WordPress has been around for nearly a decade and a half. While that’s a pretty good run in terms of longevity, it also means that there are probably some websites still around from its earlier days. Personally, I’ve been working with WP for about nine of those years. And I’m finding a common problem among some of the older sites I’ve built: they have outdated plugins.
In fact, I’m finding that there are a good number of plugins that have been considered “abandoned” by the WordPress Plugin Repository. Anything that hasn’t been updated in at least two years earns that label. So searching for replacements for some of these outdated offerings has now become a routine part of maintenance.
Sometimes, I can find a newer piece of software to replace the old one. Other times I’m not so lucky. But the sheer volume of these issues that have cropped up in the past few years has me thinking – what’s the best way to deal with an old plugin? And, how can we best avoid a bad case of “plugin rot”?
We Started With Good Intentions
When you’re first introduced to WordPress and you start to realize how many great plugins are out there (they surely must all be great at this point), you might start installing them like they’re going out of style. Only after some experience do you realize that, okay, not every plugin is quite worthy of being on your site.
So, you start the practice of vetting plugins a little more thoroughly than before – which is a great thing. The trouble is that you may not necessarily go back to every previous site you built and run through that same vetting process. Over time, many plugins will stop being maintained by their authors. It could be that the plugin never gained enough popularity to justify the effort. Or sometimes, people just run out of the spare time it takes to keep up with maintaining software. It happens.
That’s when you run into a good old case of plugin rot. You’ve got one or more active plugins that haven’t seen an update in years. This isn’t good for several reasons. First, there could be a big security hole right in the middle of the software that you’re unaware of. Second, as new versions of WordPress, plugins, and themes roll out, a compatibility issue could break your site at any moment.
This is a tough situation to be in. Unfortunately, it may take a good bit of work to dig out of it.
Assessing the Situation and Creating a Plan
When you find yourself with a site that includes plugins that are no longer maintained, there are a couple of things you should do:
Study the Plugins in Question
The first step is to take a look at what outdated plugins you have installed and figure out what it is they do. This can be especially difficult if it’s a site you didn’t build. If you’re really fortunate, you might find that a plugin was installed but never actually used. That makes your job a whole lot easier. But if it is actually being used, you’ll want to see how it’s been implemented on the site.
For example, take a look at the plugin settings to see what’s there. You might find that everything is controlled from one spot. If not, look through pages, posts, and your theme templates to see if any code from the plugin has been added. If it’s directly inside a page or post, you’re most likely going to see some sort of Shortcode. Otherwise, PHP code may be found in a theme template. If the plugin documentation still exists somewhere, you may be able to find an example of the code you’re looking for.
Devise a Plan of Action
Once you know what it is you’re dealing with, you can come up with a plan to fix the issue. Hint: This very rarely involves keeping the outdated plugin. The only time that might be considered is if the plugin does something absolutely critical to the mission of the site. And, even if it is critical, you’ll want to plan for its eventual replacement.
Many times, you’ll be able to find a suitable plugin to replace the outdated one. But it’s not only important to find one that does the same thing (you may have multiple options), you should also look for a plugin that:
- Has been updated within the past year.
- Has a reasonable user base compared to other similar plugins.
- Has an author who frequently responds to support requests.
When browsing plugins in the official repository, this information is fairly easy to find out. Commercial plugins may take a bit more digging in the dirt (and you still may not find out everything).
Depending on what type of functionality the plugin handles, there is also a chance that you can duplicate it with some basic code in your theme. There are plenty of WordPress plugins out there that mimic functionality that is already built into the CMS. They’re put into plugin form more for convenience than anything else.
The point is that, while it’s great to find a replacement, you don’t want to set yourself up to have to do the same exact thing again next year. We can’t tell the future of every plugin, but we can take a close look at its reputation and how well it’s been maintained.
Death, Taxes and Abandoned Plugins
Although I’d like to think I’m much more careful about choosing plugins these days, I should probably accept the fact that there will always be those that go belly-up at some point in the future. It’s inevitable that some useful plugins just won’t be popular enough or the developer won’t have the time to keep it going year after year. It’s just the nature of an open-source community that heavily relies on volunteerism. But even some commercial plugins can fall into that same hole.
The best thing for developers to do is to stay vigilant. Routinely look through the sites you maintain, see what plugins are installed, and find out when they were last updated. When something does look to be abandoned and you really want to keep the plugin – do some further research. Check to see if support requests are still being answered (again, easy to do in the WordPress support forums), and you might even try getting in touch with the developer. See if they still have an interest in the plugin. If they don’t, then at least you can say you tried.
The good thing is that, when it comes to WordPress plugins, you usually have more than one good option.