WordPress.org lists 59,576 plugins. There are more that aren’t listed there, but we can use that number to develop a useful estimate of the number of plugins available: a whole lot.
How do you know which ones to use at your WordPress site?
Some people have a list of plugins they routinely use, and in fact most WordCamps and other WordPress gatherings have at least one presentation or panel on the subject. Often it’s phrased as “The 12 plugins every WordPress site should have.”
Plugins everyone needs
I figure, given 59,576+ plugins, chances are good that there really aren’t any 12 that every website needs to have. Akismet, I guess, but the Hello Dolly plugin — the other one that’s standard for all WP installations — irritates me and I always want to remove it. There’s no accounting for taste.
We routinely build certain plugins into websites:
- ManageWP worker plugin
- Edit Flow
- Yoast SEO
The other needed plugins depend on the specific needs of the business or organization, the goals of the website, and the workflow of your web team.
Tracking down the options for plugins is easier if you have a very clear idea of what you want. Searching for a weather forecast widget plugin or a plugin that lets you pull in a social media feed with shortcode is easier than seeking something cool for your sidebar.
Still, it’s hard to choose from among the 1,000+ social media feed plugins. How do you know which one will work best?
Simple answer: you don’t. In fact, you can’t, until you try them out. Here are some of the methods people use to try to narrow things down:
- Check the ratings. Plugins have star ratings from one to five stars, so you can see what others have thought. This not a foolproof method. For example, one plugin we’ve used has had almost 250,000 downloads and 36 ratings. 36 is not a representative sample of 250,000 people. Self-selected rating will always tend to show the extremes, too. People who are angry with a plugin will be more likely to rate it than people who liked it okay and moved on. Star ratings also give you no chance to judge whether the rater had trouble because the plugin required skills they didn’t have, or because they were looking for something different. And of course a plugin with just one or two reviews has too small a sample size.
- Read reviews. The thing about reviews, as opposed to ratings, is that you can tell more about the individual and the circumstances under which they tried the plugin. A good review gives you enough information that you can tell whether the plugin might be just what you’re looking for even though it didn’t work out for the reviewer. It should tell you the pros and cons so you can decide whether you can live with the negatives. You’ll be most likely to find thorough reviews of your chosen plugin by Googling the name of the plugin.
- Ask around. If you’re a developer, you may already know that WordPress has a wonderful developer community ready to help and share at any time. That’s one of the reasons developers usually come to love WordPress if they give it a try. If you’re a business owner getting adventurous about your own website, it might not occur to you to ask people, but it works. Ask at the WordPress.org forum, ask someone like me, or even try your social media — a quick tweet saying, “Anybody know of a good frame breaking plugin for WordPress?” might get you just what you need.
- Read the documentation. We know people who would rather poke their eyes out than read the documentation, and we admit that plugin documentation is often written very badly. Still, there’s often a lot of useful information in there. Look at the screenshots, read the questions and comments people have left at the plugin website, and you’ll probably learn enough to make an informed decision. At least watch the videos.
- Try them out. In general, and especially if you stick with the official WordPress.org list, you can solve any problem that a plugin might create by removing it. Back up your files before you get too bold, but you can usually try out half a dozen plugins and see which one you like best. One thing you need to bear in mind is that your plugin might not cause any trouble immediately, even if it’s going to cause trouble later. Often, it won’t act up till some particular action takes place behind the scenes. Some of the things we’ve broken with plugins:
- galleries — in fact, I’ve seen so many rotating galleries misbehave because of plugin incompatibility that this is now my first guess when problems with a gallery arise.
- layout of text
- CSS for headers
- Google Analytics
- other plugins
Fortunately, I have excellent web hosting and helpful people on my team, so I can boldly break stuff knowing that I can get help if I need it. If you have mass market web hosting and no experts on call, you’d be wise to try one plugin at a time. Close and reopen your website and perhaps try it on another browser as well. If nothing is obviously wrong, you can go ahead and try another.
Use a staging site
I’ll admit that I don’t always set up a staging site just to try out a plugin, but it’s a good plan if you want to make a lot of changes without consequences. You can try out the new plugins at the staging site, play around with them for a while, and make a confident decision about whether or not to use them at your live site.
Be sure to delete the plugins you decide not to use. That’s important for security.