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The Ultimate Guide to WordPress Plugins for Beginners

With over 48,000 free plugins in the WordPress directory alone, its near impossible to not find at least one plugin that can add the functionality you are looking for unless of course you are looking for a plugin that can read the minds of your site’s visitors (but who knows maybe in another 5 years or so ……….).

Plugins are written by WordPress developers from all over the world. This means that anyone with some knowledge of WordPress development can come up with an idea for a plugin, write the code to develop the plugin and then either make it free to the world or charge for it. While this encourages the development of many plugins, it does result in the release of some badly written plugins by inexperienced programmers.

Where can I find Plugins?

You can find most plugins in the official WordPress directory.

The plugin directory

The plugin directory

You can download WordPress plugins from many other websites as well. WordPress developers who choose to sell their plugins have their own websites where you can buy them.

The Plugin Download Page

On every plugin download page, you can see the menu with 9 tabs that offer key information about the plugin.

plugin-download-page

Provides the key facts about the plugin and what functionality it provides.
You will find guidance on how to install and use the plugin.
A useful tab that provides answers to some of the most popular questions asked about the plugin.
Some pictures that show some of the design and functionality that the plugin provides.
A page that describes some of the key updates that the developer has made to the plugin.
This tab tells you how often the plugin is installed.
A very useful page where you could get help from the developer of the plugin if you are having any issues.
Hear from happy or angry users of the plugin.
On this page, you will find previous versions of the plugin (if any) that you can download if the current version doesn't work properly on your site.

You will see the plugin sidebar to the right of the page. The first line tells you the earliest version of WordPress that is required to work with the plugin while the second tells you the latest version of WordPress that has been tested with the plugin.

You can also view the ratings of the plugin just below the sidebar and more information about the developer(s) of the plugin.

What happens when a plugin is installed?

plugins directory

plugins directory

When you install a WordPress plugin, a folder with the name of the plugin is created in your plugins directory that will contain its installation files. You can view the plugins folder by using any FTP software to access your web directory.

The plugin is registered in your database and is loaded every time someone visits your website.

Some plugins create their own widgets that can be used in your sidebars such as the contact form 7 plugin that creates its own contact form widget that you can use to display your contact form in a sidebar.

Types of WordPress Plugins

When it comes to classifying plugins, there are 2 major ways of doing so. The first is by how much they cost and the second is by the amount of functionality they provide and how they affect the performance of your website when they are installed.

In terms of cost, there are 2 different types of plugins – Free & Premium

Freemium WordPress Plugins

These are plugins that you can use for free on your site. Some of them may require that you first sign up or create an account before being able to use the plugin but you will not be required to pay to do so.

Pros

  • They are free.
  • There are many of them that are very useful and provide some impressive functionality to any website they are installed on.

Cons

  • There is the tendency for the developers to stop maintaining the plugin by keeping it updated after a period of time
  • Support is limited.
  • Many free WordPress plugins are badly written and may even cause your website harm.

If you are going to use a free plugin, try using one that has a paid version. Such plugins are usually well maintained by the developers in an effort to attract users to the premium version.

Premium WordPress Plugins

These are plugins that you can use for free on your site. Some of them may require that you first sign up or create an account before being able to use the plugin but you will not be required to pay to do so.

Pros

  • They are well maintained.
  • Support is provided.
  • Premium plugins in most cases are superior to their free versions because they provide more functionality.

Cons

  • There is the buyer’s remorse when you buy a premium plugin only to discover a short while later that there is a better and cheaper plugin with very similar functionality. However I should point out that there are premium plugins that come with a money back guarantee (usually 1-2 weeks) after purchase.
  • Not every premium plugin is a good plugin. You must do your research properly before you buy one.

If you are going to buy a premium plugin, by from reputable places like MyTheme Shop and Envato Market.

Now lets talk about plugin functionality.

When it comes to classifying plugins based  on how much functionality they offer and how they could affect the overall performance of your website, there are 3 major types of plugins:

Lightweight Plugins

These are plugins that are exact in what they do and in many cases this could mean providing one very specific functionality. A classic example is the Display Widgets plugin which allows you to show/hide widgets on specific pages & posts.

Lightweight plugins are often very easy to setup and have very little effect on a website’s performance if any.

A major disadvantage to using lightweight plugins constantly is that you might end up installing more than 20 of them just to get all the desired functionality implemented on your site. More plugins means more security risks and more time spent on plugin management.

Use lightweight plugins when you are looking for a very specific functionality to add to your site.

‘Regular/Normal’ Plugins

There are no official terms to describe such plugins except that most of the plugins you work with are likely to fall under this category. These are plugins that are a bit more robust than lightweight plugins and do require a certain amount of set up to get them working properly. Their level of functionality will determine how they affect your website’s performance.

Most plugins you use will fall under this category.

‘Heavyweight’ Plugins

Again the term ‘heavyweight‘ is not an official term but we like to use it to describe such plugins. Heavyweight WordPress plugins provide a wide range of functionalities that serve a general purpose.

One prime example is the WooCommerce plugin which can be used to build an e-commerce store.

Another example is the Sucuri Security plugin which offers 7 key features that help to protect WordPress websites.

Some of these plugins may make use of ‘add ons‘  from third parties that help to enhance their functionalities even further.

Their complexity may affect your website performance because they demand and use more resources than other plugins. It is best to limit their number and to use other plugins that can help boost performance like cache plugins.

Plugin ‘Conflicts’

Every once in a while, you might experience something called a plugin “conflict”. A conflict occurs when one or more of your plugins malfunctions and in some severe cases, could render your website inaccessible.

Plugin conflicts occur from poorly coded plugins and whenever there is a major update to the WordPress core.

One of the best ways of identifying the conflicting plugin(s) is to first disable all plugins and then start reactivating them one at a time. You will get an error message or notice a change in your website’s appearance when you reactivate the faulty plugin.

A plugin conflict can also occur whenever two or more plugins ‘fight’ for resources. This happens when the plugins perform similar tasks and so its often a good idea to avoid installing plugins with similar functionalities on your website.

Plugin Best Practices

As much as we love plugins, too many of them installed on your website could be detrimental. Limit the number of them you have installed on your website. Fewer plugins means less time spent on plugin management.

Keep all your plugins updated. This is the best way to prevent the bad guys from exploiting your plugins.

Uninstall any deactivated plugins. There is no point in having them occupy space if they are not active.

 

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