All About Plugins
We are going to chat about WordPress plugins. What they are, and the benefits and pitfalls of having them.
If you run your own WordPress website then more likely than not you will be running just a few plugins. But what exactly is a plugin and how do they work?
For the uninitiated, a plugin is a name for an extra piece of software that integrates within the code of your website – you simply install and activate it, and away it goes.
These come in all shapes and forms and can transform what is essentially just a blogging platform into whatever you can dream it to be. Almost.
If you run online courses or a shop on your website, then both of these will come in the form of plugins, as will social media share buttons, user forms, and just about anything you can think of.
They work (in most cases) by meshing their own code with that of the native code of WordPress. To use an analogy, think of interlocking your fingers on both hands together. One hand is the WordPress code and the other hand is the plugin code. A good, well-written plugin will sit within the WordPress code nice and seamlessly and without any issues.
However, a badly written plugin can push other code out of the way as it tries to slot itself in. If it does this, then you may find that what was working quite happily before suddenly stops, or outputs something that it shouldn’t, like ABBA. This is known as a conflict and can often show itself in completely unrelated ways.
As great and powerful as plugins can be, they should be used with caution.
The number one issue with plugins is what makes them so great, to begin with. They are convenient. This creates a double-edged sword as they are so easy to install and run and it’s easy to get carried away seeing all of the possibilities that they can offer. But there is a big word of warning here. Where plugins are concerned, less is definitely more.
Plugins can affect the speed of your website, as the server has to offer more code to your browser. In turn, this can affect your SEO as the search engines and now penalising slow loading websites and actively pushing their rankings downwards. Though, of course, there are plugins designed to speed up your website also. Oh, the irony!
Any developer can write a plugin and offer it within the WordPress plugin depositary, either for free use or paid. The issue with this is the quality of the code that the plugin uses. It may be badly written and causes conflicts as described above or worse still, a security risk.
Hacking bots search the internet for vulnerabilities in WordPress code and the likeliest place they will find a doorway in, is yep, through a plugin. It is for this reason that your list of already installed plugins seems to have a continual stream of notifications asking for updates. Apart from actual changes in how the plugin works, most of these updates are to patch security risks and the same reason that even WordPress itself requires updating every few weeks.
If you ever find a fancy plugin, have a look when it was last updated and if it hasn’t been within the last few weeks or a month or so, leave well alone.
A word of warning too should be given when updating plugins on your website. Its too easy to click the ‘update all’ button and let it do its thing. The danger here is that the new updated code can start conflicting with other code, even if they all lived happily before. ALWAYS take a full backup of your site and database before you undertake plugins. You will be having a really bad day is your site suddenly starts causing a conflict and you don’t know which of the 30 or so plugins is causing the issue. Update one at a time, check then continue.
If you leave updates for too long (often a few months) then you are also running a chance of serious conflicts when you do finally update them. Look at the version number of the plugin which is currently installed and compare that with the new update. If there is a few versions difference, proceed with caution.
So when looking for a plugin, the following rules should apply:
1, Do I actually need a plugin? Often and especially for smaller things, a plugin can be overkill when its something that the user can add manually. I have also seen numerous websites where plugins have been installed which does the same function that various options of the theme does – if only the user knew how to work it.
2, Does the plugin come from a good developer? The only way to really tell this is to look at how many times it has been installed and the ratings and comments by other users. Also look to see if it is regularly updated and works with your version of WordPress.
3, Is it free or premium? Personally, I always go with a premium plugin over a random free one. When the developer is being paid for his work he is more likely to offer support. With a free plugin, should anything go wrong you are on your own. With that said, I will install free versions of plugins, should there be a premium version available. I only do this as I know there is a developer there in the background and the quality is usually good.
4, Less is more. After talking about how plugins can effect your site loading speed, the security risks, and how there is a possibility of conflicts, in the world of plugins, the fewer you have the better off you will be, and your users will thank you for it, though ABBA may not.
5, Update, update, update. At least once a month you should be looking at updating all software on your website, including the theme and WordPress itself where available. Backup fully first though.
Here at Funky Monkey Websites, we are happy to advise or undertake any maintenance requirements that you may have.