How to Choose the Best WordPress Plugins for Your Website

There are currently more than 55,000 plugins available in the WordPress repository and many thousands more that are ‘Premium’ (paid for) and don’t appear in the repository.

With such a huge number available it is inevitable that there will be big variations in the quality of their coding.

And badly coded plugins will slow down your site – or crash it.

So how do you find good, safe plugins?

Here’s the approach I follow:

My general preference is to use paid-for (pro or premium) plugins, because the fact that they are generating an income for their creators means that they are:

  • More likely to be well coded
  • More likely to be properly maintained and updated over time
  • More likely to be responsive to support requests

But free plugins that have an option to upgrade to Pro (freemiums) are also a good choice, for the same reasons. The only difference is that you’re getting a cut-down version.

However, if the cut-down version meets your needs you can be more confident that the coding is good and the plugin will be properly maintained over time, because of the upgrade option.

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Apart from the question over the quality of coding, the risk with free plugins is that the author will abandon them.

After all, the author’s circumstances can change at any time. They may lose interest, or they may move on to other things.

And since they are not earning anything for their work, there is little incentive for them to continue to support their plugin.

So, as a general principle, look for paid or premium plugins, or the free versions with an upgrade option.

Specific things to look for

With that over-arching principle in mind, here are the specific things to check when you’re assessing plugins to install.

The video takes you through the process and there are screenshots and detailed descriptions below that.

One point: the video was made some time after this article was written so the plugin I use in the video is different from that used in the descriptions.

The process, however, is exactly the same.

Screenshot of WordPress plugin page

1. The first priority is to check that the plugin is compatible with the latest version of WordPress. If it’s not, choose another!

2. The second priority is to check how many installations there are. I generally will not install a plugin that has less than 20,000 installations.

3. The third priority is to look at the rating profile. You clearly want the number of 5-star ratings to be as high as possible, but beware of any plugin that has only 4 or 5 ratings, all of them 5-star: this could be the result of the plugin author and 4 of their friends providing a bit of marketing activity!

With that approach in mind, what plugins should you install?

With 55,000 plugins to choose from (and more arriving all the time), and given the range of objectives that a website could have, identifying specific plugins for any type of website can really only be done on a case-by-case basis.

So, in order to set out a process to follow, I’ve broken plugins generally into 3 categories, and here I’m talking about the functions they perform, not specifically naming plugins:

  1. Default plugins to install on any site
  2. Specialist function plugins
  3. Fluff and ego plugins

Default plugins for any site

These fall into two sub-categories and include plugins that:

  1. Provide functionality that any website should have but which is not provided by the WordPress core
  2. Improve the ease of maintenance or user experience of the site

1. Functionality not provided by WordPress core:

  • A contact form plugin
  • A backup plugin (make sure it does full-site backups)
  • A security plugin
  • An XML sitemap plugin
  • An SEO plugin

2. Functionality that improves the ease of administration or the user experience:

  • A database optimisation plugin
  • A search plugin (the native WordPress search function is not good)
  • A menu plugin that handles mobile menus well
  • A Caching plugin (or a CDN)
  • An Email service provider administration plugin (e.g. Aweber or Mailchimp)
  • A social media plugin

Specialist function plugins

These are plugins that are required in order to deliver the functionality that’s necessary for your website to deliver its objective.

These would include:

  • eCommerce plugins
  • Gallery plugins
  • Forum plugins
  • Learning management system plugins
  • Product catalogue plugins
  • Booking/reservation plugins
  • Advertising plugins
  • Translation plugins
  • Directory plugins
  • . . . and so on

These plugins sometimes have additional addons that may be necessary in order to provide the full functionality.

For example, the WPML multi-lingual plugin has various addons – one of these is the string translation plugin which you can use to translate WordPress or theme generated text strings.

Again, with addons, only add the ones you actually need.

Fluff and ego plugins

These are plugins that offer no additional functionality to your site, but merely serve to add glamour or style.

Examples would be:

  1. Slider plugins
  2. Pop-up plugins
  3. Animation plugins
  4. . . . and so on

Fluff and ego plugins should be used with great discretion.

Why is that?

Because the way people use websites these days is very different from how it was 5 or more years ago.

The growth of social media has provided a place for people to browse aimlessly all day – something they used to do on blogs years ago.

Today, someone may see something on social media that catches their attention and brings them to your site. But the only reason they are on your site is to satisfy their curiosity about whatever caught their attention.

And as soon as they have got that fix, they go back to their social media stream.

So most people who visit your website today do so with a specific purpose in mind: to get some information or to buy something.

They are really not interested in your sliders or pop-ups – they want to complete whatever they came for as quickly as possible and then get back to their social media stream.

Since all those fluff and ego plugins do is to slow down your site page-load times, kill your SEO and provide distractions they are, essentially, getting in the way.

And getting in the way will probably lose you a sale.

So the overall message is two-fold:

  1. Use as few plugins as possible while still enabling your website to fulfil its function
  2. Ensure your design enables people to do what they came to do as quickly and easily as possible

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Something to ponder. . .

Here are two examples from recent projects that illustrate what you should be avoiding:

I recently worked on two different sites that each boasted more than 30 plugins – one of them had 43. Some of those plugins duplicated each other and some were not even active.

The performance of each site was abysmal. One of them was almost unusable because pages took more than a minute to load. The other was unstable and adding functionality (a second language) was impossible without first rationalising the plugins that were already on the site.

And the one with 43 didn’t actually need more than 12 in order to fulfil its function..!

The cost of resolving the site performance was significant in both cases, but would never have been needed had they followed the principles I covered earlier.

So be ruthlessly critical about the plugins you need:

  • Split them into those categories I outlined above to assess them
  • Remember how most people actually use websites these days: not as a medium to browse, but as a place to get something done


Martin Malden

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