Pinterest graphic for How to Vet Plugins for Your WordPress Website on Liza Wilde Co.The beauty of WordPress websites is that they’re easy to extend but, the double-edge to that sword is they require more maintenance. Since WordPress is an open-sourced software, meaning the WordPress community is responsible for updating and maintaining the code base, there are a lot of plugins or extensions. But many go unmonitored or even forgotten by their original creators.

This can be stressful and annoying to developers like myself and people who maintain websites, like you.

How do we know if a plugin will be updated and maintained? How do we know if it’s actually going to do what we want it to do?

Well, there’s no way to ever be 100% certain, but there’s certainly steps we can take to try and be as sure as possible before adding it to our websites.

First, let’s dive into what a plugin is and where to find them.

A plugin is a small package of code that extends the original functionality of WordPress. Plugins are usually written in PHP, Javascript, with some HTML/CSS for styling. Often times, they’re created in order to integrate some other service with your WordPress website. For example, there are plugins for displaying your social feeds in a sidebar, for connecting your Mailchimp subscription form, for creating contact forms, and so much more.

Plugins are great, and there’s a huge repository of free plugins, on the official WordPress site. There are also third-party websites that offer premium plugins which can provided added functionality or a little more pizazz than the free plugins. I suggest starting in the WordPress plugin directory first, and following the steps below to find what you’re looking for, before you worry about paying for anything. Like I said, often times you’ll find something for free that does exactly what a paid option might.

Now, let’s try and find a new plugin.

For this blog post, I’m going to be finding a plugin to display an Instagram feed on my website.

When you pull up the WordPress Plugin Directory, the first thing you’ll see is a search bar. The key to this repository, like any search engine, is to be as specific as possible. If you just search “social media feed”, you’re going to get anything that could possibly have to do with social media. So try something specific and then get more general if you need to.

A screenshot of the WordPress Plugin Directory

Type in “Instagram Feed”.

Once you hit enter, it’s going to give you a grid view of the results, generally 2×2 unless you’re on a bigger/smaller screen than I’m using (that’s called a responsive layouts, by the way! More on that in another post.)

Screenshot of the WordPress Plugin Directory search results

Take a look at the first example. For me it’s a plugin called “Instagram Feed”. You’ll see its got a series of stars, 1-5, as well as the number of ratings/reviews it’s collected; a short description; the user/group that developed it; the number of active installations of the plugin, or how many people are using it on their site right now; and then the version of WordPress that it’s been tested with.

Screenshot of a WordPress plugin details

This is where we’re going to be starting our vetting process.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • How many stars does the plugin have?
  • What version has it been tested with?
  • What are its advanced details?

How many stars does the plugin have?

First, take a look at how many stars the plugin has. Like movie ratings or Yelp reviews, this is going to be a key indicator as to how successful this plugin is at preforming as advertised. I generally aim to us plugins that only have 4+ stars. There’s so many out there that if you do come across one with 3 or less, you can probably find a better alternative (or look for a premium one.)

Along with the number of stars, take a look at how many ratings/reviews have been left. The more the better. This means that a large number of people are using it and have had success. Compare this number with the number next to “active installations”. This is a good indicator of how popular the plugin is. The more popular the plugin, the more likely it is to be updated and maintained for future use.

What version has it been tested with?

It’s important to make sure that plugins are compatible with the version of WordPress that you’re using. Which is hopefully the most recent one, but more on the security reasons behind that in another post. If you don’t know which version you’re using, jump into your WordPress Dashboard and take a look at the “At A Glance” meta box that greets you. It should say the version you’re using. If they’re the same, or very close, you should be ok to move forward with this plugin.

Screenshot of a WordPress Dashboard At A Glance Widget

But wait, we’re not done! Click on “Instagram Feed” and you’ll be directed to the plugin’s individual information page. This is where we can really make sure it’s going to do what you want it to do.

Advanced Plugin Details

This individual page view will give you an even deeper overview of the plugin. You’ll be able to read the full description (often in an easy to read list) about the plugin and what it does, you’ll see screenshots of the interface and options you’ll have once installed. Read through that and make sure you understand what the plugin does, or at the very least make sure that it’s going to do what you need it to do.

Screenshot of an individual WordPress plugin page

Next, glance at the sidebar and take a look at the advanced details. For most plugins, you’ll be able to see the following information:

  • Plugin version – not to be confused with the WordPress version
  • Last update – this is when the plugin was last updated
  • Active installations – this is the same number that we saw on the results page
  • Require WordPress version – this is the absolute minimum version of WordPress you need in order to make this work. 99% of the time, you should already be at this point, so don’t worry.(If you’re not, best to look into upgrading your site for security reasons at the very least.)
  • Tested up to – this is the version of WordPress that the plugin as been tested with. If you have a newer version of WordPress, you can still use the plugin. Just be aware there might be some bugs they’re still working out
  • Languages – some plugins offer translations
  • Tags – these are just keywords that the developer has tagged it with to make it easy to find and compare later
  • Ratings – you can deep dive into the specific reviews and breakdown of the stars here
  • Support status – you can see how many support questions have been asked, and the rate at which they’ve been resolved. The more green this bar is, the better!

Screenshot of advanced details of a WordPress plugin

So what now?

For the most part, the portion of the directory I’ve covered will give you all the insights you need to decide if a plugin will be successful and as bug-free as possible.

If you’re still not satisfied, there are some more tabs for you to dive into, including installation instructions, FAQs, the development changelog (where developers keep a list of all the bugs/features of each version), and a support forum where you can ask the developer a specific question.

It’s important to remember that code, like a living thing, is always evolving. With every new version of WordPress, developers need to reevaluate their plugins and get them up to snuff. There are also new jQuery and javascript libraries and standards being adjusted every day. It’s a lot for them to keep up with, but most of them do a damn good job at it.

At this point, you’re as equipped as I am to know if a plugin is worth downloading or not. If I’m still not 100% certain, I’ll give it a chance, and install it onto my site, spend a few minutes playing with it, and see if I’m happy with it. 9 times out of 10, I am, and on the off chance that I’m not, it’s usually the next plugin in the results that does what I need it to.

Still having trouble?

If you have any questions about plugins or your WordPress site, don’t hesitate to email me.

Did you find this helpful?

Let me know! I’d love to hear what sort of plugins you’re installing on your site, and if you have any you swear by.

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