We’ve been building WordPress websites here at Solamar for a long time now, and as such, we’ve curated our own internal list of the best WordPress plugins to use for a variety of functions we need our sites to have. There’s BackupBuddy for site backups and migrations, iThemes Security to protect against intrusions, Yoast SEO for Search Engine Optimization, and so on.
But what about after we hand a website over to the client? What happens when they discover a need for a functionality and have to implement it themselves? WordPress plugins are the easiest way to do this, but you can’t just go about installing any old plugin you find on the web. A poorly coded plugin can open you up to vulnerability, break your site, slow it down or just be a pain to use.
So how do you know which plugins are the best to pick? Stick around, and I’ll drop some knowledge on you.
Where to Look
The natural starting point for any plugin search is the WordPress Plugin Repository. You can access the repository directly from the WordPress admin any time by selecting Plugins > Add New. However you choose to access it, once you’re there you’ll see that it allows you to sort the plugin in a number of different ways — Featured, Popular, Recommended and Favorites. It also allows you to search the entire plugin repository by keyword, tag or plugin author.
Featured Plugins — These plugins are endorsed by WordPress, and as such are a pretty safe way to go if you find something that serves your purpose.
Popular Plugins — The Popular plugins list will show you the latest plugins that a lot of people are installing, but isn’t curated by anyone. This list will show you what is getting a lot of use currently, but isn’t 100% safe.
Recommended Plugins — This is a list personalized for you based on what you already have installed, and shares the same risks as the Popular list.
Favorite Plugins — This list contains plugins that you personally select as your favorite, and so won’t be of much use to us in this context.
There are plugins that don’t exist within the WordPress Plugin Repository, most of them paid plugins. Some of those paid plugins are worth checking out, but many of them won’t be worth your time. If you can’t find a plugin in the repository that works for you, then by all means turn to google, but once you are out of the repository environment, you’ll need to be even more diligent about vetting the plugin you choose before settling on one.
Narrow Your Choices
In many cases, no matter your need, there will be tons of available plugins that purport to solve your problem, but who has the time to install all of them and separate the wheat from the chaff? Instead, you need to look at some information the repository provides for each plugin that will help you make a choice — ratings, active installs and the date of the last update.
Ratings — Ratings alone aren’t that helpful, though clearly a 5-star plugin is probably better than a 1-star plugin. But if you dig in and read some of the reviews attached to those star-ratings, you can get a pretty good idea of whether the plugin does what is says it’s going to do. Try to read reviews across the rating range, so you get viewpoints from people who are happy and unhappy. You can get to these reviews by clicking the “more details” link next to the install button. You can also google the name of the plugin and look for reviews out in the wild too, this can often be a good way to find an in-depth look at the plugin you are considering.
Active Installs — The number of active installs shows how many WordPress sites currently have the plugin installed and activated, which means they are actively using the plugin. You can’t take the number of installs as your only criteria of greatness, since a super popular plugin that covers a function most people need (say an SEO plugin) is going to have way more installs than a small plugin that solves a niche issue, but when comparing plugins that solve a similar problem, the one with the most active installs is probably going to be the one most people have decided work for them.
Last Updated — Just because a plugin has a lot of active installs and high ratings doesn’t mean it’s out of the woods yet! The last thing you need to check is when it was last updated. If a plugin hasn’t been updated recently, it’s highly likely that the plugin has been abandoned, and will no longer be a good choice moving forward, even if tons of people loved and were using it in the past. If it’s been over 3 months since the plugin was updated, that should raise a flag, and if it’s been over a year, you should probably skip it. Just keep in mind that some plugins won’t need to be updated regularly. If you’re not sure what the case is for the plugin you are looking at, you can go back and look at the reviews or support area for the plugin to see if people are complaining about lack of updates or other issues.
Test Out Your Plugin
Before you commit whole-heartedly to a plugin, you should give it a test run. If you’re a developer, you can just spin up a test instance of WordPress to do that, but if you’re not you might not want to just install the new plugin on your live site and see what happens. Luckily for you, there is an online service called Addendio that will let you test any plugin in the WordPress repository for free on a temporary WordPress install. Using Addendio, you can jump in and see how the plugin functions live, without having to worry about what it might do to your real website.
And that’s it! Once you’ve thoroughly searched for, vetted and tested your new plugin, you’re ready to install it and reap the rewards of that sweet new functionality. Huzzah! Want to stay up to date on all the latest WordPress news and tips? Subscribe to the Solamar newsletter, and we’ll wing them straight to your inbox.