Plugins are one of the handiest things about WordPress, allowing us to do all sorts of things WordPress can’t do by itself. But like all great things, they have quirks. Here’s how to use them, and tips for using them well.
What is a plugin?
A plugin adds functionality to your self-hosted WordPress site. That’s a fancy way of saying they let you do more cool stuff on your blog.
You might think of plugins like you think of kitchen appliances. You have a kitchen which allows you to cook, but different appliances allow you to add more functionality to your kitchen. For example, if you want to make toast, you’d add a toaster. If you want to make waffles, you’d add a waffle maker.
In the same way, a self-hosted WordPress site is great on its own, but you can make it even more functional and easy to use by adding plugins. If you want to automatically backup your site, you’d add a backup plugin. If you want to add social sharing buttons to your posts, you’d add a social sharing plugin. You get the idea.
Plugins I use
I list plugins I use on my tools page.
How to install plugins
Many plugins are available in the WordPress Plugin Directory and can be installed directly in your WordPress Dashboard.
To add a plugin from your WordPress Dashboard, go to Plugins > Add New. Type in the name of the plugin in the search bar, click Install. Once it’s installed, the “Install Now” button will switch to “Activate.” Click it to Activate.
Don’t see the plugin you want by searching? Some have to be uploaded.
Go to the appropriate website where the plugin can be purchased or downloaded in its zipped form. Save it to your computer (note the location) and don’t unzip it.
Next, go to Dashboard > Plugins > Add New. Click “Upload Plugin” at the top of the screen. Click the Choose File button, find the zipped file and click Install Now.
You’ll need to Activate the plugin to use it.
Some plugins have settings to configure. Go to Plugins > Installed Plugins. Click on the “Settings” link under any plugin (if applicable).
Plugins cannot be used with Blogger or WordPress.com
I know a lot of you use Blogger (the platform I’d use if I had to go with free). Unfortunately, plugins aren’t available on Blogger.
1. Plugins tend to slow your site down
Every time you add a plugin, you add more computer code under the hood of your site. More code means more stuff for the search engines and other computer-y things to wade through. And more to wade through often means a slower site.
No one likes slower sites — not readers and especially not search engines like Google (which we are all trying to please so they send visitors our way!).
So, because plugins draw on your site’s resources, if you can avoid a plugin, do. The faster your site loads, the better. Not only does it make it nicer for your visitors, fast-loading sites have an SEO edge.
2. Plugins can be buggy
Plugins are written by all kinds of people with varying levels of expertise. Plus, things online change constantly. For those reasons, plugins sometimes wig out, or cause other things on your site to wig out. Therefore, plugins should be one of the first things you suspect if your site starts doing funny things.
3. Use plugins for function not fun
When used correctly, plugins are extremely powerful, but in my opinion, they are overused by a lot of bloggers and site owners.
Because plugins can cause trouble, use as few as necessary. Avoid going plugin crazy. Unless it significantly improves the usability of your blog, I suggest you pass. Stick to only the most essential plugins that offer the highest benefit.
4. Keep plugins updated
Keep all your plugins updated. You can see any pending updates by hovering over Dashboard in the left column and clicking on Updates.
Alternatively, a red notification number will pop up next to your Plugins list in your Dashboard when there’s an update available.
5. Plugin troubleshooting
If you notice site trouble, deactivate your plugins one at a time (starting with your most recently installed one). If your site behaves properly again after a plugin is deactivated, it’s likely you’ve isolated the culprit.
At that point you can delete the offending plugin and try another one like it if it’s a necessity (search the Plugin Directory using similar keywords). You can also try contacting the plugin author for help, but this may or may not be fruitful depending on the plugin. Paid-for plugins should offer some type of support. If those options don’t help and you can’t live without it, you could hire someone to write a new one for you.
6. Just because someone you know uses a particular plugin doesn’t mean you should too
We’ve all done it. A big blogger professes their love for a particular plugin and we all race to install it (maybe thinking it’ll help us be big too?). Go easy on the plugins. Only install them as you need them. Plugins are handy, but generally they aren’t miraculous. Excellent content still wins.
Also, you’ll find a lot of “must have” plugin lists online, but much of the time they are must have plugins for the person writing the list, not ones you may ever use yourself.
7. Delete unused plugins
An installed plugin can exist in two different forms on your blog: activated or deactivated. A plugin that’s activated means it is functioning (turned “on”). A plugin that’s deactivated means it’s there but not functioning (turned “off”).
If you have a plugin that’s deactivated, it’s best to delete it. You’ll see the delete option if you hover over the plugin name under Dashboard –> Plugins –> Installed Plugins. If you’re one of those “but what if I need it later!??!” types, write the name of the plugin down on a “plugins I may want to use someday” list. You can always install it again later.