This post is for the DIY website owners and for web designers and developers out there.
Ok, so I was going to give a list of my favorite plugins. And I started writing it. And realized I have 3 posts worth of material. So this is now Part 1 of a 3 part series!
I’ll have to give you the list of plugins next week. Although, that’s going to be TWO posts. Because spam-prevention plugins needs their own post.
Basically, I don’t want to throw a ton of plugins at you right now, because you need more information about them first. I’m a huge fan of context, so rather than saying “these are great, go get them” I feel that the responsible thing for me to do is assume there are some important things you may or may not know about plugins. And WordPress. And, well, all kinds of stuff like this, generally speaking.
It’s like me handing you a gun and saying “you just pull the trigger” without teaching you gun safety first.
For those who have no idea what I’m talking about: WordPress is open source (free) software used to run websites. One of the great things about it is there are lots of people contributing to the software’s development, and creating things that extend the functionality of WordPress. In other words, there are a lot of people that help make it do more than what it was originally designed to do.
Because of that, if you think: “I wonder if I can get my WordPress site to accomplish X……do Y….make it look like Z…?” then the answer is most likely “yes!” thanks to plugins.
If you ever wonder where to find them, you can either
a) log into your WordPress site and search that way (In Administration Panels > Plugins > Add New)
b) or visit the WordPress Plugin Directory.
I recommend sticking to searching for them that way, as you’re more likely to find a legitimate plugin and not a hacker’s attempt at hijacking your site. If the plugins is not in that directory, then I won’t use it. Admittedly, I may find an interesting plugin I like outside of the WordPress site. But I’ll still go BACK to WordPress to see if the plugin has been submitted.
Before You Download
Notice how old the plugin is. Three years is an old plugin in this industry. Is it kept up to date? Or was it last updated a year or three years ago? If it’s been abandoned by it’s creator, you probably don’t want it. One way to tell is: does it work with the current version of WordPress? See any user comments about the plugin? Do they say it works with your version of WordPress, or is it broken?
Also, how many stars does it get. Of those starts, how many actually liked the plugin? (I’ll take a 3.5 or 4 star plugin with 550 votes over a 5 star with 2 votes, any day.)
Before You Install
Read any readme files the author provides. (Readme is pronounced, and as in: “read me”.) There may be important information in there before you install the plugin. Things like: does your web hosting service allow whatever that plugin is about to do? Will you need to contact your host to make changes to certain configuration files to run these plugins? Some may show you that it’s a little more technical than you’re comfortable with and maybe this one isn’t for you. Where to find the readme file? Download the plugin, and unzip. There is usually a file called readme in there (sometimes, just instructions, or something else, but generally: readme).
Backup, Backup, Backup!
Make a backup of your site before you install plugins. We never know how a plugin will behave. You need a quick way to get your site back up and running if a plugin causes the site to choke. (I may need to write a whole post on backups on day!)
That’s right: although plugins are generally easy to use, the fact is there is always the chance something can go wrong. That’s just how it is. Doesn’t always mean the fault is with the plugin creator either. It’s just that sometimes, one plugin may fight with another plugin, or may require your system to be running certain versions of software. The culprit could even be the theme you are using. If it doesn’t work, it may not mean it’s bad, it’s just that for some reason, your set-up can’t make use of it.
Some plugins work great right away. Some may require some troubleshooting and tweaking. It’s up to you as to how much time you want to devote to troubleshooting. Personally, I give it 15 minutes or so and if it’s still not working, forget it. I’ll go pick another plugin. It’s a rare day there aren’t about 10 plugins that will do the same thing. If I am dealing with a plugin that is my only choice, then I’ll dig in and take the time to really get it working.
One way to test how a plugin will work is to create a sandbox. Typically, I have a copy of a website on the same server, in a different directory, hidden from search engines. Now, I have a place to test plugins and see what will happen there first. This staging environment is a great way to avoid breaking a site that is live.
After You Install
Remember caution before installing plugins. They are fun and exciting. They do neat things. But install one, check the site, make sure all of the various site features you have still work, make sure you can log in and out of your admin area and move around it. Test before you install another plugin. Otherwise, if something breaks, you won’t be able to troubleshoot the problem as easily because you won’t know if it was the plugin you installed a minute ago or if it was one you installed 10 plugins back about 30 minutes prior.
Also: there is no hackerproof software or website. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying or doesn’t know any better. All sites have the potential for being hacked. That’s just the nature of the beast. It’s how it is. Accept that and move on.
Once you’ve accepted it, there is defense against it. Just because the car is coming, doesn’t mean you have to stand in the street staring at it.
One method of defense is to keep your copy of WordPress up to date. Also, keep your plugins up-to-date. Otherwise, just write “HACK ME” on your home page and be done.
Before updating plugins, read the notes from the plugin author’s website. Sometimes, they’ll have special instructions for you such as “back up all your photos because upgrading this plugin deletes them all” or “this plugin will rename X folder to Y and you’ll need to modify Z or this won’t work anymore”. Seriously, I’ve seen that before.
Ok, if you’ve made it this far, I promise to give you a list of my favorite plugins next week (I’ve already got it mostly written!). There are a lot of plugins there. Hopefully some are new to you and can be useful and used by you too. I’ll do my anti-spam and various site member management plugins in a separate post. Even without the spam plugins, it’s a long post!
Meanwhile, have any of you any other advice or ideas you want to share about WordPress plugins? Or questions about using them?