WordPress 101: How to Choose WordPress Plugins

One of the greatest strengths of WordPress is the enormous variety of plugins available that can extend WordPress functionality to power anything from social media marketing to e-commerce.

On the other hand, this huge variety of plugins can be both a blessing and a curse. When you’re searching for a plugin to solve a problem, it’s not uncommon to find a whole bunch of plugins that do very similar things.  So how do you choose WordPress plugins that will work best for your needs?

Referrals and Reviews

Most people find out about the WordPress plugins they use by asking friends and other WordPress developers for suggestions. Referrals are gold; nothing beats a recommendation from someone you trust with personal experience. In many categories, you’ll find plugins that rise to the top, with more downloads and reviews than others.

For example, WordPress SEO is one of the most popular and well-reviewed search optimization plugins with well over 5 million downloads. Of course, it helps that Joost de Valk (Yoast) developed it, as he’s a long-time, and well-respected plugin developer, WordPress contributor, and community member.

Yoast’s stamp of approval on a plugin means a lot to me and a bunch of my developer friends. A developer that’s trusted by other developers is almost always the way to go.

WordPress Plugin Ratings and Reviews
WordPress Plugin Ratings & Reviews

While popular plugins are a great start when you’re looking to solve a problem, just keep in mind that popularity doesn’t always equal a great fit. It’s also helpful to check out a plugin’s star rating on WordPress.org and read reviews to see what the rest of the WordPress community has to say.

Check the Plugin’s WordPress.org Page

Plugin page on WordPress.org
Plugin page on WordPress.org

There should be a wealth of information on every plugin’s page in the WordPress Plugin Directory, and every worthwhile plugin should have at least some of the following:

  1. Downloads close to, or surpassing, 1000.
  2. The most recent update was in at least the past 6 months.
  3. Screenshots of the plugin in action.
  4. Detailed description, installation instructions, FAQ, notes, etc.
  5. Good reviews and ratings.

If the plugin’s own page doesn’t provide useful information about how it works, it might not be something that you want to install on your production site.

After all, why would you want to install something that you don’t know anything about? That’s like dropping any old liquid into your gas tank and hoping your car runs smoothly.

What if the plugin’s not on WordPress.org?

Not all plugins are listed on WordPress.org – especially commercial plugins that cost money. In these cases, personal recommendations, and a little research are your best friends.

Find the plugin’s site and check out their offerings, professionalism, and support. It’s also worth searching WordPress.org for mention of commercial plugins that interest you to gauge the breadth and types of questions people are asking.

Does the Plugin Offer Support?

Plugin Support Numbers

Support is important and it’s good to know what to do when you have a plugin support question.

When you check the plugin’s page on WordPress.org, look at the Support tab to see how well supported the plugin is. Are the developers, or other community members, actively helping answer questions?

Keep in mind that not all plugin developers use the WordPress.org support forums. Some have their own forums, ticket systems, or simply use email. No matter what the method of support, make sure you can get help when you need it.

Look For What You Like

If you see a site with a particularly cool feature, try viewing their source code to determine what plugins they’re using. Many plugins leave telltale signs like comments in the code, or links to stylesheets or scripts.

Example Plugin Clues

Many plugins simply pop comments in the HTML markup of your page like:

  • <!-- This site is optimized with the Yoast WordPress SEO plugin v1.4.13 - http://yoast.com/wordpress/seo/ -->
  • <!-- Served from: my.domain.com @ 2013-07-29 12:53:10 by W3 Total Cache -->
  • <meta name="generator" content="WooCommerce 2.0.12" />

Other plugins link to stylesheets or scripts:

  • <script src="http://my.domain.com/wp-content/plugins/jj-nextgen-jquery-slider/script/jquery.nivo.slider.pack.js?ver=2.4" type="text/javascript"></script>
  • <link href="http://my.domain.com/wp-content/plugins/jetpack/modules/widgets/widgets.css?ver=20121003" rel="stylesheet" />

Not sure how to find this info? Don’t be afraid to reach out to a trusted geek friend, or contact the developer directly and ask.

The WordPress community is generally very supportive and helpful, so why sift through pages and pages of search results in the Plugins Directory when you can just ask someone else how they did it?

WordPress Meetups are also great ways to network with helpful, experienced WordPressers.

Testing, testing, one . . . two . . . three

Before you install any plugin, you might want to set up a test site where you can evaluate its functionality before deploying it to your production site. We’ll often clone a site and put it on a test server (ivykitten, in our case) so we can try out new plugins and code without the risk of harming the live site.

If you don’t know how to set up a test site, or just want to test the plugin on the live site, always make a full backup of your site in case something goes wrong and you need to restore the site back the way it was before you added the plugin. This situation rarely happens, but better safe than sorry.

Now Go Find Some Plugins!

Still not sure where to start? Once you’ve got an idea for something you’d like to add to, or do with your site, head on over to the WordPress Plugin Directory or your favorite search engine and look for a plugin to suit.

You can also check out out a few of our plugins on IvyCat’s WordPress Plugin page. Two of most popular plugins, Posts in Page and IvyCat AJAX Testimonials are both good examples of the kinds of information and details you should look for when choosing WordPress plugins.

Now, off with you: go get your plugin on!

One response to “WordPress 101: How to Choose WordPress Plugins”

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