Website Design, Strategy, Social Networking, SEO, Susan Pomeroy, Ph.D.

How to Choose WordPress Plugins

by Susan Pomeroy

WordPress Plugins

One of the most awe-inspiring features of the WordPress ecosystem is plugins. The WordPress Plugin Directory currently contains over 17,000 of them, designed for every conceivable purpose—adding contact forms, creating membership directories, speeding up your site loading, editing files and images, adding social media sharing—if you can think of it, there’s probably at least one plugin to help you do it.

A plugin can make—or break—your site

Sometimes, a good plugin is key to a site’s function. On the other hand, the worst plugins not only don’t work as advertised… they can actually cause your site to malfunction (if this happens, simply deactivate and/or remove the plugin).

The other potential pitfall is installing a plugin that isn’t updated to keep pace with the ever-evolving WordPress core updates. If your site relies upon one of these, sooner or later you will have problems. It can be tempting simply to quit updating the core, in order to retain plugin function. But this is a dangerous option that can leave your site vulnerable to hackers. Choosing reliable plugins is important.

How to choose

Say you go to the plugin directory, looking for a backup plugin (substitute the topic of your choice—this method works for any type of plugin search). You type “backup” into the search box… and you get 364 results. Some are old, some are new, some have five stars and some one or two, the descriptions vary… so how can you quickly choose among them?

First, use the sort buttons at the top of the page. Do quick several sorts by date, by rating, by relevance. Check quickly to see what “floats to the top” among various sort orders. Jot down any standouts.

WordPress plugins

Try various sort orders to get a better idea of what's available

Now choose the most promising sort order, and follow these steps with your results:

1. Description. Does the plugin do what you want it to do? Sometimes it’s difficult to tell. If it looks promising (or like the only option), it can be worthwhile to search online for a review or two, to double-check that your understanding of what the plugin purports to accomplish is correct.

2. Number of downloads. WordPress users are a pretty well-informed bunch. For the most part, the most-downloaded plugins truly do have some functional advantage over the competition.

3. Date updated. Date can be the single most important factor. I look for recent dates, preferably within the last six months, definitely within the past year. If a plugin author has lost interest, then the plugin will become, or may already be, incompatible with the WordPress core, and cause problems.

4. Average rating (number of stars) is the final factor to check. Some five-star ratings have only been downloaded a few times, so the high rating is deceptive. Other plugins with 3 or 4 star ratings have been downloaded by thousands or millions users—hence, while the rating is lower, the testing has been much more thorough. I trust download numbers over ratings. I use the ratings mostly to weed out the one- and two-star plugins (unacceptable), or to decide between plugins with similar download numbers.

For example, on screen one of the “Backups” search, I see that WP-DB-Backup has been downloaded over one million times. But—it has not been updated since December, almost a whole year ago. Xcloner, on the other hand, was updated just two months ago, has a very respectable 69K+ downloads, and even achieves a slightly higher rating.

WordPress plugin search

Make your final choice by comparing update dates and download numbers

All else being equal, I would try Xcloner first. Because it has been updated recently, its longevity forecast is better. And, because it has still been downloaded tens of thousands of times, I trust that it is a solid product.

Not every kind of plugin will give you similarly high numbers of downloads. But no matter the actual numbers, this kind of comparison can be useful to determine which among several plugins to try first.

The activation test

Now that you’ve selected a plugin or two or three, install, activate and try them, one at a time. (If one of them causes any weirdness in your site, you can identify the cause without having to guess.) Evaluate them:

1. Does the plugin actually do what you expected? (It’s sometimes difficult to tell from cryptic descriptions, and sometimes, I’ve found that my own understanding of what I needed or expected wasn’t clear, either.)

2. Do you like the interface? Does it offer the kinds of controls you need, is it truly “usable” for your site and the way you work?

3. With the plugin installed, does the rest of your site still work as it should? Plugins can cause strange malfunctions. If something totally bizarre starts happening after you’ve installed a plugin, try deactivating it first, to see if the malfunction disappears as well.

At this point you should either have a clear winner… or, it’s clear that another search is in necessary.

Final question: free or premium?

There are many excellent free plugins. There is also a trend towards developing plugins that are only available via up-front purchase, like Gravity Forms, or by annual or monthly subscription, like BackupBuddy or ScribeSEO. (All excellent tools, by the way.)

The paid versions often do more, more easily and elegantly, than their free cousins. Still, before you buy, check online forums and reviews. If you can, try checking the support forums for the plugin itself. See how widely used the plugin is and whether people complain frequently of problems or issues, as opposed to praising it.

Custom plugins when all else fails

If you can’t find the plugin you need, there are developers who will quickly create your very own custom plugin (http://www.beautomated.com/, http://creersitepro.com/dossier/thesis-plugins/) to do exactly what you want, how you want it.

Do you have a favorite plugin, a standby? I’d love to hear about it here.

[And, if you find yourself in that terrible situation where you’ve neglected updating your WordPress installation or your plugins, you might want to consider our new effortless update service.]

How to Choose WordPress plugins

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