User Guide – How To Choose A Plugin

One of the best things about WordPress is its third-party ecosystem of themes and plugins. If WordPress doesn’t have the feature set you need out of the box, chances are very good that with just a few plugins, you can make the WordPress of your dreams. However, to new and veteran users alike, choosing which plugins to install is not always an easy task. Using this guide as a checklist ought to remove some of the challenges associated with choosing plugins. I’m not guaranteeing that you’ll be able to pick the right plugins 100% of the time but by taking these factors into account before making a decision, your chances of success will substantially increase.

Factors To Consider:

Starting Point – On the left hand side of the Plugin repository are a series of links for extending WordPress. I highly suggest starting off with browsing through the Most Popular and Highest Rated plugins first, then move on to other options. The plugins within those two categories have stood the test of time and generally, have earned those positions.

Requirements – The minimum requirements information is supplied directly from the plugin author and is generally used as the first factor in determining whether or not a plugin will work with a specific site. The number of downloads can be used to determine the age of a plugin as well as it’s popularity.

PluginRequirements

Ratings – Ratings are based on 5 stars where the average rating is shown at the top. Plugins can only be rated by logged in users. One of the recent changes to the plugin repository are plugin reviews. If you click on each star link, you can read all the reviews that go with that rating, very similar to Amazon.com. When choosing a plugin, don’t just read the 5 star reviews, also read the 1 and 2 star reviews to get a balanced perspective.

Plugin Ratings

Plugin Author – Sometimes, the plugin authors name will show up as a link. This link will take you to their WordPress.org profile that displays an overview of their earlier works in the plugin repository as well as a stream of their recent activity. This information can be used as an indicator on their recent development activity around their plugins.

PluginAuthor

Plugin Support – This area of the page shows you how many support questions have been asked in the forum specifically for that plugin. When viewing the plugin support forum, look for the number of threads that have [resolved] in the title, the plugin authors name as being the last poster and threads that have answers by someone other than the plugin author which is a sign of a healthy community surrounding the plugin.

Plugin Support

Compatibility – This area of a plugin page describes whether or not a specific version of a plugin works with the current, or earlier versions of WordPress. Using the drop down boxes, you can select an earlier version of WordPress as well as an earlier version of the plugin to see if enough people in the community have reported on whether they work together or not. This information is based on community feedback, not by the plugin author.

Plugin Compatibility

Trustworthiness – Although this is not a consideration you can search for, downloading a plugin from the WordPress plugin repository does have its benefits. Before each plugin is allowed to be hosted on the repository, it must go through a manual screening process that checks things like obfuscated code, malware, spam links, and security. This is also the same process a plugin update must go through before it’s also published to the repository to make sure nothing malicious is added after the first screening. For these reasons, I can’t stress enough how important it is to download from the official repository versus somewhere else. That’s not to say that plugins hosted elsewhere are not equally or more thoroughly screened, but with WordPress.org, you know what you’re getting.

The Big Picture:

With over 25,000 plugins in the repository, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to wade through them all to find the one that perfectly matches functionality with security, support, and reliability. For example, if you were to do a search for Backup or SEO, you’ll be greeted with a ton of different options. Using the factors I’ve listed is this guide can substantially increase the odds that a plugin will work out of the box with little hassle. WPTavern.com uses about 25-29 plugins and most of them have been in use for over 4 years, with little to no trouble.

Advice From Other WordPress Faithful:

I reached out to a couple of people in the WordPress community that deal with the plugin repository on a routine basis either for their own interest or because they are in the business of working with clients. Here is their advice.

Al Davis of WPTeach.com – Check what version the plugin is compatible to, as this is a great indicator as to whether the plugin is still being actively developed. If you are unsure how the plugin is going to work on your site, browse through the support forums, see what kinds of issues others may be having and see if those issues are being addressed. Finally, have a look at the screenshots and FAQ if they are available and make sure the plugin actually does what you are looking for.

Angie Meeker, Organizer Of WordCamp Columbus and WordPress Consultant – My first piece of advice is to ask yourself (and your trusted WordPress adviser or the WP Support Forums), “Do I really need a plugin for this?” Many new users to WP are unfamiliar with some of its simplest built-in functions (ones you don’t even need to know how to code to use). They go searching for a simple gallery plugin, not knowing there’s one built into the Media Uploader. They search for a plugin to schedule posts, to password protect pages, or to post by email.

On finding what you want in the first place:
1. Search with as specific of terms as you can think of. “Rotating Image Galleries” is a better search than just “Image Galleries.” Of course, this is true with all search.

