When I first started out creating websites with WordPress, I was in awe of the depth and variety of plugins available. During those golden days I would willingly install just about anything that looked cool. Shortly thereafter, I was smacked in the head by reality. Stuff started breaking and seriously hurt my good time.
It turns out that not every plugin is a great one. And there are times when it seems like the work we do is held together with bubble gum and duct tape. Everything works splendidly until it doesn’t.
That’s why it’s so crucial to understand what you’re getting into when choosing to rely on a WordPress plugin. It’s especially important when using a plugin that will make up some core functionality of your site. For example, if one of the core functions of your website is to accept dinner reservations, you had better pick the right plugin.
But how do you know what you’re getting into?
Leap of faith
The first rule of using plugins (or a CMS, or a mobile app, etc.) is that there are no guarantees. We don’t know if the plugin will play nicely with others we’re using. We don’t even know if it will still be around in a couple of years.
While it does sound scary, this is actually a problem we face with just about every decision we make in life. That new computer I just bought? I hope it provides years of great performance. But, in truth, the motherboard could blow out at any time. Just like the new shirt you just bought could develop a giant hole after you wash it.
So, while we can research and plan all we want (more on that below), it takes a leap in faith to choose a plugin and roll with it.
Vetting a plugin
Going with your gut feeling alone isn’t recommended, however. Research is an essential part of making the right choice. Here are a few steps you can take when choosing a plugin:
1. Make a list
Search around and create a list of plugins that do some or all of what you’re looking for. Note their price (free/freemium/paid), the features they offer, and even the author. This information will help you gather a group of contenders.
Will one of the plugins on your list do everything (or just about everything) you need? Is the commercial plugin really any better than the free option? There are a number of crucial questions you should ask. If you are unsure about something, feel free to ask the plugin’s author. Asking the right questions will make it easier to narrow down your options.
3. Dig Deep
This is the fun part. Learn as much as you can about a plugin (and its author) by looking at:
- Plugin reviews: Don’t limit yourself to just the happy customer testimonials on a plugin’s website. Take a look at real reviews from multiple sources. Plugins on the WordPress.org Repository have a review section built right in.
- Changelog: A plugin’s changelog provides a great way to learn how active the development process is. The frequency of bug fixes, new features and so on can be a good indicator of how well the author looks after things. It is worth noting that not all plugins need to be constantly updated in order to work well. But it is important to see that there is some semi-regular activity.
- Support Forums: Over at WordPress.org, the support forums can show you any problems users are having with a plugin and how fast those problems are resolved. If you see pages upon pages of unresolved support requests over a long period of time, that may be a sign that a plugin may be more trouble than it’s worth. Commercial plugins may not let you into a support forum before making a purchase, so you may have to search around to get details. It’s also worth looking into what a plugin author’s support policy is.
- Update policy: This is especially vital to know when it comes to commercial plugins. Will purchase of a plugin provide you with a lifetime of updates, or will you have to renew yearly?
- Documentation: How clear is the documentation? Does it provide you with a clear path to learn what the plugin does and how to set it up?
- Author profile: Check out any other plugins the author may have created. Again, it’s a good idea just to check on reviews, changelogs and support requests if you can to make yourself even more well-informed.
Ideally, a plugin that receives mostly favorable reviews (let’s face it: there are people who will hate on anything, regardless of quality), updates at least once or twice a year and provides adequate support will be worth your time. If any one of these items raises a red flag, you can always do more research or move on to something else.
Are you ready to make a commitment?
It seems like the longer I’ve worked with WordPress, the harder it is to make a commitment to a new plugin. I have my little circle of highly-trusted plugins and am a bit reluctant to expand it.
Still, while we can’t be sure that we’re always going to make the perfect choices, we can certainly do our best to avoid disastrous ones. Knowledge brings confidence, so learn all that you can about a plugin before taking that plunge.