What is a WordPress Plugin?

WordPress Plugins

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It’s a question we’ve all asked at one stage or another – “What is a WordPress plugin?

And here’s the answer…

A plugin is a script or program you add to the core files to make WordPress do something it wouldn’t normally do.

Okay, so now you know the basic definition of a WordPress plugin, you’re probably asking yourself how to add one to your site.

There are a few ways to do it:

  1. By navigating to the official WordPress plugin repository through the admin area of your website, searching for a suitable plugin, then installing and activating it. I’ve published a more in-depth guide here – how to install a WordPress plugin.
  2. By uploading the zipped file via a built-in feature you’ll find in the admin area.
  3. By uploading the unzipped files via FTP to the Plugins folder on your website’s server.
  4. By uploading the unzipped files via cPanel or your host’s file management system.

What happens after you install the plugin?

It depends. Some are more complicated than others. For example, a premium plugin powering a shopping cart takes a lot of time to configure, whereas a simple plugin for converting a post to a page requires no additional work.

Plugins are also used for:

  • Adding one or more contact forms
  • Adding social sharing buttons so people can share your articles on social media
  • Creating a membership site or area
  • Selling stuff
  • Managing multiple authors and restricting what they can and cannot do
  • Backing up your website
  • Stopping comment spam
  • Getting people to sign up to your mailing list
  • Increasing security
  • And a whole load of other things too…

Don’t worry, most basic plugins are free and available from the WordPress plugin directory or through the admin area of your WordPress site (the easiest route).

However, there’s a growing market of premium plugins – these are ones you pay for. More on these in a moment or two.

It’s not all roses in the world of WordPress plugins. For every excellent plugin, there are a few bad ones. Ones that are badly coded or under-supported. At best, they don’t work properly and at worst, they can break your site.

You might also like to read: The Trouble with (Some) WordPress Plugins.

Free WordPress Plugins

At the time of writing this post there are 36,342 upadting this post there are 50,891 plugins in the official WordPress plugins directory, and the amount increases every day.

The number of free plugins in the WordPress repository as of June 2017
The number of free plugins in the WordPress repository as of June 2017

As you can imagine, thousands of these plugins get lost in the noise, but there are some most WordPress users consider ‘essential’.

They perform tasks every site needs, such as:

  • Catching spam comments
  • Helping with SEO
  • Creating contact forms
  • Backing up the database
  • Social sharing
  • Displaying Google Analytics data without logging into Google
  • Managing multiple authors

After that, your essential list depends upon the goals of your blog and what you use it for.

If you’re a photographer you might want a plugin to display your best work in a portfolio style.

If you run a video site you might need a plugin that seamlessly interacts with YouTube to download videos to your site.

If you want to add a slider to your front a page or inner pages, you’ll need a plugin for that.

Premium WordPress Plugins

A ‘premium’ plugin is one you buy. Some are cheap, some are expensive.

Before you dismiss the idea of paying for a plugin, consider how much extra it brings to your site and how much time it saves you.

In the past I’ve wasted hours trying to find a free plugin for a particular task, only to eventually end up paying a few dollars for one that was quick and easy to set up.

The main advantages of buying a plugin is support and quality.

Because you’ve paid for it, you can pretty much guarantee there will be at least a good level of support should things go wrong.

And because you’ve paid for it, you can usually expect a high standard of coding and ease of setup.

Broken WordPress Plugins

A word of warning: sometimes plugins break. They just stop working for no clear reason.

Why would a plugin suddenly stop working? The most likely cause is an update in WordPress (which typically happens every three months or so) that conflicts with the plugin’s code.

If it happens to a plugin you use and the author’s abandoned the project, you could ask somebody to try to fix it for you (try the WordPress forum) or look for an alternative.

Your Call

I’ve used WordPress since 2006 and tend to stick to using the plugins I know and trust. I don’t see the point in looking for an alternative when something is working well.

That said, there are two types of plugin that I’ve swapped and changed. The first is for social sharing and the second is for backing up my sites and my client’s sites.

I still haven’t found the perfect social sharing plugin (although Social Warfare comes close) and these days I use VaultPress for backups.

Which ones you choose to use depends upon what you want to do, but I hope this post has given you enough of an insight into what a plugin is and what it does for a WordPress site?

If you need help or advice, please ask in the comments or send me an email and I’ll do my best to help you.