What is a WordPress plugin?
WordPress is a very flexible platform for building a website. The ‘out of the box’ set up has very limited functionality but it is easy to get the functionality you need by adding ‘plugins’ (add-on software programs).
My list of essential plugins
To give you an example of the sort of functionality that you can add, I will share my list of essential plugins.
MathRank – This plugin adds extra features to help you improve your On Page SEO and your technical SEO.
Ithemes security – This plugin helps to secure your website against hackers and other security issues.
Updraft – If you are managing your own website backups you also need a backup plugin. This plugin is one of the best free backup plugins around.
My list of plugins I use to speed up WordPress websites
Each site is different and depending on how it has been built it may need several plugins or it may only need one. I have been speeding up websites for years and I have used a wide range of free and premium plugins. Below are some of my favourite.
Autoptomize – this works well for basic sites, it will get you most of the way there.
Asset clean up– this is for the more technical people who are optimising sites with more files that need moving around or disabling on certain pages.
WebP Express– delivers WebP versions of your images for faster loading
Host fonts locally – speeds up the delivery of your fonts
Host Google Analytics locally– speeds up the delivery of Google analytics code
Where can you find plugins?
There are lots of FREE WordPress plugins in the WordPress repository.
There are lots of premium plugins on the Envato website .
Other premium plugins can be bought from the website of the company that have built the plugin such as WooCommerce who provide free and premium plugins for E-commerce stores.
How to choose a good plugin
Choosing a plugin depends on;
- Your budget
- The features you need
- The reputation of the plugin developer
- The reputation of the plugin
- How well supported the plugin is
Some plugins are free, some you have to pay for.
If you are on a tight budget you may be able to find a free plugin, perhaps with limited functionality, to do what you need.
If you are looking for a free plugin from the repository – check out the following;
- How much positive feedback the plugin has
- When was it last updated? i.e. is it actively being supported and updated? Some plugins haven’t been updated for a long time. Avoid these plugins.
- Is it compatible with your version of WordPress? This should be the latest version – always keep your WordPress core software updated.
The perfect FREE plugin is one that also has a paid option. Why? These plugins are being actively supported. The free version is often similar to the paid version, but will a few less options.
The four plugins in my list of essential plugins all have an option to upgrade to a premium version. So, you can trust these plugins are going to be of a very high standard.
It might feel quite tempting to go for a plugin with lots of features but you might not need them all. So be specific about what you need and try to not go for the all singing all dancing plugin.
Sometimes, your theme may have features that you are not aware of so before you consider a plugin, thoroughly check your theme doesn’t provide the feature you are looking for.
I use the theme Divi to build websites and it has a good amount of inbuilt features. One of those features is a contact form. Now, I have seen websites built with Divi where the owner has added a plugin to build a contact form when they just didn’t need it.
The RankMath SEO plugin has a redirection section. I have seen lots of websites using the Yoast SEO plugin which doesn’t handle redirections and so, a redirection plugin has been added. It makes me really happy to replace Yoast with RankMath, not only is it far superior but you can do away with the redirection plugin!
So, double check, do you really need that feature and if you do, does your website already have that feature somewhere.
Reputation & support
When you commit to a plugin you may find yourself using it for many years to come. It is important to make sure you use plugins from reputable developers. Look at the feedback they get, look at how well they support their users. If you just use any old plugin, this is what happens;
If the plugin isn’t well supported it shows the developer has lost interested and the plugin will eventually go obsolete. In this case you will have to replace the plugin.
If the plugin hasn’t been well coded it can cause lots of problem on your site. The code can cause clashes with other code and cause bugs. In some situations it can make your whole site crash. The quality of plugins is obvious when you start carrying out plugin updates. You may have heard stories about an update breaking a whole site. This is usually because of poor plugin selection.
When should you use a plugin
When you see the amount of plugins available for free it can be very tempting to to add so many whistles and bells to your website but this is a huge mistake for several reasons;
- A slower website. Each plugin adds code to your website and that code can slow down your website. Better quality plugins should only load code when it is being used but unfortunately, many plugins load their code on every page and this leads to a slower website.
- A harder to optimise website. You can of course use caching plugins to improve speed but they combine files and the more files that get combined the harder it is to get the caching to work properly.
- A harder to maintain website. Each plugin needs to be maintained (updated regularly). If you have a ton of plugins this means more time updating and more time debugging when something goes wrong.
- A more expensive website. If you are using premium plugins then you will have lots of licences to buy!
- More security risks. With each plugin comes a risk that it might make your website a little bit more insecure. This is because you don’t really know what is in the code. Sometimes there are weaknesses that hackers can exploit to gain access to your site. This is another reason to make sure your plugins are from reputable sources. If it becomes clear that a plugin can affect your sites security, a reputable developer will fix the problem and send out an update asap.
You should only use plugins when you want to add functionality that has a business purpose, and not because you want a fancy feature!
When you should avoid using plugins
When you want to add a fancy feature feature. There is a ‘grid’ plugin my client was using. It put three images in her page header, using a fancy loading effect.
It did nothing to improve the usefulness of her website, it just added to the page load time.
I created a new banner image consisting of three images and removed the plugin. This helped to speed up the website.
Another time you should avoid using plugins is to cut corners. I’ve seen lots of people use ‘Simple SSL’ plugin. Oh, this causes lots of problems! It is worth setting up SSL properly and not using a plugin. You only have to ask your web host and they should help you do it right. So please, don’t take shortcuts.
Another shortcut is image compression. You absolutely must do this BEFORE you upload your images to your website. You get better results, honestly. Don’t rely on a plugin for this. I understand that if you have hundreds of images you can’t go and resize them all. But if you have a new website start as you mean to go on…. Don’t rely on plugins too much!
How to update and maintain plugins
There is only one safe way to update your plugins. On a staging site.
If you have a good hosting package you might have the ability to create a staging site. I highly recommend you create a staging site then update your plugins one at a time. Only when you know the update doesn’t break your site should you update the plugin on your live site.
If you don’t have a staging site then you risk bringing your whole site down if the plugin update doesn’t go well.
To minimise the problems a bad update can cause always do the following;
- Make a website backup just before you do a plugin update. Also know how to recover from the backup too
- Update WordPress to the latest version
- Check the plugin is compatible with the latest version of WordPress
- If it is compatible, press the update button
- Test the functionality. If it’s all good, update the next plugin
- Do this one at a time
Set your plugins to autoupdate. Why? If they auto update in the middle of the night and there is a problem on your site you won’t know. Your site could have a problem for a long time and you won’t know about it.
Update all your plugins at the same time. Why? If there is a problem you won’t know which plugin is the culprit.
How to recover from a bad plugin update
If you have updated a plugin and your site has crashed then to get your site back you will need to quickly disable the offending plugin.
If you can’t access your WordPress admin area to disable the plugin then you need to access your file through your hosting account or through FTP.
Log in to your hosting account and find your website file manager.
Navigate to the public_html/wp-content/plugins folder. Your file structure may differ slightly. If it does, just try to find the plugins folder.
In this folder find the folder of the plugin you suspect to be causing a problem and rename the folder.
Your website should now come back online.
Once you have identified a bad plugin you should keep it disables and you can either look for a replacement or wait until the developer has updated it again so you can re-try the update.
If you want a site that is safe, fast to load and easy to maintain, limit the number of plugins you have on your site.
Think carefully about the features you want on your site, stick to features that you need for your website to work well and not just to make it look fancy.
Make sure you update your plugins one a time, and always take a backup before you do.
Over to you
How many plugins do you have on your website? Do you find updating them a bit of nightmare?