Our greatest strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses.
We’ve all heard this phrase.
Curious about it, I spent some time searching online for who said it. After painstakingly sifting through a morass of websites, and remembering that the web’s greatest strength (so much information!) can also be its greatest weakness (so much information!), I finally settled on a surprising answer:
No one said it.
The closest quote I could find attributed to a single person is the following line from Nietzsche:
At times, our strengths propel us so far forward we can no longer endure our weaknesses and perish from them.
Then, because my brain just works this way now, I started thinking about WordPress plugins.
In the WordPress Hosting Demystified seminar, my co-worker at Synthesis Derick Schaefer discussed a 2011 WordCamp survey that uncovered an apparent conundrum. The most liked and the most hated component of WordPress is the same thing: plugins.
As Mr. Nietzsche might suggest if he were alive today (and blogging on WordPress, which he would be, of course) plugins can certainly add functionality to the WordPress core that propels to you toward success, but if you’re not careful, they can also cause your site to go down in those metaphorical flames.
Part of the intense managed WordPress hosting services we provide at Synthesis is troubleshooting issues with our clients’ sites. More often than not, negative issues end up being traced back to plugins.
Here’s four tips to help you maximize the upside of the WordPress plugins we love to use, while simultaneously protecting you from the downside.
1. Use Plugins
Don’t be so scared of plugins that you shy away from them completely. There’s a reason why plugins, and the versatility they provide, are the most loved component of WordPress.
So we’re not trying to scare you. Plugins are good.
We even utilize plugins ourselves.
If you look in your plugin menu, you’ll see a “must use” section. We install these on every Synthesis site to enhance security, performance, and communication. You can trust them because we have tested them extensively, and since they are on every site we host, you can be sure that we will maintain them.
This leads into tip #2.
2. Vet Plugin Sources
WordPress is an open source community. This is great.
It also means that anyone can write and submit a plugin to the WordPress plugin repository, which means that there will be a wide range of good and not-so-good plugins for you to choose from.
You should always vet the source of any plugin you are looking to install on your site. Here’s what to look for:
- Has the plugin been updated recently to be compatible with the latest version of WordPress?
- Does it have a strong rating (at least 4 stars or better) from the WordPress community?
- Do the reviews mention anything about decreased performance or security holes?
- When you visit the plugin author’s website, does it appear current? Does the author have a blog where he or she offers support?
Frankly, I would not even consider installing any plugins for which the answers to all of these questions is not “Yes.”
For most common functionality needs, there are several plugins to choose from. Do your vetting and choose the best one.
3. Be Judicious
For the uncommon functionality needs specific to your site, you may not be able to find a plugin you can trust.
If this happens, first consider whether the functionality is truly necessary.
One of the biggest mistakes WordPress users make is letting a desire for fun or intriguing functionality compel them to add a plugin they don’t actually need.
Plugins should be installed on an “as-needed” basis, not on an “as-wanted” basis. By keeping this simple tenet in mind, your plugin strategy is already 50% of the way to being solid.
4. Take a Long-Term View
If you do have an uncommon functionality need that’s truly a need, but that has no existing plugin solution, consider hiring a trusted developer to custom write it for you.
There are a number of great plugin developers out there who will do this, and the real cost is often less than you might think.
Ensuring that you’re not introducing long-term performance and security risks to your site is often worth the short-term cost of making better plugin choices or simply developing one yourself.
Bonus Tip: Might a theme framework be the answer?
This is something people often overlook but should not.
A mainstream theme framework just might eliminate the need for that plugin you’re searching for, or for several you typically install.
Our secure Genesis Design Framework for WordPress theme frameworks includes functionality for basics such as inserting tracking scripts and SEO necessities like meta tag control, and much more.
If you can kill several birds with one stone, why not do it?
Trusted Plugin Sources
We realize that not everyone will heed our advice — or have the time to — when it comes to plugin vetting.
Have no fear. We’re WordPress users too. We’ve done plenty of the vetting for you and are happy to share our experience in this area.
Here are a few select developers we recommend that you go to first when you have a plugin need. If they have developed one, it’s the one you’ll want to use …
One reason we were so excited to join forces with the folks at Copyblogger is because we are big believers in all of their products.
Two of the Copyblogger plugins (it’s almost a shame to call them plugins) that provided advanced functionality for serious WordPress users are:
- Scribe is a comprehensive content optimization plugin that we’ve been using since its earliest stages. It continues to improve and is a great resource for anyone creating and promoting content online.
- Premise allows publishers to easily build secure membership sites, landing pages, and much more, which is actually more difficult to do well than it sounds.
In addition, many of Copyblogger’s developers have a number of their own solid plugins available for use:
- Nathan Rice has plugins for a homepage image slideshow and single post templates, among others.
- Ron Renneck (aka WPMUGuru) and his wife Andrea developed Pro Domain Mapping in 2008 to simplify the way domains are mapped into WordPress multisite installations. It’s now available exclusively to Synthesis customers with multisite installs. Ron has contributed a number of great plugins to the WordPress repository.
WordPress Core Contributors
Logic suggests that people who’ve actually worked on writing the core WordPress code should be amongst the most highly trusted plugin developers. We’ve found this to be true.
Here are a few folks in particular we recommend, with links to their plugins:
WordPress Plugin Legends
And then, of course, there are the legends of WordPress plugin development.
- Frederick Townes, who developed the W3 Total Cache plugin that we use on Synthesis with specifically tuned settings.
- Joost De Valk, who has an extensive library of plugins at his site Yoast.
And there are others who we’ll highlight in future posts and on our plugin recommendation page.
The Bottom Line on WordPress Plugins
What do the plugins from all of the above have in common?
They provide necessary functionality for sites we manage and have fully vetted developers. Thus, we can and do employ them with confidence; and they greatly enhance our WordPress experience.
That’s what plugins should do: enhance your WordPress experience in necessary ways — just choose wisely.
And if you ever have a question about a specific plugin, feel free to ask us in the help desk. We’re happy to help guide you in the right direction.