As of this writing, there are currently well over 25,000 plugins listed at WordPress.org’s Plugin Directory. While that ensures that you have a lot of choices, it doesn’t necessarily make the job of finding the best WordPress plugins any easier.
One of the greatest aspects of using WordPress to power your website is its ability to run plugins. They easily extend the capabilities of your website and allow it to perform functions that it otherwise couldn’t without some hardcore coding. And since WordPress is so wildly popular, that means there are plugins for just about every type of site enhancement you can think of. Even if there isn’t a plugin available to perform a specific task, odds are you can develop it yourself or hire someone else to do so.
With that in mind, here are some tips for choosing the right plugins for your WordPress powered website:
General Rules of Thumb
While the functionality and goals of WordPress plugins vary greatly, there are some characteristics that separate the good from the bad.
Good plugins should:
- Provide clear documentation of how to implement the software into your WordPress install and change settings.
- Have a dedicated developer who is responsive to user issues. If you’re using a plugin listed in WordPress.org’s Plugin Directory, check out a plugin’s support tab to see if issues are routinely marked as "resolved". If not, see if the developer at least has a commercially-based support system that will allow you to get help if needed.
- Updates the plugin on a regular basis to fix bugs and/or add new features. At the very least, the occasional bug fix is much appreciated. It never hurts to check out a version history if one is available. That will tell you how frequently updates are made.
- Allow users to easily customize the plugin’s look to match their website. Often times, the best plugins have their own set of CSS classes or even a template-based system that is clearly defined in their documentation. This can aid greatly in getting things setup the way you want. A plugin that doesn’t have this flexibility means you might have to hack away at the software’s code – meaning you won’t be able to update the plugin without losing your changes
Does Popularity Matter?
To a point, I believe it does. Looking through WordPress.org’s Most Popular Plugins list shows a who’s who of big name, well-liked titles. Old standbys like Jetpack, Contact Form 7, All in One SEO Pack, and NextGen Gallery have all been downloaded millions of times. They are popular because they work and have become staples for many designers and developers.
But popularity doesn’t always mean something is really good. New plugins are written for WordPress each day. Some are commercial in nature and aren’t listed within the official Plugin Directory. Depending on the functionality you are looking to add, there could be literally dozens of different choices.
Looking at the number of times a plugin has been downloaded can certainly be a good indicator of how good it is. But just like everything else, popularity can be a fleeting thing for a plugin. Doing a little more research can help determine if a plugin has gone dormant (by checking its last updated date), stripped of functionality due to "going commercial", or simply surpassed by a competitor.
Commercial or Free?
The old adage of "You get what you pay for" isn’t nearly as relevant as you might think when it comes to WordPress plugins. I’ve personally used free plugins that simply blow away their commercial competition. Then again, I’ve used commercial plugins that were both reasonably priced and constantly being updated/improved.
Take shopping cart software for example. I’ve used a few commercial plugins (I won’t name names) that frankly left a lot to be desired. And I’ve recently tooled around with WooCommerce, which is free (although they do charge for add-ons). Out of the box, I’ve found it way better than plugins I have paid to use.
On the commercial side, I’ve recently fallen in love with a slider plugin called Soliloquy. I like its ease of use compared to some of the free options I’ve tried.
One thing I do recommend is trying out the free alternatives first. Why? Because there is no cost involved and you can at least get a sense if something is going to work. If not, there may be a commercially available solution that will work better.
With so many choices, it can be difficult to find and choose the right plugins for your WordPress powered website. Ideally, there would be one metric that tells us what works and what doesn’t. While that doesn’t exist just yet, you can simplify the process by doing a little research on things like documentation, support policies/response times and the history of the plugin’s popularity. It also doesn’t hurt to look at user ratings and reviews from both the official WordPress Plugin Directory and other trusted sources on the web.
What do you look for in a WordPress plugin? Any tips for finding the best ones? Leave a comment below!