If you have a WordPress.org website (which is different from WordPress.com), then chances are you’re using at least a few plugins. They can be extremely useful for performing tasks not already built into your theme, but can also cause issues such as slowing your site down or even breaking it all together.
This guide to WordPress plugins will go over some of the benefits and issues with plugins, how to make the most of them, and when to get rid of them. I’ve also listed some suggestions for useful plugins that you might like to use on your site.
What is a Plugin?
A plugin is a bit of software that you can download and add to your WordPress site. They’re created by companies and individuals and aim to solve problems or functionality and design gaps that you may have on your site. They’re also useful if you don’t have any coding knowledge or a developer, because they automatically add relevant code to your site that you may not be able to do yourself.
Plugins can be free or have a price attached to them and many offer free versions with an optional premium upgrade. They can also perform a huge range of tasks, from optimising your website for Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) to protecting from hackers, and from adding header images to inserting social media share icons.
Choosing the right plugin can really bring your site up to the next level, but there are a number of things to look out for to make sure you’re not doing more harm than good. Similarly, if you already have plugins on your site, it’s worthwhile doing regular audits to make sure that the pros still outweigh the cons.
Auditing Your WordPress Plugins
Why do I Need An Audit?
Plugins are extremely useful, but they aren’t without their problems, so it’s important to regularly do all you can to protect your site. Potential issues include:
The fewer plugins you have on your site, the less code there is for hackers to access and potentially do damage. The more elements you have on your site, the more room there is for weaknesses in your security.
On WordPress you have a theme, which dictates the overall look and main functionality of your site, and plugins, which are used to enhance the theme and overall website. The plugins need to work well with the themes, WordPress as a whole, and each other, so that your site doesn’t ‘break’.
A ‘break’ is when something doesn’t work as expected. Think about when you get an error message, or you see lots of nonsense text instead of your website.
A broken site can range from the minor – a few lines of code that shouldn’t be there or a slight layout shift – to the major, such as being completely locked out of everything. This can cause some serious issues and, in the worst cases, you could end up losing access to your site altogether, though most website hosts and/or developers will take a regular backup of your site.
When visiting your site, users want to have a smooth and easy experience. They don’t want to be waiting ages (and by ages, I mean 2 seconds or more) for your website to load and show them the information they need.
In general, the fewer plugins on your site, the faster it will run, and the better it will be for your users and for SEO.
How to Audit WordPress Plugins
To see a list of your current plugins, log in to your WordPress dashboard and, on the left-hand menu, select Plugins > Installed Plugins. Remember before making any changes to backup your site so you don’t accidentally lose something important.
Be aware that some themes require and/or recommend that you have certain plugins installed for them to function properly. Check this before removing anything.
Unused & Unnecessary Plugins
Firstly, go through all your current plugins and get rid of those that you don’t use. Any inactive plugins are a great place to start. If they’re inactive, you’re not utilising them and so there’s no need for them to be there.
Next you should go through your active plugins and check whether you’re actually using them on your site. If you’re not sure what they do, you can select View Details to get a more in-depth description. If you’re still not sure after that, try deactivating and then carefully checking through your site to see if anything has changed or is missing.
Finally, look through your remaining plugins and decide whether you really need them. Are they just there to add a bit of jiggery pokery that doesn’t really do anything for your site or its users? Consider how useful it is to your site compared to the negative impacts it might be having. And get rid of it if you can do without.
All plugins can be publicly rated so it’s good to check the star rating and user reviews before installing, or when auditing. Things to look out for are any issues users have faced, does it do what you need it to do, and is it simple enough to use?
Even with the best plugins, things go wrong, so it’s good to know if there’s support available for those times. Is there a dedicated team available to answer questions and fix bugs? Are they prompt to respond and action any changes? Remember that support might be there, but only for paid subscribers.
WordPress is regularly releasing new versions to keep up-to-date and to fix identified bugs. Is your plugin compatible with your current version of WordPress (which should usually be the most recent one)? If WordPress has only just updated, plugins may not be immediately compatible while developers do checks and make updates, but they should catch up fairly quickly. When you download a new plugin you will see whether or not it’s been tested with your version of WordPress.
Like WordPress, plugins should be regularly updated to ensure they’re in line with current best practices and to fix any identified issues. Again, when you go to the download page for a particular plugin, there will be an indication as to how recently it’s been updated. Plugins that haven’t been updated for a long time are best avoided, as they’re more likely to have issues and a lack of technical support.
As part of your audit – or more regularly if you can, make sure you update your installed plugins when prompted to do so. As always, take a backup first in case anything goes wrong.
You may have found the perfect plugin for your site, but if it severely slows down your page load time, then you may want to consider finding an alternative.
To roughly identify a plugin’s affect on your page speed, make sure it’s activated and then go to Google’s PageSpeed Insights and type in your URL to analyse it. Make a note of your results, then deactivate the plugin and run another analysis. If your score has suddenly increased, then chances are your plugin is causing the issue.
It’s worth noting that, while PageSpeed Insights will give you an idea of a plugin’s impact on load time, it’s not an exact science and, unless you’re seeing a jump of more than a few points, it may be worth keeping. Again, you need to find the balance between usefulness and effect.
Read my handy blog about Page Speed.
12 Useful WordPress Plugins for Your Website
There are over 50,000 WordPress plugins out there, so it can be difficult to narrow down which ones to use. Here are a selection of some that are popular and useful for many businesses. Most are free and have paid options to further boost their usefulness.
As always, every business is different, so everyone will have different requirements from their plugins. Remember to do your research and think about how beneficial a plugin will be to your site before you install it.
1. Yoast SEO
Easily implement a huge range of useful SEO features and receive guidance on best practices when optimising.
A flexible drag-and-drop page builder that enables you to easily add elements onto your website and build good-looking designs.
Offers a number of features in one plugin instead of several, including social share buttons, additional security features, and optimisation options. It’s also developed by the same team behind WordPress.
Prevent spam comments and messages on your website, which can slow things down and create a negative experience for your users.
Stores data so that a user doesn’t have to reload everything the next time they visit your site. That means they get a faster experience than if they had to load every element of a page each time.
If you have a lot of images on your site, then Smush will compress and optimise them, therefore taking up less space and helping increase page load time.
If you sell anything, WooCommerce will upgrade your regular WordPress site to an online store. You can sell everything from services to physical products, and lots of options give you plenty of flexibility.
Allows you to easily add redirects from a page that no longer exists, so your users don’t end up with an error and you don’t have broken links across your site. Though you should always try and replace old links with new ones on your own site, rather than relying on redirects.
Make sure Google and other search engines know the structure of your website and how all your pages relate with an XML sitemap.
Easily create contact forms on your website so that customers and clients can get in touch.
11. Contact Form 7
An alternative, easy-to-use plugin for creating contact forms.
Link Google Analytics to your website and manage it from your WordPress dashboard. It’s very useful for tracking website traffic, user behaviour and more.
Plugins can greatly improve your WordPress website, but make sure you’re using high-quality ones that are beneficial to your site and users. Schedule in a regular audit to ensure they’re still performing well and still remain up-to-date.