All About Plugins6 minute read

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.

To describe how they function it is easiest to imagine that they work by meshing their own code with that of the native code of WordPress (in most cases). 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 get carried away with, seeing all of the possibilities that they can offer. The main word of warning here. Where plugins are concerned, less is definitely more.

Any developer, good or bad, can write a plugin and offer it along with the already existing 50,000 others within the WordPress plugin depositary, either for free use or as a premium. The issue with this is the quality of the code that a plugin uses. It may be badly written and causes conflicts with others, it may be a security risk or affect the website speed.

Remember how the plugin has to mesh with the native code of WordPress? Along with this, it also has to mesh seamlessly with all other bits of software on the website, including other plugins, therefore it is important to use well developed, supported and preferably, high ranking plugins.

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 are 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!

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.

When thinking about installing a plugin, have a look at when it was last updated and if it has been tested with your version of WordPress (which should be the latest), if it appears outdated, leave well alone.

A word of warning too should be given when updating plugins on your website. It is 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 on the site, even if they all lived happily together before.
ALWAYS take a full backup of your site and database before you update plugins. You will be having a really bad day if 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.

Ideally, and especially if you have a lot of plugins, those updates should be done away from your live website and on a staging site. This is an exact clone of your platform and any conflicts here will not effect your live site. If all is well, simply click ‘update all’ on the live site.

We have seen cases where everything appears well on a website after plugin updates, but only to find some elements broken which had nothing to do with the plugin in question. For example, updating a social media share plugin which for some reason stopped the online store payment processor from working!

Update then check everything!

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.

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 has been tested 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, sometimes I will install free versions of plugins, should there not 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.

5, Backup, backup backup. Backup your entire website and database before you update your plugins. This should be done at least once a month

6, Check, check, check. All elements of the site should be checked after each update.

Here at Digital Startup Solutions, we are happy to advise or undertake any maintenance requirements that you may have.


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