What Are Plugins?
Plugins are pieces of code that add to or extend what WordPress does.
WordPress developers keep the most important functions within the “core.” The core includes functions and features necessary to run any website.
However, different sites, types of businesses, and topics sometimes require more. If everything were added to the core, WordPress would quickly become bloated and slow. The solution is to use the theme and plugins for the extras.
The theme adds a second layer of functionality, along with design. Plugins add a third layer. To return to our analogy of the house, WordPress is the foundation, the theme is the framing, and plugins are the walls and roof.
Themes and plugins can’t stand by themselves, they need the foundation, which is WordPress.
So what kinds of things can plugins do?
The variety is wide ranging. There are plugins for:
- Search engine optimization
- Adding a calendar
- Creating forms
- Social media following
- Social media sharing
- Displaying recent social media posts
- Creating slideshows
- Speeding up the website
- Creating a user forum
- Creating an image gallery
- Creating an online shop
- Backing up and restoring your WordPress site
- Managing and editing images
- Managing links
- Creating polls
- Creating surveys
- Adding maps
- Showing a list of related posts
- And more… lots more
Some plugins work on the back end. Your site visitors will never see them, but they’ll add functionality to the WordPress Dashboard or provide you with information. Plugins that speed up or back up your website fall into this category.
Other plugins work on the front end and affect the experience your readers have. Examples include a user forum, an online shop, or a slideshow.
With so many plugins available, it’s tempting to add plugin after plugin. However, we strongly recommend you limit yourself to only those plugins that are absolutely necessary. There are four main reasons to limit plugins:
- they may cause conflicts with each other, or with your theme
- loading each additional plugin slows down your site speed, sometimes significantly
- each plugin adds another potential security vulnerability
- each plugin adds to the time you’ll spend on site maintenance
Free vs Premium
Just as there are both free and premium themes, there are also free and premium plugins. Just because a plugin is free, it’s not necessarily inferior to a paid plugin. The reverse is also true — premium plugins aren’t necessarily better than free.
You can find many premium plugins in the WordPress repository. Generally the developer will offer a free trial which you can convert to a purchase or paid subscription at the end of the trial period. You’ll also find plugins that have a free version, and also a premium version with additional or extended features or support.
Some premium plugins are available only from the developer and are not available in the repository.
How to Choose a Quality Plugin
To see plugins available from WordPress, either:
- Click Plugins > Add New or
- Point your browser to http://wordpress.org/plugins
Both views are similar, but you’ll see more information about the plugin you’re interested in if you go directly to wordpress.org.
Let’s say you’re looking for a plugin to help with search engine optimization. You’ve heard good things about Yoast SEO (one of our recommended plugins). Type “Yoast SEO” into the search box. The plugin should be the first result.
Study the card.
Notice it has basically a 5-star rating (out of a possible 5), with over 24,500 reviews and more than 5 million sites currently using it (“active installs”). It’s compatible with WordPress version 5.0.3 (the most recent version, as of this writing).
These are all important pieces of information.
Now click the plugin’s name, Yoast SEO. This takes you to the page for that plugin. Here you’ll see more extensive information about it.
Click a developer link, and you’ll see his page and information about him, including a list of other plugins he has developed.
Unlike on the card shown above, you can click the individual star ratings on the plugin page to read the reviews. The rating also shows the total number of reviews, and how many of them gave only 1 star, 2 stars, etc.
If you decide to use the plugin (and I recommend you do), you can download it directly from the page by clicking the big, red Download Version button, or install it from the Dashboard.
Recommended WordPress Plugins
As previously mentioned, you should limit the number of installed plugins. I have a core group of free or inexpensive plugins I recommend for nearly every WordPress site. Each has a specific purpose, and offers functionality that the majority of sites need. However, if you do not need one of them, do not install it!
Recommended free plugins include:
- Ninja Forms, to create forms
- Monster Insights, for all that lovely data
- Jetpack, specifically the Protect module or alternatively, All-in-One WordPress Security
- SI Captcha Anti-Spam, to add to your login page for extra security
- Updraft Plus, for backing up your site
- Yoast SEO, for search engine optimization
- WP Super Cache, to speed things up
- Official Facebook Pixel Plugin, to get your Facebook Pixel installed
Recommended premium plugins include:
- Social Warfare, to offer high-functional social sharing buttons and systems
- WP Rocket, to speed up your site. If you use this, don’t use WP Super Cache
Depending on your site’s topic and your business model, you may need some additional plugins. A travel or tourism site might want to show interactive maps via a plugin. A real estate site might need to pull in listings from the local MLS. A photographer or artist wants to show examples of work using a portfolio or slideshow. If you sell physical or digital goods, you’ll want an e-commerce plugin (I use and recommend WooCommerce).
Some themes are designed specifically for niches like these and will include the desired functionality. For example, the Explorable theme from Elegant Themes includes mapping and review capabilities for travel-related sites. In this case, you wouldn’t need the mapping plugin.
Even if you choose plugins carefully, you can find that two or more plugins cause conflicts. If you install a new plugin and your site starts to act strangely, deactivate the plugin to see if that resolves the issue. If it does, uninstall that plugin and choose another.
It’s also a good idea to test your site’s speed before and after adding a new plugin, to make sure it’s not slowing your page load speed significantly. Pingdom and GTMetrix both offer free speed tests.
Plugins can add a lot to your WordPress site as long as you choose them carefully and sparingly.
WordPress Basics for Bloggers Series
- What Is WordPress
- How To Get Started With WordPress
- How To Use The WordPress Dashboard
- How To Use WordPress Themes
- How To Use WordPress Plugins (you are here)
- Understanding WordPress Site Security
- WordPress Blogs: It’s All About The Content
- How To Optimize WordPress For Speed
- How To Prepare Your Blog To Build Traffic From Search
- How To Prepare Your Blog To Build Traffic From Social
Next Steps For New Bloggers
- Validate your blogging idea and create a plan using the Blogging Startup Planner.
- Follow the steps outlined in How To Start A Blog: The Ultimate Free Guide.
- Use the Ultimate Blogging Planner to plan your blog content and strategy for the coming year.
- Use the Blog Promotion Checklist to get maximum visibility to your blog posts each and every time.