2. Google “what you want to do + plugin + wordpress“, and look only at search results in the repository (those with wordpress.org/extend/plugins/ in the url). I find that sometimes searching the repository from within is limiting.

Once you’ve found one:
1. Read the entire description, Installation, FAQ, and Other Notes (ALL of them). If there are Screenshots, look at them to get a hint of what the plugin does. Not all plugins have all of these areas completed, though.

2. Look at the “Requires Version X.X” and Compatible to X.X” If your installation is WordPress 3.1, and the plugin requires 3.5, then it’s NOT the plugin author’s fault when you install it and it doesn’t work. Either upgrade your WP install, or don’t use the plugin. If you’re using 3.5 but the plugin says it’s only compatible to 3.1, then there’s no guarantee it will work with that forward version. It MIGHT, but there’s no guarantee.

Sometimes, a plugin author knows for CERTAIN a plugin DOESN’T work with a newer version, and they’ll make a note of it in the description. Remember, the authors of these plugins are not paid to create and update these, so if a plugin is not up-to-date, don’t go berserk on the plugin author. Be polite and ask if/when there might be an update.

3. Perhaps one of the most useful things you can check out: the Support Forums for a plugin. Plugin authors don’t HAVE to give support for plugins in the repository, but many do. Look at the support threads submitted. How many people submitted the same questions? Does it seem like those questions are simply user error (like maybe they didn’t read the instructions?) or are they asking about a bug or a problem with the plugin? If there are bugs, is the author responsive to correcting them or providing hints at how users can make corrections? Does the author respond to questions? In my opinion, these point to a plugin author who is vested in the success of his/her plugin, and that usually equals success for you when using it.

4. Reviews: These are a recent addition to the WP Plugin Repository, so don’t be surprised if many plugins don’t have many or any.

5. Lastly, clicking on the plugin author’s name will take you to a list of all the plugins that author has submitted to the repo. It stands to reason that a plugin author whose overall portfolio has quality ratings, good reviews, maintains the support forums for his/her plugins and keeps the plugins up-to-date probably creates plugins the community can trust.

Marcus Couch co-host of the WordPress Plugins A-Z Podcast also has some bullet points worth checking

1) How long has the plugin been around? What is the update cycle?
Nothing is worse than committing to a particular plugin and having the developer drop support after just a few version revisions. An active developer assures you that the plugin will receive update attention throughout the various WordPress Core updates that come along several times a year. A developer that frequently updates along with WordPress versions is a quality to look for when choosing between plugins to install on your live sites.

2) Does this plugin play well with the rest of my plugins?

If you’ve ever owned an aquarium, you know that some fish don’t play well with others, often leading to complete breakdown of the natural order and balance of the tank. Plugins are the same way! Make sure that the plugin you are going to install does not “overlap” functionality and cause issues in the performance of others.

3) Plugin vs Plugin Race
If two plugins exist that perform essentially the same function, install them both but activate only one. Run a site load comparison with sites like Pingdom.com and other data load measurement tools. Find out which plugin is more efficient with loading time and use the results to make a determination if one of the plugins takes too long to load or drains too much system memory.

4) Shortcode Dependency
When deciding to use a plugin that relies on shortcodes, understand that somewhere down the line you might want to remove that plugin. This means that there could potentially be thousands of instances of [shortcode] throughout your page and post content.

5) Community
Is there a great community behind the plugin? There are so few plugins with thriving, rabid communities, but it’s always a huge bonus when a large base of plugin fans can gather with the developer and help to improve a plugin and it’s core functionality. Once you start using a plugin on a regular basis and find that there is an active community associated with it, PARTICIPATE! I’ve had many plugins programmed with exactly the functions that I needed simply because I asked the developer to include them in future revisions.

Summary:

I realize that some of the information in this post is redundant but Angie provides real-world expectations and views. Scott Reilly clearly sums everything up into one paragraph.

When choosing an appropriate plugin from the Plugins Directory it’s often best to take various factors into consideration rather than just any single factor. The plugin author, the number of support threads replied to in the past two months, the nature of the types of support threads being created (and the nature of the author’s responses, if any), the number and nature of the reviews being given (or lack thereof), the last update date, and the rating can all play a factor in making a decision.

If you can contribute anything else to this guide for choosing which plugins to install, please do so in the comments.

Who is Jeff Chandler


Jeff Chandler is a WordPress guy in the buckeye state. Contributing writer for WPTavern. Have been writing about WordPress since 2007. Host of the WordPress Weekly Podcast.

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