Plugins, the Good, the Bad and the Great
There is a very good chance that if you’ve worked with us at Smellycat Productions at some point over the course of the last the year, that your website was built on the WordPress platform. For those whom we haven’t had the pleasure and opportunity to work with, WordPress is an open source (free) community driven project and platform that originally gained popularity for Blogging back in 2003 when it was first released. Over the course of 9 years and a whole lot of sleepless nights, billions of energy drinks, and trillions of cups of coffee it has become so much more and continues to grow each and every day. Currently WordPress is roughly about 20% of the internet, which is really quite a large share given just how big the web has become.
WordPress is great because it allows our Customers to actively participate with their website(which we definitely recommend), which in the old days was not the easiest thing in the world to do if you didn’t understand html, css or php. You can easily create new pages with content, as well as blog posts to engage and inform your customers and followers. The possibilities are endless and if you can dream it, there is likely already developers making it into a Plugin. If you’ve heard of WordPress before, there is likely a chance you’ve heard this word. To keep it simple, a Plugin is a way to extend WordPress and its abilities beyond the basics of what comes on the base install. Plugins come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and functionalities. They can range from something as simple as some simple social icons added to your site to complex Shopping Carts for E-Commerce. Sounds like serenading harps, magical unicorns, and rainbows with pots of gold at the end right?
The answer currently, is Yes and No (probably not the answer your were hoping for). WordPress is open source and community driven(99.99% are unpaid and donating their free time to the project), so it’s hard for core contributors to monitor each and every thing submitted to the repository, especially older plugins. Things have certainly improved over the last couple years, and huge strides have been made, but some cautions and considerations should be taken, before you “just download and install” a plugin. The state of the current system is beginning early revisions and will continue to improve, but for now what should you do?
For a Beginner, the WordPress Plugin Repository, can be overwhelming (Check It Out Here). Start by doing a search for what you’re thinking your site could really use, like perhaps a calendar for your website, or anything you might find useful. Once you do so, here are some steps we recommend, and down below I’ve attached an image highlighting(arrows and #’s) the various areas I’m speaking about.
- Always a good place to start when seeing if a plugin is right for you, is to read the tabs just below the photo(if there is one). Scan through that and just see if there is a live demo or screenshots. I use these tabs first just to get a feel for the plugin.
- Next, I like to make sure that the plugin is compatible with the version of WordPress you are running(which hopefully is the most recent!!), and that it’s compatible with the latest version of WordPress, because that also shows it’s being actively developed(see blue arrow).
- Check also when it was last updated again to see that it’s actively being used and curated to be compatible moving forward (Although some Devs forget to update this sometimes).
- Check the number of downloads. This is often a pretty good indication that it’s well supported as well. That being said, just because what you’re interested in doesn’t have millions of downloads, doesn’t mean it’s not a solid plugin to extend your site. In these instances, it could just be that it’s new or the word hasn’t spread like wildfire just yet, but by no means does it make it a bad plugin. My recommendation is to consult with Smellycat Productions or your developer to review it further. You can also see what a Google search will pull up as well to see what comes up (use your best judgement in that case).
- Lastly, another important step I usually take is to check out the plugin author. It won’t necessarily stop me from trying something, it’s always nice when it’s an author of other great plugins that I know work great, there is a good chance this one will play nice!
There are two more things that you may want to be aware of as well, but again should not necessarily turn you away or in favor of using them.
- The Star Ratings which you can see I highlighted in Magenta. I am not a huge fan of this, because it’s essentially a popularity contest and not a true measure if something is good or not. Because WordPress is globally contributed to, sometimes plugin instructions are not super clear or can be confusing because the author’s first language in not English. So it could be great and do exactly what you want and need, but because it was only 2 stars you went right on by to the next one. Of course on the contrary, there are plenty with higher ratings, that could be doing more harm than help.
- The one last thing to be aware of is, sometimes, you’ll come across an older plugin(see image), that was built to last and built to scale. It may do something relatively straightforward. Just be aware when you see this message alert, it doesn’t mean you should necessarily run away from the particular plugin, but you may want to consult with us before adding it to your site.
There are lots of new and exciting things happening with developers and there are discussions on how we can, as a Community, make the WordPress Plugin Repository even better. Right now the system is far from perfect. Keeping some of these things in mind can really help when adding plugins or functionality to your own sites. This is in no way intended to scare, but rather educate clients/users/designers/developers on best practices with the Repository in its current state. WordPress will continue to grow and gain popularity, so this will hopefully make your journey an easier one.