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How To Choose The Right Plugin

Imagine for a moment you’re at your local WordPress meetup. You’re there with a mission. Question and answer time arrives, you boldly put up your hand and say “My web site seems slow, what can I do to make it faster?”

The answer you hear is “Ah, you want a cashing plugin, there are many available at WordPress.org. Next question?”

And with that you begin your quest. You go to WordPress.org, click on the Plugins link, and search for “cashing”. And it’s all about money. What gives?

A few Google searches later and you realize the presenter said “caching”. Back you go to WordPress.org and you search for caching, and your excitement deflates at what you see.

WordPress Plugin Search Bar with 1000+ results

How on earth do you choose? Do they ALL really do the same thing?

Choosing the right one is important. You need to make sure

  • it won’t slow down your site
  • it doesn’t have security holes
  • it actually does what you need

In the rest of this post I hope to give you some guidelines to help you pick a good plugin, regardless of what kind of plugin you’re looking for. (By the way, here’s an excellent article about caching…)

Get the lay of the land

First do some Google searches for “Best WordPress Plugin for X” where X is the thing you need to get done. You’ll almost certainly get dozens of results, and quite often they’ll conflict in their advice. After you’ve read 5 or 6 or 12 articles though, you’ll start to see a pattern. The posts won’t agree, but they’ll be arguing about which one of 3 good ones is “best”. Now you know the top three, which is WAY better than 1000+ results.

Does it do enough of what you want?

Take a look at several plugins. Read the reviews you found in Google. Read their own pages. Read the reviews on WordPress.org. Rarely will a plugin do 100% of what you need. You’re looking for the one that does the MOST of what you need. Read the feature lists.

In some cases you won’t really know. In the above example our researcher didn’t even know what caching was, how will they know what features they need in a caching plugin? Again, more research will help you. Read about what makes your narrowed group of plugins great. You’ll get a sense of what you need.

Pick one that comes closest to what you’re looking for.

Is it being maintained?

When you look at a plugin on WordPress.org, there’s a place that shows when it was last updated.

Shows last updated 2 years ago Shows last updated 1 month ago

I want to be careful here, because there are some nuances to this. Going a long time without an update isn’t necessarily bad. Some things don’t change, and so don’t need an update. That said, the 2 year old example above is for a twitter plugin. Twitter has changed a LOT in 2 years, and I wouldn’t recommend using that one.

The other example shows an update from one month ago, and 4.7.2 is the latest version of WordPress as of this writing, so you know that someone is at least paying attention to it.

Why does this matter? Well, in the case of a Twitter plugin, it may simply not work anymore. But it may also indicate that the plugin author doesn’t care to support the plugin anymore, and doesn’t want to be bothered with it.

Does it have terrible reviews?

I’m a bit jaded when it comes to negative reviews. Most that I see come from frustrated people who are angry that the plugin doesn’t do what they think it should, when in fact it may do a wonderful job at what it’s intended to do.

That said, if a plugin has 80 reviews, and 79 of them are negative, it’s time to pay attention. Why are they negative? Does the plugin hurt your site, or does the author not respond to support requests? Perhaps it simply doesn’t work as advertised.

Remember to read the reviews, but do it with a discerning eye.

Is there support?

On each individual plugin page on WordPress.org there’s a support link.

Download link showing Support tab

In this area plugin users can ask questions. No-one is obligated to answer them however. Sometimes the plugin author chooses to be very active here, and that’s wonderful. Sometimes the community answers questions there, and that’s great too. But sometimes no-one answers the questions there. If you need support, check out this tab and see how active the support community is.

Can you buy support?

Some plugins work on the Freemium model, where there’s a free version without support, but you can buy support. If you need support, this is usually a great path. Paid support will almost always be more prompt and personal.

Keep in mind that in the WordPress community you don’t buy plugins. You buy support and access to upgrades. Once the support runs out, you can keep using the plugin forever, you simply don’t have that access you once had.

How does the code look?

This doesn’t really fit with our example at the beginning of the article, but as a developer I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it.

Code quality matters. If you’re skilled enough, read through it looking for obvious problems.

If your site is particularly important (your store as opposed to your personal blog) it may be worth it to hire a professional to look at your choices and give a recommendation.

Summary

The suggestions I’ve made thus far are general things to work through. Your actual process will differ with each plugin you need to find, but here’s the general workflow:

  • Use Google to find the top several
  • Research each of them, choosing those which accomplish the most of your goals
  • Look for how current they are, whether they’re still supported etc.
  • Look for obvious red flags like dozens of negative reviews
  • Find out if support is available
  • If you can, make sure the code is solid

For the most part, this process will lead you to the plugin most likely to satisfy your needs.

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