Power plug close-upOne of my favourite things about WordPress is how flexible it is, both in terms of how your website looks (themes) and how it behaves (plugins).

I often recommend WordPress to my clients because the large collection of plugins out there makes adding complex functionality to a website much cheaper than building it from scratch.

In the world of WordPress, being free doesn’t mean it’s rubbish — WordPress itself is free of course — but there are bad plugins out there (some of which aren’t even free!).

So how do you choose the best plugins for your website?

Be careful about what you install

If you’re a beginner to WordPress, you might be a little nervous at the prospect of installing new plugins. Newbie or not, I’d definitely recommend doing your research first before installing anything on your website.

Here are the key things you need to keep in mind when adding any plugin:

  • A dodgy or unmaintained plugin can damage your site, or leave you vulnerable to security threats
  • Some plugins might conflict with other plugins – you might find your plugin ecosystem is spoilt by one unruly plugin
  • Generally if a plugin misbehaves, WordPress will deactivate it and rescue your site without any lasting damage. But that’s no good reason to go out and install any old clanky plugin you find on the web
  • Try not to have more than about 10 plugins active on your site at any one time. Running too many at once will slow down your site, and of course, give hackers more code to latch on to
  • Always remove unused plugins — they are still vulnerable to attack, even when disabled
  • Once installed, always keep your plugins up to date, just like your WordPress core
  • And most importantly: always make sure you have a recent working backup of your site before adding new plugins

Remember, if you’re in doubt about whether to install something, leave it for now and have a chat with a professional. I’m always happy to give advice so yelp if you need help.

How to find new plugins

You can search for plugins directly from your WordPress admin dashboard, just go to ‘Plugins’ -> ‘Add New’ then do a search for the kind of functionality you’re looking for.

Chances are, you’ll get a long list of plugins back, so click on ‘Details’ beneath the name of any plugin that takes your fancy and a box with more information will pop up. Now to separate the wheat from the chaff…

How to choose the best ones

WordPress Plugin informationThere are several things to look out for that I always consider before installing any plugin. Generally, if it doesn’t meet most of these criteria I’ll move on and look elsewhere.

This is what I’d recommend checking for:

Listed in the WordPress repository

This is the most important thing in my opinion. Yes, you can install great plugins that aren’t listed in the WordPress repository, but unless you’re confident you can trust the vendor I wouldn’t recommend installing plugins found anywhere else.

If in doubt, the safest way to install a plugin is to add it using your admin dashboard as described under “How to find new plugins“. This way, whenever there’s a new update available for the plugin, you’ll be notified about it in your WordPress dashboard.

Compatibility with the latest version of WordPress

If the plugin hasn’t been tested with the latest version of WordPress (which is the version you’re using, right?), then I’d hold fire until the plugin has been updated, or look elsewhere.

I find I can often get away with using plugins that haven’t been tested with the latest version, but I know I’m taking a calculated risk and am basing that decision on years of experience with WordPress. I have various test WordPress sites which I use to check those plugins out with.

If you’re not so confident about managing your website, and especially if your business depends on your site working properly, don’t take that risk.

Has it been recently updated?

This ties in nicely with compatibility, chances are if the plugin hasn’t been tested with the latest version of WordPress that also means it hasn’t been updated recently. To err on the side of caution, avoid anything that hasn’t been updated in the last three months or so.

It’s true to say some plugins are so simple, or so brilliantly built that they don’t often need updating, but in the absence of certainty it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Does it have a mature version number?

There are no hard and fast rules here, but generally plugins that haven’t yet reached a major release (e.g. the version number still starts with ‘0’) probably aren’t that well-tested yet.

For a plugin author to test their plugin on their own site is one thing, but there are literally tens of millions of WordPress sites out there, and few of them will have exactly the same configuration. Only once a plugin has run in the wild for some time will it naturally come to adapt to its environment.

Plugins with mature version numbers tend to be better tested, but of course there’s nothing stopping the plugin author escalating their version numbers more rapidly in order to create this illusion.

How many times has it been downloaded?

Generally, a solid plugin gets talked about and recommended through word of mouth, so the number of downloads is usually a good indicator of quality. A popular plugin with an immature version number is almost certainly still a great plugin (W3 Total Cache for example).

Just a word of caution though: a plugin may have been popular in the past, but if it hasn’t been updated for a while then I’d still steer clear of it. An unmaintained plugin that’s still installed on millions of websites is the stuff hackers dream of.

Popular plugins also tend to have more reviews, which brings us neatly on to…

What ratings does it have?

Again, this can be misleading. Always check how many individual ratings the average rating is based on. I’m sure we all know 10 friends and family members who’ll happily give us a 5-star rating if we ask them nicely enough.

If you have time, read some of the reviews too. Some people who leave ratings are impatient or naive and will blame a plugin for something completely unrelated. On the other hand, sadly enough some people may have been paid to leave a positive rating.

Listen to what commenters have to say, generally if they’re talking about both pros and cons they’re worth listening to. And look at the common themes that emerge from the reviews — if lots of people are having trouble with the same thing that’s a warning sign.

What do the screenshots look like?

Does it look like a plugin that will do what you want it to do? Does it look like some degree of care and attention has gone into producing the user interface (and the screenshots)?

I’ve worked with enough web developers to know they aren’t all visually-thinking people, and often don’t give enough thought to how people will actually use their software. The plugin might do what you need it to do, but will you actually be able to set it up and use it with ease?

Do the FAQs look useful?

A well-maintained list of frequently-asked questions, and a dedicated support forum in which the plugin authors make regular appearances all count in favour of a good plugin. It’s always worth thinking about what you’ll do if you run into a problem, and that’s where the final point I’d like to raise comes in…

Is there a subscription or premium version available?

Whilst the actual functionality of a plugin may be free to install, parting with some cash often gives you access to additional support and features, and a warm glow inside with the knowledge that you’ve bought a coder a coffee.

Thinking beyond your initial outlay, it makes sense to consider that a plugin people pay for is more likely to be closer to the top of the plugin developer’s to-do list than a pet project. This might not be an issue when you download, but as WordPress itself evolves, and the tactics used by hackers evolve, you’ll be grateful for the fact you’re only using regularly-maintained plugins.

Conclusion

In the WordPress ecosystem we’re spoilt for choice. The problem often isn’t finding a plugin that’ll do what we need, but deciding which one is best suited to our needs and least likely to cause issues.

Careful research is key to finding the most suitable solution, and sometimes an expert’s help is required, but these tips are a great starting point for anybody looking to build out their website’s functionality.

I’m planning to write a post about my favourite plugins in a future post, which ones have you found useful, or would like to know more about? Leave a comment below and let us know!

Featured image by Scarygami (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr