WordPress Plugins Explained: A Guide for Beginners

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Before we get into it, let’s answer the burning question asked by absolute beginners – “What is a WordPress plugin?

A plugin is a script or program you add to the core files to make WordPress do something it wouldn’t normally do.

Okay, so now you know the basic definition of a WordPress plugin, you’re probably asking yourself how to add one to your site.

There are a few ways to do it:

  1. By navigating to the official WordPress plugin repository through the admin area of your website, searching for a suitable plugin, then installing and activating it. I’ve published a more in-depth guide here – how to install a WordPress plugin.
  2. By uploading the zipped file via a built-in feature you’ll find in the admin area.
  3. By uploading the unzipped files via FTP to the Plugins folder on your website’s server.
  4. By uploading the unzipped files via cPanel or your host’s file management system.

What happens after you install the plugin?

It depends. Some are more complicated than others. For example, a premium plugin powering a shopping cart takes a lot of time to configure, whereas a simple plugin for converting a post to a page requires no additional setup work.

Plugins are also used for:

  • Adding one or more contact forms
  • Adding social sharing buttons so people can share your articles on social media
  • Creating a membership site or area
  • Selling stuff
  • Managing multiple authors and restricting what they can and cannot do
  • Backing up your website
  • Stopping comment spam
  • Getting people to sign up to your mailing list
  • Increasing security
  • And a whole load of other things too…

Don’t worry, most basic plugins are free and available from the WordPress plugin directory or through the admin area of your WordPress site (the easiest route).

However, there’s a growing market of premium plugins – these are ones you pay for. More on these in a moment or two.

It’s not all roses in the world of WordPress plugins. For every excellent plugin, there are a few bad ones. Ones that are badly coded or under-supported. At best, they don’t work properly and at worst, they can break your site.

Free WordPress plugins

At the time of writing this post there are 36,342 upadting this post there are 50,891 plugins in the official WordPress plugins directory, and the amount increases every day.

The number of free plugins in the WordPress repository as of June 2017
The number of free plugins in the WordPress repository as of June 2017

As you can imagine, thousands of these plugins get lost in the noise, but there are some most WordPress users consider ‘essential’.

They perform tasks every site needs, such as:

  • Catching spam comments
  • Helping with SEO
  • Creating contact forms
  • Backing up the database
  • Social sharing
  • Displaying Google Analytics data without logging into Google
  • Managing multiple authors

After that, your essential list depends upon the goals of your blog and what you use it for.

If you’re a photographer you might want a plugin to display your best work in a portfolio style.

If you run a video site you might need a plugin that seamlessly interacts with YouTube to download videos to your site.

If you want to add a slider to your front a page or inner pages, you’ll need a plugin for that.

Premium WordPress plugins

A ‘premium’ plugin is one you buy. Some are cheap, some are expensive.

Before you dismiss the idea of paying for a plugin, consider how much extra it brings to your site and how much time it saves you.

In the past I’ve wasted hours trying to find a free plugin for a particular task, only to eventually end up paying a few dollars for one that was quick and easy to set up.

The main advantages of buying a plugin is support and quality.

Because you’ve paid for it, you can pretty much guarantee there will be at least a good level of support should things go wrong.

And because you’ve paid for it, you can usually expect a high standard of coding and ease of setup.

Broken WordPress plugins

A word of warning: sometimes plugins break. They just stop working for no clear reason.

Why would a plugin suddenly stop working? The most likely cause is an update in WordPress (which typically happens every three months or so) that conflicts with the plugin’s code.

If it happens to a plugin you use and the author’s abandoned the project, you could ask somebody to try to fix it for you (try the WordPress forum) or look for an alternative.

WordPress plugin incompatibility issues

In a world in which we have access to 34,000+ plugins from our own site, countless others from sites around the web and a load more from premium plugin providers, it’s hardly surprising that some of them don’t work well together.

In all the years I’ve used WordPress, I haven’t come across it very often. But I’m one of those people who uses as few plugins as possible, and I tend to not stray from the plugins I know and love. I just don’t have the time or inclination to experiment with them.

Might you have?

You might be a perpetual tinkerer and faced the incompatability issue head-on.

It’s a nightmare when it happens.

The only way to figure out which plugin is causing the problem is to disable them one at a time until the problem fixes itself.

The sad thing is, you don’t know if a plugin will cause a problem until it’s loaded and the damage is done. At first install, it’s easy to fix, but after it’s run for a while it’s harder.

Because I mostly use the same plugins on each site, I can make an educated guess when something does go wrong.

Viruses and hacks

The WordPress code is Open Source (everyone has access to it) and the coding language is PHP. This combination makes it easier than usual for would-be hackers to hack your site and spread viruses, and plugins are an easy way in.

This is one of the reasons you should only use plugins from trusted sources and not some random site you happen across on our journeys around the web.

Here are a couple of examples of major issues with attacks made through plugins:

There’s plenty more blog posts and forum threads talking about hacked sites.

If you don’t want yours to be one of them, think carefully about the plugins you’re using.

What can you do?

I know it’s very tempting to install lots of plugins to add more functionality to your site, but please resist.

Think about your visitors.

If your site provides a poor user experience they won’t come back.

Think about managing all those plugins too. The constant updates and potential problems if a conflict happens during a future update.

I recently set out to speed up a persistently slow site of mine. Before I started work on the plugins I ran a few tests to see how fast the pages loaded.

The results ranged from 3-15 seconds.

The target was two seconds or less.

I reached it by disabling all unnecessary plugins and installing a caching plugin (it might look daunting, but for most people the default settings are fine).

Don’t install too many WordPress plugins (especially on your first website)

When getting your WordPress blog it’s natural to go digging for ways to jazz it up.

Social sharing buttons, a Facebook widget, a different commenting system, specialist admin tools – plugins exist for just about every purpose you can think of.

But ask yourself if you really need them, and if the answer is no, wait until you do before you install them, and then, do some research to see which is best for you.

How many plugins is too many?

The answer is ‘it depends’.

One terrible plugin is too many.

Forty fantastic plugins isn’t.

There’s no definite answer – you have to judge each site on its own.

Your Call

I’ve used WordPress since 2006 and tend to stick to using the plugins I know and trust. I don’t see the point in looking for an alternative when something is working well.

That said, there are two types of plugin that I’ve swapped and changed. The first is for social sharing and the second is for backing up my sites and my client’s sites.

I still haven’t found the perfect social sharing plugin (although Social Warfare comes close) and these days I use VaultPress for backups.

Which ones you choose to use depends upon what you want to do, but I hope this post has given you enough of an insight into what a plugin is and what it does for a WordPress site?

If you need help or advice, please ask in the comments or send me an email and I’ll do my best to help you.