What is a WordPress plugin?
It’s basically a bit of software that ‘plugs in’ to your website allowing you to add functionality without having to do any coding (though there is usually some configuration involved).
And how do you ‘plug it in’?
Easy as pie – go to Plugins on the WP dashboard, click Add New then search the WordPress directory to see if it’s there. If it is, just click ‘Install Now’ and the plugin will be loaded up to your site. All you have to do now is activate it, configure it, and away you go.
What if it isn’t in the WordPress directory?
That can be slightly more complicated. You need to download the .zip file from the plugin provider (either the author’s website or a marketplace such as Envato) to your computer, then go to Plugins on the WP dashboard, click Add New, click Upload Plugin, browse to where you stored it, select it, upload it, then activate and configure it.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
Well to be fair it usually is, though don’t expect it to be plain sailing every time. Sometimes the plugin doesn’t work with your version of WP, your theme, or even with other plugins you already have installed. And sometimes you just can’t get it to do what you thought it was capable of, or maybe the setup instructions don’t make sense.
Why is there this inconsistency?
Basically because of the nature of WordPress. Wordpress is open source software so anyone is at liberty to create a plugin and then offer it for sale (or for free). It can be quite difficult to tell whether your plugin has been written by a reliable software house or by someone who just fancies trying their hand at a bit of coding.
So how do you find a good plugin?
Start with the documentation. If the plugin has no or sparse documentation then leave well alone.
Next step is to see if you can find a changelog. If there isn’t one to be found you should be wary. If there is one, check it to see how frequently the plugin is updated. Even if it’s not updated very often (after all, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?) you would expect it to have some amendments to keep it up to date with WordPress upgrades. If you can’t find a changelog and it’s listed in the WP directory you can see when it was last updated on its thumbnail or home page.
Finally, on that same page you should be able to see whether or not the plugin is compatible with the version of WordPress you’re using. If it’s not it may still work, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t.
And how much should you pay for a plugin?
That’s a piece of string question. Some excellent plugins are free, some can cost hundreds of pounds (particularly if you need more than one site license), it really depends on what your requirements are.
These are my current top five favourite plugins
All of these have free versions, and all have premium (paid) versions which give you extra functionality.
This is by far my favourite plugin. What does it do? It’s basically anti-virus, firewall and caching software for your site. I have a few sites under my care which came to me after they’d been repeatedly hacked, and none of them had this installed. After cleaning and updating the sites I installed Wordfence and have had no further problems. Even with the free version the range of protection it gives and its reporting capabilities are second to none.
This is a plugin which you can use to put a captcha on any form on your website – login forms, comment boxes, even contact forms. The reason I particularly like it is because it doesn’t use one of those horrible squiggly guess-the-random-letters images which suck at your self esteem as you wonder if you’re the only one in the world who can’t read a simple string of letters. Instead, it uses a little maths sum. Sometimes the sum can be quite hard (8 x ? = 56 is about as hard as it gets), but usually it’s much easier – maybe a picture of nine dots from which you need to take 1 then supply the answer.
There are many forms plugins out there, and truth be told I’ve only tried a handful, but this one comes out top for me. I find it easy to use, it has a wide range of functionality and it’s kept up to date regularly. Just one word of warning: if you use the free version you won’t have access to updates.
This plugin displays Google analytics reports and real-time statistics in your dashboard.
Why do I like it? Just because it gives me a very quick and easy-to-read view of traffic to my site. The Google analytics application has much more information in it than this dashboard, but you almost need a degree in it to be able to interpret it. I find this more than meets my needs.
I’ve included this one with a mixture of reluctance and sadness. It’s an excellent and powerful plugin which blocks spammers from leaving comments or logging in, and protects sites from robot registrations and malicious attacks.
So why the reluctance and sadness? Because I suspect that it’s no longer being maintained. At the time of writing this it was last updated eight months ago and is not compatible with the current version of WordPress. So I reckon I’m going to have to find a replacement. Suggestions anyone?