How to pick WordPress plugins like a pro

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WordPress expert David Vogelpohl from WP Engine answers questions from the Wealthy Affiliate community around WordPress and strategies for hosting WP sites.

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With affiliate optimization experience as a publisher, affiliate, and in outsourced program management, WordPress expert David Vogelpohl shares a unique and very informed point of view on how you can use WordPress to help drive success in your affiliate business.

In the second part of our interview series, we spoke to David to get more of his take on answers to the most common affiliate questions around WordPress plugins (you can read part 1 here.)

What should I look for when choosing a plugin? What are warning signs to not use a specific plugin?

DV: Choosing a plugin for your site can be a great way to add much needed functionality; however, choosing a plugin is like choosing a partner in your business. Their success is your success, but their failures are also your failures. Because of this, it’s a great idea to choose your plugins carefully.

The criteria I use to choose a plugin for the sites I manage cover four key areas.

The functional review

I ask myself, “Does the plugin do what I need it to do, and am I using most or all of the things the plugin does?” For example, if all you need a plugin to do is generate a sitemap, perhaps Yoast is more than you need. Yoast does indeed create sitemaps, but it does much much more than that. For someone who only needs to create a sitemap and doesn’t need all of Yoast’s other wonderful SEO features, I might recommend they seek out a plugin more focused on their specific use case. In some cases, installing plugins that solve problems outside your target use case might still be the right call, but think long and hard about if the plugin you’re evaluating does more than you need it to do.

The business audit

The second area I focus on is understanding the importance of the plugin to the person or company which made the plugin. The goal here is to understand the role of the plugin in the plugin author’s business. The reason this is important to me is that as WordPress evolves, plugin authors need to release updates in order for the plugin to work properly with new features released in WordPress itself. If a particular plugin was a weekend project or part of a failed business venture, then I might not have confidence that plugin will be maintained.

Click on the people and company names under “Contributors & Developers” in the plugin’s wordpress.org/plugins listing (example) to see who is involved in the project. Research the companies or individuals listed in “Contributors & Developers” and see if you can figure out if the authors’ businesses are aligned with keeping the plugin you’re considering up to date. If the plugin seems like a weekend project or unimportant to the author’s overall business, it might not be the best plugin for you.

The wordpress.org audit

Most plugins in the WordPress ecosystem will be listed on wordpress.org/plugins and each plugin’s listing can provide you with valuable information on the quality of the plugin. When looking at a plugin in wordpress.org, click on the “Advanced View” link in the righthand side of the listing. Here is an example of that view for WP Engine’s automated migration plugin.

When auditing a plugin, I typically look to see if the plugin is “Tested up to” the most current version of WordPress, the last time the plugin was updated under “Last updated,” the number of “Active Installations,” and the "Ratings & Reviews" for the plugin to get a sense of how popular the plugin is and how dutiful the plugin’s author is at keeping the plugin up to date. Plugins with very little users, bad reviews, or with infrequent updates may be a plugin worth avoiding.

The functional tests

After finding a plugin that I think will do the job, where the author seems to be invested in keeping the plugin up to date, and has a healthy profile on wordpress.org, I’ll then install the plugin on a staging or local copy of my website and start to test. Of course, part of this testing is to see if the plugin I’ve selected truly will do the job I need it to do, but to also see if the plugin introduces any conflicts with other plugins or negatively affects my website’s performance.

Run all of your normal tests for the functionality of your website after installing a new plugin (e.g. Do my forms still work?, Does my slider still work?, and so on.) Once you confirm the plugin works as expected, there are no conflicts with existing plugins, and that any hit to your website’s performance is acceptable, you should be good to go to live.

For your convenience, you can also check out the WP Engine Solution Center, which is free for anyone to use and includes a list of plugins where WP Engine has performed similar audits to the methods described above. We also also perform code quality reviews of plugins listed in the Solution Center. While informed recommendations like those found in the Solution Center can be a helpful shortcut to discovering quality plugins, always make sure to do your own homework and be comfortable with the plugins you add to your site. Remember, choosing a plugin is like choosing a partner in your business.

