It seems like one the existential questions of our time – at least, for web designers. But for years, many of us have been trying to figure out the “right” number of WordPress plugins to use within a website.
I hate to break it to anyone who likes nice, round figures: There is no specific number. No threshold that defines you as either a pro or poser. I know, some people define their success by using a minuscule number of plugins. If you can get away with doing so, you get much respect from me.
For the rest of us, plugins are a tempting proposition. They can take care of so many tasks – large and small. And they’re only a few clicks away.
But add too many and it can weigh down your site’s performance. Not to mention that every single thing you install adds another layer of complexity to the mix.
While there is no one-size-fits-all number of plugins you can or should run, there are some ways to tell if you’re past the limit. Here are a few factors to help you make that determination.
The Hosting Environment
Computing power and network bandwidth are incredibly important factors in terms of performance. Yet, most often the only control designers have over them is when choosing a host (if one hasn’t already been chosen for us). If you have a choice, look for a provider that offers lots of both.
Beyond raw power, the server’s OS and related software also play a role. You’ll want to ensure you’re running PHP 7.x, as that’s been proven much faster than previous versions. Server-based caching and load balancing can provide a big boost if your host offers them.
As important as anything, though, is the type of hosting account you have. If it’s low-end shared hosting, you’re probably not going to get the same bang for your buck that you’d get with a higher-end VPS or dedicated setup. The more dedicated resources your site has, the more well-coded plugins you may be able to get away with using.
Plugin Quality and Optimization
One of the truisms of code is that there is more than one way to make something work. But we also know that some techniques work a whole lot better than others. Consistent quality is so important as all it takes is one resource-hogging plugin to slow everything to a crawl.
The best way to figure out if a plugin has performance problems is to test it. There are a number of third-party testing suites out there that can provide you with a great picture – literally. You can access colorful graphs and charts that will tell you which plugins are taking the most time and resources on your site.
However, those of us with budgetary restrictions may not be able to afford this type of subscription service. Many are aimed at the enterprise market and are priced as such.
But all is not lost. To do some testing on the cheap, the free Query Monitor plugin will provide some insight into how your plugins, database, scripts and styles are performing. It also points out any PHP errors, which can be a factor in degraded performance.
If you do see that a specific plugin isn’t performing well, then that opens the door to testing out an alternative or digging deeper (which we’ll get to later).
A Plugin’s Purpose
A WordPress plugin can mean many things to many people. Not everyone will use them in the same way. And so developers often build plugins in a way that they feel will improve their chances of attracting users. Sometimes the result is a plugin that ends up being a bit like a Swiss army knife, with multiple functionalities included.
While a plugin that does a bit of everything can be great, it can also cause some bloat. On the other side of the coin, you’ll find that some plugins are rather small in scope and size – choosing to focus on just one particular feature.
The debate can be had of whether it’s better to run one plugin that does 20 things, or 20 plugins that each do one thing. Again, there really is no easy answer. It becomes a matter of testing performance.
One thing in favor of the Swiss army knife is that it could make troubleshooting easier. The more plugins you have to keep track of, the harder it can be to pinpoint issues.
One often-overlooked area of plugin performance is in paying attention to its settings. Some plugins run very quickly when tuned a certain way, while sputtering in other configurations.
For instance, I’ve worked with a popular security plugin (which I won’t name, but you may be able to guess) for a number of years. One of its core features is a “Live” mode that lets you see users currently browsing your website. It’s a seriously cool feature, but can also hinder performance on a busy site.
Turning this feature off boosts performance quite noticeably. And while using the plugin may mean taking a small performance hit otherwise, the added security is worth the tradeoff. But knowing how to set it up properly is half the battle.
It’s All About Balance, Not Specific Numbers
As we’ve seen, there are a number of factors that can affect how plugins perform on a WordPress website. It’s the plugins themselves, how they interact with each other, how well they’ve been optimized and the server they’re installed on.
It’s rare to find two sites that are configured exactly the same. Therefore, the ideal number of plugins will vary for pretty much everyone. We can drive ourselves crazy trying to get our site down to only x number of plugins. I’d argue that it’s a waste of time to even worry about the number.
Rather, using plugins (or even custom code you’ve written yourself) is about getting the functionality you need and being willing to live with whatever tradeoffs that come with it.
Sometimes, a plugin will provide great functionality and terrible performance. In that case, you might want to look for a competitive product that is more balanced. Or it could be a matter of turning off certain features that are causing problems. The only way to know for sure is to test and retest.
In the end, the goal is to use only the plugins you need, while optimizing the ones you have to the fullest extent.