SEO plugin (a favorite of ours!). It’s a free download that allows you to add custom <title> tags, meta descriptions and even keyword focus to each and every web page. When you head to Yoast’s site you see the download and rating information:
That’s a lotta downloads and a pretty damn good user rating.
Who’s using the plugin?
One more little nudge towards trusting this plugin? Doesn’t hurt they give a little “hero shot” of who else is using it:
So. Yeah. Kind of some big names right there. If they’re using this plugin, odds are (ever) in your favor it’s got some good support in place!
Does the plugin have premium options?
But let’s look at even more important data:
Whoa. Didn’t I just say Yoast was a free plugin? Sure did. And it is — but it has premium upgrade options (think of it as “add-ons” to the plug-in). So what’s the big deal with that?
Just this: if a plugin has premium options (i.e., you have to pay for upgraded functionality), then you immediately know this plugin is well supported.
Because if you’re paying for anything on a plugin you know they’re in turn paying people to work on the plugin to update it, work out any bugs, handle technical support, etc.
Another plugin we use is Backup WordPress. The free version backs up your entire database to your server; the premium option backs it up to either Dropbox or Amazon S3. Their plugin is also well supported, as evidenced here:
Remember I stated it’s important to notice whether or not a plugin’s been updated recently? What I mean by that is shown above. See how this backup plugin is compatible up to version 4.4.2? That’s important, since you always want to update WordPress versions and that’s the most current version. (Read: this plugin is updated frequently.)
And…do you have to pay to use the plugin?
And, the last way to be 100% certain the plugin you’re interested in downloading won’t break your entire WordPress site? If it’s not free. We use Gravity Forms on every website we build (including our own, obviously) and you have to pay to use it at all:
(I’m certainly not saying that you should only install plugins you have to pay for! This is just a surefire way to tell if the support system is good.)
These are just a few examples of the WordPress plugins we use; there are several others. I ran across this list of plugins that’s a good resource if you’re interested in some other credible options. Of course, not all plugins are created equal and be sure you’re not just installing plugins because you can.
And, don’t forget: beware the plug-in that can break your entire WordPress site! Add one wrong plugin and your site could get pounded into the dust.
A recent example is WordPress plugins that automatically add structured markup data — evidently Google’s cracking down on this practice.
Remember: choose your plugins wisely!
If a plugin isn’t well supported, and you install it anyway, it might work just fine…
…until you update to the latest WordPress version. Aaaand then you’ll break everything because your free, non-supported plugin wasn’t updated to the latest version. So please, don’t be someone who chooses poorly when it comes to plugins.