Once you get your WordPress site up and running, you’ll most likely want to enhance its appearance and functionality. Appearance we’ll cover soon; today we’re going to talk about functionality in the form of plugins.
What is a ‘plugin’? In the words of the WordPress Codex,
Plugins are tools to extend the functionality of WordPress.
The WordPress core program, by design, concentrates on basic functionality. Plugins can extend WordPress to do almost anything you can think of.
That’s a good thing, right? It is, most of the time.
Odds are, if you want your site to do something special you can find a plugin already written that will do it. Slideshows, widgets, SEO enhancements, custom post types (beyond posts and pages), e-commerce, whirleygigs, whatever. There are over 26,000 plugins on the WordPress Plugin Repository. You want a forum? There’s a plugin (several, in fact) for that. Think your site will run faster if it’s cached? Plugin for that, too. Your own social networking site? Covered.
Unfortunately, some people tend to go overboard with plugins. What they don’t realize, or consider, is that every activated plugin interrupts the natural flow of getting your site to the viewer’s browser. WordPress is built with hundreds of action hooks and filters, specifically placed to allow developers to alter or enhance the way WP works.
A developer can ‘hook’ into an action hook and make the site do something – pull in outside content, add features, etc. If we wanted to add a box after every post to show social link buttons, we would use an action hook.
Filters let the developer alter what WP has already packaged up while building the page. For instance, if we wanted to change the ‘read more’ link to say, “follow along to the rest of the post with this link”, we’d use a filter. We could look at the content of every post and change every instance of the word ‘Superman’ to read ‘he who leaps tall buildings in a single bound’. You get the picture.
These changes all come with a price – longer page load times for your visitor. Every time you add something to WP in the form of a plugin, it’s like sending a train down a sidetrack through town. It slows it down. A single plugin by itself may not slow down the site enough to be noticeable, because computers work so fast. But when you add 20, 30, 40 or more plugins (yes, I saw a site with 47 plugins running – crawling, rather), it can slow your site down to a slug’s pace.
One of the great things of the WordPress community-driven plugin repository is that anyone can author a plugin and have it available there. It’s also one of the bad things.
The repository software checks for some basic vulnerabilities (like scanning for obvious malware) but beyond that, it’s up to the community to judge the worth of the plugin. Sometimes this can mean that terribly-written plugins make their way out into the world. Sometimes it means that though a plugin may have once worked, it might not work with the latest versions of WordPress.
A worse scenario is that the plugin that you just installed doesn’t play nice with other plugins, and your whole site goes dark.
There are any number of ugly things that can happen.
What You Should Do
If you use these guidelines, you should be ok:
- Only use a plugin when you absolutely must. The new gizmo might be nice, but do you really need it?
- Pay attention to the comments and support forums for the plugin that you want to use? Are there many unresolved support requests? You have to be sensible about this because people can post support requests or comments for the strangest things (some even totally unrelated to the plugin), but you should be able to gauge the willingness and ability of the plugin author to support their plugin
- Only use those plugins certified by the author to work with your version of WordPress (you are using the latest version, right?) and that show signs of being updated regularly.
- It’s also a good idea to see how many people have downloaded and are using the plugin. You want a number in the thousands, to be safe. You don’t want to be the guinea pig.
Plugins are a way to make your site do things it couldn’t normally do. But be sensible in their use.