I recently presented on “How to Pick a Plugin” with Mike Brogan. ((Thanks are due to 501 Commons for putting the event on and Mike Brogan for contributing many of the ideas in the presentation and, therefore, this post.)) We put a lot of time into thoughtfully walking people through the process, so I want to share our tips (and an exciting update to one piece of the presentation) with a broader audience. You can flip through the presentation, skip to the written overview below, or go through them together (recommended).
What is a Plugin Anyway?
A plugin is a set of files that adds one or more features to WordPress that aren’t provided by default. Examples of “features” that a plugin might add include:
- A form builder
- Extra administrative tools (user permissions, shortcuts, content scheduling, etc.)
- Social media integration (Whatever “integration” means to you, there’s a plugin for it!)
- Events management
We’ll be looking at an example of that last one.
Do You Really Need A Plugin?
Before searching for and installing a plugin. Make sure you really need one. Think about how crucial it is to your website and whether there are any ways to accomplish what you need without one. There are plenty of fantastic reasons to use a plugin, but you never want to install a plugin “just because.” Make sure you can articulate the exact purpose of a new plugin.
And if you ever find that you aren’t using a plugin anymore, make sure to delete it!
Where to Find Plugins
We think WordPress.org is the place to start. Its plugin repository includes 35,000+ plugins, all of which are free, licensed for unlimited free usage, ((Sticklers will probably take issue with that definition of the GNU General Public License (GPL), but I believe it’s enough for this post.)) and vetted (somewhat) for code quality and security!
There are plugins that are not in the official WordPress repository, both free and paid. In some cases, paid versions of plugins are available for free versions in the official repository. Whatever you do, beware of free plugins you find through a simple search of the internet, particularly those that claim to be free versions of paid plugins. They probably contain malware that will affect both you and your site visitors. When downloading a plugin outside of the WordPress repository, make sure it appears on a reputable site controlled by the plugin maker.
Evaluating a Free Plugin
So once you know you need a plugin for sure and are on WordPress.org/plugins/, find a plugin and start giving it the once over. We used The Events Calendar as an example as it’s our favorite plugin for event management and comes with both free and paid versions. I’ll link to The Events Calendar’s WordPress.org pages throughout so you can see these features in context.
Starting from the main plugin page, here are the things to look at:
- What does it do, anyway?
- How many people are using it?
- What are people saying about it?
- Who’s the plugin author?
- Is the plugin actively maintained?
- Are people getting support for the plugin?
Overview: What does it do (“Description”, “FAQ,” and “Screenshots” Tabs)
Start by making sure the plugin does what you think it does. Read the full description, and—if provided—read through the FAQ and Screenshots pages too.
Number of Downloads Update: Active Installs (Sidebar)
As of March 2015, the total number of downloads is no longer shown. Instead, WordPress gives us a more useful metric of “Active Installs.” It’s a rough number but useful for what we need from it.
Look for a plugin that is actively used on other sites. That indicates the plugin is successfully working for other people and there’s a large enough userbase to keep pressure on the developers to continue maintaining it.
Ratings & Reviews (Sidebar and “Reviews” tab. Click a rating => Read reviews.)
Then view the Ratings in the sidebar and read Reviews. Click on any of the star levels to read reviews of that many stars. See what 5-star reviewers like and what 1-star reviewers don’t like.
If a one star rating doesn’t apply to your use-case, feel free to ignore it. Reading reviews is like being a vegetarian on Yelp. No number of 5-star reviews matter at the steakhouse if their one vegetarian dish (let me guess, pasta and vegetables?) isn’t any good. Find reviewers that seem in a similar position to you and take their advice.
Plugin Author (Sidebar)
Who is it? How many are there? Those are the main questions I ask of plugin authors. If you’ve looked at lots of plugins, then you might recognize a name. Otherwise, look for authors with multiple plugins (experience) and plugins with multiple authors (more than one person to give support and develop). Also, check whether the plugin is from a company, individual, or both. Companies have more infrastructure for support but might try to monetize the plugin—though many don’t!—in some way.
Last Updated & Frequency of Updates (Sidebar / Developers > Development Log)
The frequency of updates of a “good” plugin varies depending on its complexity. A simple single-function plugin like my Post Status Menu Items can easily go a year without an update. However, a more complex plugin like The Events Calendar should have been updated at least within the last six months. A recent update shows the developer is still actively supporting the plugin.
Additionally, for the power users out there, you can find the Development Log on the “Developers” tab and look at how frequently updates are released. That’s another quick signal for developer involvement.
Support Forum (“Support” Tab)
Finally, mosey on over to the “Support” tab.
Start by reading any “Sticky” posts at the top of the forum written by the plugin developer. These may highlight known issues, clarify how support is handled, or point you toward helpful resources. When seeking support, you owe it to the developer and yourself to look at these first. They’ll save you both time in the event of a problem.
Next, look over the support requests and make some judgments on all of the following:
- How many support posts are there? 10 a year? 10 a month? 10 a day? Will you be competing for attention?
- How many support posts are marked as “[Resolved]”? Do people succeed is solving their problems?
- Is the developer actively participating in the support thread? If you look at the support forum for my Feature a Page Widget plugin, you’ll see I’ve responded to every post and am usually the last poster in a thread.
Through all this, keep in mind that the plugin is FREE and adjust expectations accordingly.
Adding It All Up
With the possible exception a plugin that only has bad reviews, none of the above indicators on their own is a sufficient reason to use or not use a plugin. What you hope to find is a plugin mostly free of red flags (good ratings, active development, large user base, people getting support). What you hope to avoid is a plugin with lots of red flags (low installs, updated a long time ago, crickets chirping in the support forum).
Looking at these metrics suggests that The Events Calendar is probably a good plugin to at least try out for free.
Evaluating a Paid Plugin
Many plugins come with an accompanying “PRO” or paid version or are paid-only. Generally, I find it’s best to think about paying for a plugin as buying plugin updates and support rather than purchasing the initial featureset. In particular, when looking a paid plugin consider:
- Is there a demo to try?
- What do I get over the free version? (if there is one)
- Is it a one-time fee, annual fee, or something else?
- How is support provided?
- Does the documentation look useful?
Since a plugin isn’t free you can’t install it without first purchasing it (usually). However, in the best case, paid plugins offer demo sites of the front- or back-end of the plugin so you can walk through the features as a user before committing your money to it.
Comparison to free?
If there’s a free version, make sure you really understand the differences and need the paid version. Sometimes you might not. Since the free version is free (duh…), don’t hesitate to install it first and test it before upgrading to the paid version.
How is it paid?
Generally, what is for sale? Is there a single paid version of the plugin or does it use the model of providing many feature-specific paid “add-ons.” (That’s not a technical term in WordPress but is probably the most common name for extra plugins that add features to a different plugin.)
Next, is the license annual or one-time? Can you use the license for multiple sites or just one (if that’s relevant for you)? You always want to know for budgeting purposes, and you should plan on maintaining an active license for the lifetime of your site as long as you use the plugin. Keeping a plugin up-to-date is crucial for security and to avoid future incompatibilities.
As I wrote above, when you pay for a plugin, you’re mostly buying support and updates. Therefore, make sure you understand how support is offered. In a forum? In a box? With a fox? Maybe just email? How soon can you expect a response? What is or isn’t included in support? Does support ever stop? (Some plugins may only come with one year of support which is often sufficient for getting the plugin setup.)
It’s fair to hold paid plugins to a higher standard, so expect that they’re providing documentation. Is it written? Video tutorials? Is it easy to understand or heavy with developer jargon?
Documentation is also a great way to get a more-detailed overview of features. (i.e. Don’t just see what a feature does, but learn how you manage it.)
What did I miss?
There’s no perfect formula for picking plugins and at some point you’ll just have to dive in a get your hands dirty.
But did I leave out any indicators you’ve used in the past? Does anything not make sense? Congratulate yourself for surviving 1600 words about WordPress plugins and leave your thoughts in the comments.
2 thoughts on “How to Pick a WordPress Plugin”
Well done! Very thorough and you picked up many subtle points that are often overlooked, like the fact that a plugin with a 5-star rating is not always better than one with 3 stars. You have to look at what it was the reviewers did/didn’t like about the plugin, and how many lower ratings were based on the lack of a feature that you don’t even need.
The only thing I can think to add is not so much an omission as another consideration. I have developer licenses for quite a few plugins, including Gravity Forms, Stripe Checkout Pro and WP Migrate DB Pro. They’re all renewed annually. I have no plans to stop developing WP websites but no one can predict the future, so there may come a time when my clients will need to switch to individual licenses or stop getting updates for these plugins. In the past I just considered them part of the cost of doing business and haven’t talked with clients about the licensing, but this year I’ve begun including this information in my proposals and contracts.
Thanks for your comment, Donna. This is a great point, and I updated the post to mention it!