Should I ever pay for a plugin?

DV: The answer here depends a bit on the site you’re building and your strategy, but my general answer here is “Yes!” There are tons of free plugins in the WordPress ecosystem that are typically found on wordpress.org. While all of these plugins/themes are free to download and use, many will still require some form of paid service in order to use certain features.

For example, MailChimp has a free plugin on wordpress.org, but that plugin requires a MailChimp API key in order to send data between MailChimp and WordPress. The plugin itself is free, but access to the needed API functions requires a paid account of some kind.

There are also plugins that are not listed on wordpress.org which may be free or paid.

So why would you ever pay for a plugin when you may be able to find a 100% free version that offers similar functionality?

DV: The answer here is simply quality. If a plugin or theme author receives payment for their software (in one form or another) they are more likely to invest in keeping that software up to date, adding new features over time, and generally building a quality product. If the author has no financial benefit, they might not feel the need to continue to invest in that plugin. If you’re going to rely on a plugin to support your digital business, choosing plugins with a clear financial benefit to the author likely means that software is as valuable to the author as it is to you.

While many free plugins are maintained by responsible authors without any form of direct financial compensation, choosing premium plugins can help provide you assurances the author will continue to invest in the software you’re choosing to rely on in your digital business.

How many plugins are too many plugins?

DV: People are often concerned about the number of plugins that run on their site and the effect of multiple plugins on their website’s performance. This is such a common question that a student in my son’s 3rd grade class asked me this very thing during my career day presentation on WordPress.

The answer to “How many plugins is too many?” is nuanced. The way to think about this is that each plugin you have installed performs a collection of actions, and each of those actions can (but not always) tax your website’s performance. A plugin’s tax on your performance might be necessary (e.g. processing a lead form) or might include actions you don’t even realize the plugin is performing, which may or may not be necessary.

The answer to “How many plugins is too many?” is more of an analysis around the actions the plugins you have installed are performing vs. a raw number of plugins.

For example, If you have 100 plugins that individually perform a single simple action each, then 100 plugins might be just fine for you. If you have even just one plugin performing 100’s of inefficient and complex actions, that one plugin could be too many plugins.

In general, I don’t worry too much about the number of plugins I’m using, but I do spend a lot of time wondering if a specific plugin would add value or continue to add value to my website.

When you choose a new plugin, test your site’s performance (in a staging copy of your website) before and after you add the plugin. If the plugin slows your website down a bit, then ask yourself “Is the value that plugin is adding to my site worth a performance hit?" In many cases, a plugin won’t slow down your site at all. But if it does, be aware of the performance cost of introducing the plugin in the first place.

I recommend using WebPageTest.org for testing the performance of your website’s speed.

If your site is slow now and you have a lot of plugins, try disabling each plugin (in a staging copy of your website) one-by-one and test the performance of your site before and after you disable each plugin. Using this approach can help you isolate the plugins that have the biggest impact on your performance and help guide you on the need to possibly remove a plugin, replace it with a better plugin, or find other alternatives.

Plugins are a wonderful way to add functionality to your website, but make sure you understand the impact a plugin will have on your performance before you add it to your live website!

We will continue to speak to David on WordPress in part three, which covers more popular Wealthy Affiliate community questions including:

  • What is Gutenberg?
  • How do I pick the best WordPress theme? 

If you’re looking for other insights into how to optimize your affiliate business, we encourage you to register for the Wealthy Affiliate community, as well as read more of our Market Insights.

These insights were brought to you by David Vogelpohl. David serves on the senior leadership team at WP Engine, where he leads WordPress ecosystem strategy and its Genesis business unit. David is a digital veteran with over 20 years of experience leading teams building, growing, and scaling digital businesses. David also owned and operated an advanced WordPress agency serving clients globally including marquee clients like WP Engine, Pioneer Electronics, and Esurance.

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