If you manage a website in any capacity, you’ve heard of plugins. Plugins have long played a major role in computer programming, web browsing, and native apps. Plugins are widely used to ensure basic functions of your website work smoothly, including loading fonts and images fast, displaying videos, protecting against hackers, and improving search engine optimization (SEO).
While plugins can be useful, here’s where we throw up the caution flag: They are often created and sold by third-party developers – people who did not create your website. Before you throw a plugin at a problem, we have five things we’d like you to consider.
First, what is a plugin, exactly?
A plugin is a modular piece of code that you “plug in” to your website in order to enable certain features. There are thousands of plugins out there that perform just about any function you can think of. Some help your blog posts rank higher on search engines. Others allow you to customize your website's fonts and display videos or photos.
If you need a certain feature your website doesn't already have, or want to make a customization, it's tempting to search for a third-party plugin. However, while plugins can be helpful, they can also bring headaches. For example, a third-party plugin intended to add a feature on your homepage may have CSS (the code that determines the look and feel of your website) that affects another page in a negative way. Before you know it, you’re piling plugins on top of plugins and nothing is working well together.
The alternative to installing plugins is to create a customized solution with a website developer. Together, you can plan up front and build your desired features into the website so everything runs properly and simply.
Before installing a plugin, here are some questions to ask to know if it’s the best way to accomplish your goals:
1. Is this plugin functionality-focused or design-focused?
Functionality-focused plugins are great for creating a custom post type or connecting a Google Form entry to a spreadsheet. On the flip side, you should almost never use a plugin to make design changes. By necessity, many plugin developers use heavy-handed, bad styling practices that ensure their product will work on any website. Unfortunately, this also creates long-term problems. The best plugins include minimal CSS, if any.
2. How narrowly-focused is this plugin?
Check to see if the plugin comes with features you won't use. Extra features can add code bloat to your site and slow it down. Plus, you might end up spending extra hours stripping out things you don't want or need.
3. What's this plugin’s back-end user experience?
When it comes to plugins, crafting the frontend visitor User Experience (UX) is a given. However, many don’t think about how plugins affect UX on the backend for website managers and marketers tasked with making changes. Some plugins come with ads, upsells, and endless notifications that can be annoying and time consuming. Other plugins are just hard to navigate and create more roadblocks than green lights.
4. Is this plugin from a reputable developer?
Plugins can be big security risks. Determining if a plugin is reputable can be hard to determine. Ask a developer you trust to help you sniff out whether or not something fishy is happening.
5. Is this plugin widely used and has it been regularly updated?
Faulty plugins can pose a significant threat to your website’s security and performance. If a plugin has a significant number of active users and is regularly updated, you can rest easy that it is trustworthy and bug-free. You can use the WordPress Plugins Repository to look up these stats.
Plugins in themselves are not bad or risky! They are a very useful tool for keeping code modular. The trouble comes in when a plugin tries to do too much, or when it is installed alongside other incompatible code.
Before installing a plugin, ask yourself the above five questions to learn if it’s the best choice for your website. We can help point you towards the right plugins and create custom solutions so your site is reliable and lean.