WordPress is a powerful content management system, if used properly. Powering almost 30% of the internet (that’s over 15 million WordPress.org sites), the CMS is home to small personal websites, to large multinational business websites including TechCrunch, Sony Music and Mercedes Benz. Even artists like Beyonce and Katy Perry have their websites built on the platform. Not to mention the additional 76.5 million WordPress.com personal blogs that are currently active.
Despite its widespread popularity, there’s often a negative stigma attached to the open source platform. Developers have a love-hate relationship with the platform, praising it’s easy to use dashboard, customisability and quick setup process, but loathing the mess that CMS platforms often become. There are around 55,000 plugins available on the WordPress store, which allow you to expand your site functionality. Want to add an online store to your site? How about add an interactive calendar? Or would you like an email signup form? This is all achievable through plugins – many of which are free.
With so much expandability your site can do anything and everything! But be warned – with great power comes great responsibility. Whilst it’s great that you don’t need a developer to install these plugins and expand the functionality of your site – many people don’t understand the ins-and-outs of how to use plugins.
Is using too many plugins a bad thing?
Plugins are essentially additional blocks of code that run alongside your website to change how it behaves. So in short – no. You can have as many plugins as you want (theoretically), but you could run into a few issues when you start installing a lot of plugins. These issues might include:
- Site speed/performance degradation – most plugins have a very little footprint, so you shouldn’t experience too many performance issues. However, if the plugins you install need to load a lot of additional files/link to external sites, your site loading times will increase. Depending on the nature of your plugin, it may require some server resources – whilst they may be minimal, if your site gets a lot of visitors, you may soon feel the effects.
- Incompatibility – if you install multiple plugins that alter similar parts of your site, they may start to interfere with each other. The chances of this happening are rare – but check the description of the plugin before you download it, some plugins have known incompatibilities and simply won’t work. Also, check if the plugin you’re downloading has been tested with your version of WordPress – outdated plugins may also have issues running on newer versions of WordPress.
- Style differences – plugins alter the way your site looks and behaves, and whilst that’s the goal of plugins – they may sometimes make some unintentional changes. Most plugins have their own look-and-feel, and may clash with your site’s existing templates and themes. They will be able to work – but they might look a bit odd/out of place at times. Be prepared to edit the PHP and CSS (code) files of your website if this is the case.
What do I need to be careful of when looking for plugins?
It’s hard to tell what a plugin will do without installing it first unfortunately. But there are a few things you can keep in mind when looking for/installing/using plugins:
- Is it well documented? Before you download the plugin, check if it has – a detailed description explaining what the plugin does, screenshots, and installation instructions. Also have a look to see when it was last updated, and what the reviews have to say about the plugin.
- Does the plugin offer support? Majority of plugins offer some form of support – but it’s worth checking before you commit to a plugin. Do a bit of research – if they’ve got a support forum, are people able to resolve their queries? Does the plugin have a dedicated website, with contact details? You might not need support straight away, but it’s nice to know in case you encounter a problem down the track.
- Is it compatible with my version of WordPress? Will it work with my existing plugins? A reminder of what was discussed in the previous section of this article.
- Is this plugin free, or will I need to pay for a Pro version? You can install any WordPress plugin for free – but keep in mind that a lot of them offer “Pro” or “Premium” versions which give you access to the full functionality of the plugin. Some are one-time fees, and other work off subscription models. If you’re running on a tight budget – choose your plugins wisely as the costs can add up quickly.
- Most importantly – ask yourself, do I really need this plugin? Don’t install plugins just because you think they offer some “cool features”. Consider the purpose of your website, and what you want users to do. Will this plugin help you/your users achieve these goals? It’s also worth noting that some plugins offer multiple features, and you might already have a plugin installed that can handle what you’re looking for.
Are there any plugins I should avoid?
To put it simply – avoid plugins that don’t meet the points listed above (lack of documentation, lack of support, not compatible, etc…). As a website designer, there is one type of plugin I recommend avoiding though, and that is drag-and-drop editors like:
- Visual Composer
- Divi Builder
- WPBakery Page Builder
- Elementor Page Builder
- Live Composer
And the list goes on…
But they’re so easy to use! Why do you recommend we stray away from these site builders? Yes, whilst they are convenient, you sacrifice a lot of web design standards. Usually these site builders use their own version of HTML (code), which adds another layer to your website. The more advanced features you use with these site builders, the more additional code and resources your site has to unnecessarily load. They produce messy HTML and can become a nightmare to fix if you experience issues with the page layout. Drag and drop builders also encourage poor design standards, and you’ll find many sites that use tools like Visual Composer have no consistent theme or layout. You’re better off getting someone who knows how to write HTML & PHP for your website, rather than having someone who doesn’t understand how code works dragging and dropping elements on a page builder. Quick fixes often result in ongoing pains.
Are there some plugin essentials that I should have?
There are a few good plugins I think are a MUST for every WordPress site. They are:
- Jetpack – built by the people who built WordPress, Jetpack adds awesome features that don’t come standard with your site. This includes – a Contact Form creator, social media integration, downtime monitoring, faster loading images (using a CDN), sitemaps, and a whole lot more! You won’t need all of the features, but it’s easy to turn on/off the ones you do and don’t want.
- Google Analytics Dashboard for WP – this lightweight plugin offers two features. It adds the Google Analytics tracking code to your site (without you needing to edit your site code). And it shows your Google Analytics data on your WordPress dashboard – which is really handy! For quick stats, you don’t need to log into the Google Analytics site, you can do it straight from your dashboard. It’s worth noting that I personally trust Google’s Analytics more than Jetpack’s.
- Smush Image Compression and Optimisation – most people forget to resize their images for web before they upload them, which means large images may take a while to load when someone visits your site. Smush automatically compresses every image you upload to your site, ensuring faster loading times for your users. The settings are quite customisable, however there are limitations in the free version. The paid version of this plugin is justifiable if your site is photo-heavy.
- TinyMCE Advanced – the text editor that comes with WordPress is pretty awful to say the least. TinyMCE gives you additional formatting tools that makes entering content to your pages and posts a lot easier and more user friendly. The plugin also allows you to customise how the editor menus look.
A few more optional plugins (some are a bit more advanced):
- Visual Form Builder – need to create complex forms on your site? Visual Form Builder is a powerful yet easy to use tool that has a lot of customisable features. You can use it for simple contact forms, to more complex entry forms/survey pages.
- Custom Post Type UI – not for the faint hearted. Use this plugin if you want to get into some serious customisation. I won’t explain it in depth here, as you should understand how Post Types should work first (do a bit of research if you’re interested).
- Advanced Custom Fields – also not for the faint hearted. This plugin is also for serious customisation, and you should learn how Shortcodes and PHP works before delving into custom fields (do a bit of research if you’re interested).
- Advanced Page Manager – the page manager in WordPress is sufficient but can get clunky if you have a lot of subpages. If you want a more hierarchical view of how your pages are organised, a plugin like this will replace your “Pages” dashboard with something a little more intuitive. Whilst it’s not perfect, it helps beginners understand how their pages are structured.
So, there you have it! Some ins-and-outs about all things plugins! This isn’t a definitive guide, but it should help clear up some common misconceptions and concerns. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to send me a message.