Why do you need to use WordPress plugins?

WordPress plugins easily add functionality to your website without making permanent changes to how it works.

Rule #1 of owning a WordPress website is never touch the core code. It’s like playing with fire, you will get burned. All modifications you make—whether custom-built specifically for you or downloaded and installed—should be as a WordPress theme or plugin.

Themes extend WordPress to look a certain way. Plugins extend WordPress to behave a certain way. 

Warning: This added functionality can come with hidden costs.

What I mean here is not always financial cost. Many WordPress plugins are free to use. Instead, the cost of using a plugin typically comes in one or more of the following scenarios:

  1. Increased website load time—paid for by your website visitors waiting longer or abandoning your website for a competitor that loads quicker.
  2. Decreased website stability—paid for in downtime when your website needs to be “fixed” when updates don’t play nicely.
  3. Security risks—paid for by you as the website owner recovering from a hacked or compromised website.

These costs are, thankfully, able to be minimized or avoided outright. Follow these tips to keep your website quick, stable and secure while using WordPress plugins:

Tips to using WordPress plugins safely without the costs.

Tip #1: Be clear on what your functionality needs are before you start searching for WordPress plugins.

While there is no “magic number” of plugins that you need to keep your website below for best performance, that doesn’t mean you want to install loads of plugins on your website. Remember, plugins contain additional resources that add to what you already have installed. Resources contribute to load time, particularly if there are a lot of them.

Combat this by creating and maintaining a list of required functionality you have for your website. You then use this list to shop for exactly the functionality your website needs.

This list should be prioritized based on the following criteria:

  1. Website optimization—plugins that add functionality to improve your website’s overall performance. These include caching, image minification, SEO, etc.
  2. Visitor experience optimization—plugins that directly help your website visitors achieve their goals. These include lead capture, payment gateways, subscription management, etc.
  3. Website owner optimization—plugins that provide shortcuts or ease of use within the Dashboard to make management easier. These include form editors, drag-and-drop builders, pop-up widgets, etc. 

When shopping for plugins, prioritize those that fall into the top two categories.

Spend your resources on functionality that directly impacts and improves the experience for your site visitors first. After that, either minimize the plugins you install in the third category to those you simply can’t live without, or consider working with a developer to achieve your WordPress backend customizations. This will add expense, but it keeps the optimization focus where it matters most—on your visitors.

Tip #2: Select plugins that are actively supported. 

Actively supported WordPress plugins offer better stability and security for your website. They provide security patches for weak points that have been exposed, are tested with the current version of WordPress for compatibility, and offer timely responses to any support requests or questions you may have.

Actively supported plugins will be evident by looking at their WordPress directory page.

At minimum, these are the plugins that have been tested through the current version of WordPress (within a reasonable time after a major release) and have recently resolved support tickets. An active presence by the developer in the support forums is also a good sign that the project has not been abandoned. 

Most plugins will have a link to the developer’s website listed on the directory page. This can also be a good way to check up on the project to see how relevant it is to the current WordPress community. You can click through to see if the developer’s website currently mentions the plugin, provides documentation for using it, and offers support for the specific plugin you are considering.

Long-abandoned plugins will bear a warning from WordPress in the directory.

This screenshot shows that there will be a brief message below the plugin’s graphic banner on the WordPress Plugin Directory when a plugin hasn’t been kept up to date.

This will mean that they have not received a major update in a certain amount of time and are potentially incompatible. At worst, these plugins are at risk for containing security loopholes that have been identified and resolved with more recent updates to WordPress core. In other words, if you see a warning message in the directory, you should consider the plugin off-limits.

Once installed, it is important to keep up with the plugins’ updates regularly. This is how the developers protect their product—and your website—from security lapses and incompatibility issues with WordPress core.

Tip #3: Install the bare minimum and remove any that are no longer active.

Remember: Your goal as a website owner is a fast, stable and secure website. The best way to hit all three of those goals is to be discerning when it comes to installing plugins.

Security and stability increases with fewer plugins.

In addition to adding to the resources your website relies on to load (and increasing the time visitors have to wait to get to your website), plugins provide opportunities for your website to go down or be hacked. This is especially true if you have a large library of plugins installed, don’t keep your plugins up to date, or keep inactive plugins lingering on your website.

Most plugins that you no longer need can be removed from the Dashboard.

You will need to first deactivate the plugin and then delete it. 

Make sure to check the settings of the plugin before you deactivate and delete it. Some automatically save plugin information to your website upon deactivation and have a setting to disable this feature. You may also want to have your developer look in your website’s FTP files after deactivating and deleting old plugins to make sure all related resources have been removed.

Tip #4: Re-evaluate your plugins regularly and whenever your website’s functionality needs update or change.

It is good practice to review your installed plugins regularly. Things to look for include:

  • Rechecking with the developer to make sure the plugin is still actively supported.
  • Evaluating the necessity of a plugin—is it as critical to your website as you initially thought?
  • Opportunities to replace multiple WordPress plugins with a single multi-feature one.

In addition to looking at the plugins themselves, it is also important to review your plugins’ settings.

Make sure you are still using all the individual features they offer. If there is an opportunity to turn off a feature or two you are not using—or that is handled elsewhere on your website—this will help optimize the plugin.

It is especially important to pay attention to the settings of plugins that provide theme updates (colors, fonts, etc.). While it may sound nice to quickly make updates to the look of your website through a plugin, these tend to be the most resource-heavy. Plus, these customizations don’t actually replace anything in your WordPress theme—they add to it.

When it comes to styling, having a set design system in place and handled by your theme better serves your visitors over being able to make customizations on the fly.

Before you go plugin-crazy on your WordPress website, read this.