How to Choose
a WordPress Plugin
for your website
This is how I choose a WordPress plugin - the best, most suitable WordPress plugin - for any website.
Imagine you have 180 seconds to choose a WordPress plugin that will let your readers vote how good your site is by clicking on a few stars in a rating widget on your posts.
What's the first thing you would do?
- Search Google
- Search on WordPress.org
- Search from your WordPress Dashboard
At the end of this post you'll be able to find that plugin. Probably in 180 seconds.
So many plugins!
Now, in real life you'll rarely be restricted to just three minutes to pick a way to add an important function to your website.
But with almost 56,000 plugins to choose from, trying to pick the best WordPress plugin for your website might feel just as overwhelming. It's a daunting task for a lot of people.
Let’s say you want to add a widget to allow your visitors to rate your blog posts. WordPress doesn’t do that out of the box. But thanks to the modular design of WordPress (you can add extra bits of code to do extra things; think of it like Lego) and the power of plugins you can add this functionality.
First of all, you can write your own plugin quite easily. But, you might ask, with more than 55,000 WP plugins out there, surely someone has written something to do this already?
Chance are very high that they have. And you can find it. I'm not going to say this is how you should choose a WordPress plugin. But here's how I select the best WordPress plugin for my needs.
What's a plugin? A definition
According to the WordPress Codex:
Plugins are ways to extend and add to the functionality that already exists in WordPress.
The core of WordPress is designed to be lean and lightweight, to maximize flexibility and minimize code bloat. Plugins then offer custom functions and features so that each user can tailor their site to their specific needs.
Sounds great and it is. But we live in an imperfect world with imperfect software and there are a few problems with this approach.
The problems choosing a WordPress plugin
1. The sheer number
There are a lot of plugins for WordPress. Like, A LOT! 55, 268 of them at the time I'm writing this. By the time you're reading this that number will be higher.
Anyone can write a plugin. Not all of them make it to the WordPress repository but clearly many do. And, as Barry Schwartz notes, more choice can make it harder to choose a WordPress plugin as well as make us less satisfied with our choices!
2. Similar functionality among many plugins
If you search the WordPress plugin repository for "sidebar widget" you get 468 pages of results. How about something more obscure, like adding footnotes to your posts? Still about 70 plugins in the results. Clearly some or all of these could do just what you want it to so. But which one?
3. Is the plugin any good?
And of course, when you choose a WordPress plugin, you need to know that it does it's job well instead of causing you more problems when you go to update. Or worse, security problems that leave a crack open for a hacker to squeeze through. Luckily, the repositories have a rating system can that can help here.
4. Is the plugin dangerous?
Ah, yes, is it safe to use the plugin you've selected? Malware can creep into plugins even in the official WordPress repository so be vigilant as ever. Last year a very common widget was removed from the WordPress plugin repository because the authors started adding malware to the code!
5. Is the plugin up to date?
As you know by now, WordPress gets updates pretty often so plugins need to keep up with the changes in WordPress core. Not only that, they need to stay abreast of the latest security threats LINK and make sure their code is fairly safe. A plugin that was last updated 2 years ago can't be relied on.
How to choose a WordPress plugin more easily
These are general guidelines only; always use your own discretion and simple common sense.
These are all equally important things to consider – we don’t want to choose a WordPress plugin based only on popularity. Nor do we want to install a plugin with the highest rating but which might not have been updated in 3 years!
1. Decide what you want to do
I usually make a list of must haves, nice to haves and must not haves. Even if it's only in my head. This helps me be more discriminating once I start sifting through the available plugins.
2. Where to find WordPress plugins?
These are some of the best places to find WordPress plugins.
- The official WordPress repository at https://wordpress.org/plugins/
These plugins are official because they adhere to the WordPress coding guidelines, they've been checked as non malicious and work correctly with other WordPress code.
Amazingly, though, even after a major overhaul of the repository, there is no way to sort the plugins based on different criteria! This makes it extremely difficult to sort and choose from the available WordPress plugins.
- The unofficial WordPress Plugin Directory at http://wpplugindirectory.org/
Plugins can actually be sorted here. Great! There's also less choice as the selection is curated by humans, which should make it easier for you to choose a WordPress plugin.
- Here's an interesting Periodic Table of the top 108 most popular WordPress plugins. I don't find it particularly easy to use but the plugins listed here are most likely trustworthy and good at their job.
3. Check the number of active installs
A plugin's popularity should not be the main criteria to base your choice on; the masses can often be wrong. But it's still important to know that the WordPress community in general know, like and trust this plugin.
So first I look only for plugins that have lots of installs. By lots I mean tens of thousands! If it is installed on lots of WordPress websites then chances are it's trustworthy and does it's job well.
On the other hand, very few downloads doesn't necessarily mean it's bad; it could be relatively new and unknown.
In our example, for the search “ratings widget” in the official repository, a quick scroll through the first few pages of results shows us several plugins with 10,000 or more installs. These are good numbers.
Also, another plugin has just a few hundred installs – this isn’t a number that inspires confidence. Sure, it could be a new plugin or very specialised but we’re in a hurry here to get our website going – not to get it perfect.
4. Check the plugin ratings
Obviously, high ratings are a good sign. Obviously, low ratings are not.
A higher rating is better but don’t miss the important number of ratings. A rating of 4 by 1,000 people is a better indication of quality than a rating of 5 by 3 people (developers have friends who will rate anything highly.)
5. Check when it was last updated
A plugin should be updated regularly to keep abreast of WordPress updates and security threats. A recent update means the developers are on top of things and responding to feedback from users, fixing problems, adding new features and plugging security holes. A plugin last updated two years ago is usually NOT worth a look; the WP community progresses quickly, so leave it behind!
In our example, the most installed plugins range from an update of a few days ago – great! – to to 6 months and more.
For those of you who want to be really thorough ...
6. Do a quick search for past problems
Some plugins have had major problems associated with them in the past. For example, some extremely popular plugins are among the most hacked WordPress plugins out there. You might want to be aware of this!
7. Check in the vulnerability database
The WordPress vulnerability database at https://wpvulndb.com/ contains up-to-date information on the latest security problems found in WordPress plugins. It's trusted by people like Sucuri so you can trust it too. But it can be fairly technical.
Rinse & Repeat
All of the above can be done in a matter of minutes by scrolling through the first few results pages of the official repository. Using the unofficial repository will be even easier.
So, now that I’ve narrowed it down to three or four possibilities, only NOW do I spend any time reading about features, support etc. With this approach I’ve uncovered lots of great plugins that covered my needs pretty well.
I’ve found it pays to be knowledgeable about exactly what you need and what’s available. You can do this by doing a Google search before searching the WordPress repository. In this way, you might find, for example, that the kind of sidebar you want on your site is referred to as a custom sidebar. Now you'll know what terms to search for in the repository.
One Final Tip — Test Before You Buy
Before you finally choose a WordPress plugin, I suggest that you put together a shortlist of candidates. Test each on a non-production version of your website. You’ll want to make sure that the plugins can do what you need without conflicts or causing any other problems for your WordPress site.
So, back to our quiz. You now know there are more options than just a Google search and a look in the official WordPress plugin repository.
You can use those options as part of your more methodical search to choose a WordPress plugin. And you can be sure you've found a plugin that's secure, up to date, well tried and tested and useful.
It might seem like a lot to do but once you follow the steps above a few times you'll be able to find a suitable plugin in a few minutes. Maybe.
Is this overkill? Do you have a different way of choosing a WordPress plugin for your site? Let me know below.
- Many years of my own plugin frustration