WordPress plugins offer a quick and easy way to expand the function of your WordPress website. When searching the WordPress.org plugin directory, or web for a suitable plugin, one has to factor in several criteria to ultimately decide which plugin to utilize.
By day I build WordPress powered websites for small business clients throughout the United States. These clients have real budgets, and average tech abilities, making plugin selection important for long term client happiness. Below are some of the factors I use when selecting a plugin for a project:
- Is this feature really needed? By far the most fundamental and important question when determining whether or not to install a WordPress plugin is this. If the client isn’t going to use the feature, or the feature isn’t essential for the site to operate, than it should be considered “extra” and only installed if there are limited existing plugins.
- Is the plugin popular? Thankfully WordPress does a great job of showing how popular a specific plugin is by showing “Active Installs” within the directory search. A popular plugin is popular for a reason, and is more likely to do what is advertised. A popular plugin also has a large user base useful for finding bugs, and testing the plugin in many diverse environments.
- Is the plugin well maintained? A popular (or not), plugin that is poorly maintained is a cause for concern. With quarterly WP core updates, changing browser specifications and evolving web standards, assuring the plugin you choose is well maintained is key. I review the integrated support forum on WordPress.org, and see if the author responds to bug reports, and generally how well they handle support.
- When was the plugin last updated? Another key metric, again well highlighted by the folks at WordPress is the “Last Updated” report. A plugin that hasn’t been updated in months, or even years should be avoided, or at least used with great caution. Some legendary plugins last for years unchanged, but you shouldn’t base a website or critical feature on an abandoned plugin.
- Who created the plugin? The team (or guy/gal) behind the plugin is going to be the resource to provide updates, and tech support if needed. A company with an actual business model and staff is preferable to an independent developer who is just creating a plugin for fun. That being said, a sole engineer with multiple WordPress plugins under his/her belt, and a passion for making them better can be as good, or better than a company sourced plugin.
- Is the plugin compatible?. Low on the list but certainly important is the compatibility report. WordPress does a great job here as usual, however often times the plugin will not have enough data to make this metric very useful. WordPress updates so often, and the base of users who report compatibility so small, that you’ll find this hard to gauge for all but the most popular plugins.
- How usable is the plugin? Often times you need to actually install and use a plugin before determining this. However, sometimes the author does a great job with the “marketing” and instructional content to enable you to get an idea of how a plugin works and looks before installing. Often I’ll install a plugin, attempt to configure and use it and find myself frustrated or turned off by the user interface or overall experience.
- Is there a paid version? This ties into #3 and a little of #5 but a paid version, or license to entitle you to updates is a good sign that the plugin authors will stick around to support their product. Often the price is low enough, that it makes more sense to pay for the plugin, just to get priority support.
- How heavy is the plugin? Everyone loves a lean plugin but not all plugins stick to the core thing they do well. Feature-creep is real, and a plugin that does one thing, and only one thing very well is always preferable.
Other lesser and/or more obscure criteria:
- Is there an alternative made by Automattic? Automattic (the company behind WordPress) offers an entire suite of plugins (foremost being Jetpack) that might offer the features you’re looking for. Check out their entire list by viewing their author page within the plugin directory.
- Could the plugin features be served by a third party? A good example of this would be videos. Yes you can host your own videos (HTML5 makes this super easy), and yes there exists many plugins that offer video players and more for your WordPress website. However, with no plugins, and no additional maintenance you can host your videos on YouTube (for freee), AND get the benefit of having your videos discover-able on YouTube!
- Can the features of the plugin be replicated with theme functionality? We all know that cramming PHP into functions.php is a bad idea (right?!?) but sometimes a plugin’s functionality can be duplicated using some creative theme work (you’re using a child theme right?!?) and/or HTML/JS/CSS. Instead of a plugin brush up on your PHP and head on over to the theme codex to make a custom theme template with the features you want.
- Does the plugin get good reviews? I don’t read individual reviews, but the “star” rating offered by the WordPress plugin directory is useful if the number of reviews is high enough. We all know that reviews on the web are easily gamed, however in aggregate they can be useful for gauging overall customer/user happiness.