How to evaluate and install WordPress plugins

WordPress is number one in the market of Web CMSes, paid for or unpaid for. One of the reasons why WordPress is so unbelievably popular is the ease with which you can expand on its functionality. There are two ways to do so: by writing a couple of lines of PHP code or very often by installing a plugin. But plugins can be risky. They can wreak havoc with your WordPress site. The good news is that you can defend yourself against most risks by following a couple of simple rules.

The workflow I advise is to first search on the WordPress site, create a shortlist then check on your WordPress Admin page to see if the plugin will work with your version of WordPress.

Find out if you really need a plugin

Some plugins contain only a few lines of code. If that’s the case, ask yourself if you really need a plugin. Sometimes it’s better to write the code in your theme’s functions.php file. It lowers the risk of conflicts and makes your site a bit leaner. And it’s not hard to do, as there are plenty of guides to explain what you need to do exactly to make it work — even for people with no or very little knowledge of PHP.

Decide how many plugins you can live with

The more plugins you install, the higher the risk of conflicting code, slower loading web pages, etc. Sometimes a plugin that you don’t load into memory will still cause trouble if it has been activated once before. The best therefore is to install as few plugins as possible. But what is “few”?

On my site I have 35 plugins installed, with about 20 activated.

Start with the plugin repository

Lets’s start with the plugin repository itself. If you start by visiting the WordPress plugin repository and search for the plugin you need, you will find tabs for “Support” and “Reviews”. These two very important tabs are missing from the “Add Plugin” page in your WordPress Admin control panel. The “Reviews” tab usually doesn’t contain much information — some plugins are often reviewed, while others are not at all. Still, a visit to the Reviews page does tell you if a plugin does what it’s supposed to do.

WordPress plugins repository

Check the Support page

My favourite tab is “Support” because it holds the table of contents of all the support questions that have been added since the plugin began its public life. It pays off to carefully go through the list of questions up to and including the previous version of the plugin. How many questions carry the “[Resolved]” indicator? Do questions point in the direction of a fundamental problem? Do people face troubles with plugin conflicts?

The Support page can help you find out if a plugin will be useful for your purposes, if the developer is helpful, whether the plugin causes trouble with others, etc. Especially to find out about plugin conflicts, the support questions are invaluable.

If you have found a number of plugins that look like they could be what you need, put them on a shortlist.

Double-check the plugin’s metadata

Over at the site, each plugin also has data that should tell you if it’s compatible with your installation. There’s a plugin version number, a WordPress version number for compatibility and an indicator that shows how many people think the plugin works with a newer version of WP than the developer lists.

This indicator depends on people going through the trouble of voting for the plugin. Not many do. That’s a pity as many older plugins will work with a newer version of WordPress without problems. Rule of thumb here is that if anything major has been changed in the code, chances are the plugin will not work without causing some problems. Again, the Support page will often tell you more than the indicator does.

WordPress installation's admin page

The next step is to go into your WordPress control panel and search for your shortlisted plugins. Click Add Plugin and from the plugins list, click on the “Install” link next to the plugin you want to install. Alternatively, you can download plugins and upload them to your FTP server inside the wp-content > plugins folder.