Plugins are one of the best things about WordPress. They let you add so many features to your site, from contact forms to eCommerce functionality to visual, drag-and-drop builders and lots more.
However, with great power comes great responsibility.
When you add a plugin to your site, you're essentially just adding code, which means that you're adding complexity to your site and opening the door for something to potentially go wrong.
Choosing the wrong WordPress plugins can cause issues in three main areas:
- Security - insecure, vulnerable WordPress plugins are a common attack vector for malicious actors, so making the wrong choices when it comes to plugins can leave your site open to potential security issues.
- Performance - using heavy, bloated plugins can slow down your WordPress site and cause issues.
- Compatibility - if plugins aren't built to be compatible with the current version of WordPress or other plugins that you're using, you might run into problems with bugs or larger issues on your site.
None of those are reasons not to use plugins – every single WordPress site needs plugins to function and you should absolutely feel free to install plugins to add the features that your site needs.
However, it does mean that you should make sure you're only installing high-quality plugins, which is what this post is about.
In this guide, we'll share some tips on how to choose the right WordPress plugins for your site. But first, let's talk about where you can find plugins in the first place...
Where to Find WordPress Plugins
There are three main places you can find WordPress plugins:
- WordPress.org - the official directory for free WordPress plugins. While all of the plugins are free, many of them also have premium versions that unlock more features.
- CodeCanyon - a popular marketplace for premium plugins from Envato (the same company behind ThemeForest).
- Independent developers - some developers sell exclusively through their own websites. For example, Gravity Forms or LearnDash.
If you're on a budget, you might discover a fourth source for premium plugins – nulled plugin sites. Most WordPress plugins use the General Public Licence (GPL), which means it's not illegal to redistribute their code. However, even if these sites might technically be legal, you should still avoid them because some nulled sites are known to insert malicious code into the plugins that they redistribute.
For that reason alone, it's not worth the risk. Plus, when you purchase directly from the developer, you also get access to premium support and you incentivise the developer to continue maintaining and improving the plugin.
How to Choose High-Quality WordPress Plugins
Once you've found a plugin at one of the locations above, here's how you can make sure it's the right plugin for your website.
Think About the Features That You Really Need
The first step in choosing a WordPress plugin is to think about whether you really need the plugin in the first place. Will this plugin's features make a meaningful improvement to your site? Or is it something your site could probably be fine without?
In general, you should only install plugins for features that your site absolutely needs.
Once you've verified that you need the feature, you'll obviously want to make sure that the plugin you're looking at can get the job done.
If you can't tell that from reading the feature list alone, you can spin up a test site using a tool like WPSandbox.net to experiment with the plugin's features on a test WordPress install.
Check the Reviews
Once you've verified that the plugin does what you need it to do and you really do need the features that it offers, the next step is to start assessing the quality of the plugin itself.
The first place to look is the reviews. You can easily find these at WordPress.org and CodeCanyon, though you might not get reviews if the developer only sells via their own website.
This doesn't require much explanation – if lots of people are happy enough with the plugin to leave positive ratings and reviews, that's a pretty good sign that you're looking at a quality plugin:
If you click into the rating, you'll also be able to read the actual user reviews:
Check the Last Update Date
WordPress is always changing, so it's important for developers to maintain their plugins to keep them compatible with the core WordPress software and other common plugins. Many developers also add new features and improvements to their plugins in addition to basic security/compatibility maintenance.
One quick way to see the attentiveness of a plugin's developer is to check the last update date, which both WordPress.org and CodeCanyon publish.
There's no hard and fast rule here. But in general, you'd expect a well-maintained plugin to have had at least one update in the last three months or so:
For some very simple plugins, you might see less frequent updates, and that's ok. If a plugin only has one very limited feature, it might not require any updates to stay compatible with WordPress.
Analyse the Support Responses and Policies
Another useful way to gauge a developer's responsiveness and quality is to dig into their support responses/policies.
For free plugins at WordPress.org, some (but not all) developers provide free support via the WordPress.org support forums, which lets you see their public responses:
However, you shouldn't necessarily hold it against a developer if they don't provide free support because not all developers have the resources to provide support to free users.
For premium plugins, make sure you consider the support policy. Most plugin developers give one year of support and updates with your purchase, which you can extend by paying to renew your licence.
Some plugin developers only give six months of support, which is also true of the plugins that you purchase from Envato's CodeCanyon marketplace (though you can upgrade to a year of support for an extra fee).
Assess the Overall Developer Reputation
Beyond looking at the reviews for the specific plugin that you're considering, it's also worth checking out reviews for the developer as a whole. Most developers have more than one plugin, so you can get a feel for their overall reputation by checking out the reviews, ratings and maintenance of their entire library.
At WordPress.org, you can quickly see all of a developer's plugins by clicking on their name in the Contributors & Developers section at the bottom of the plugin listing page. Then, click on the Plugins tab:
Test New Plugins on a Staging Site for Compatibility and Performance
If a plugin passes all the checks above, you can go ahead and install it to give it an additional test.
However, if your website is already live and receiving traffic, we don't recommend installing new plugins on the live version of your site. Instead, you should use a staging site.
A staging site is an identical copy of your live site. However, it's completely separate, so any changes that you make on the staging site won't affect your live site until you choose to copy over the staging version.
If you're hosting elsewhere, you can find staging plugins like WP Stagecoach (or you can always switch to Onyx - we'll migrate your site for free).
When you install the plugin on your staging site, you should be looking at two things:
- Does the plugin cause any compatibility issues with your site or its existing plugins? You can check this by browsing the front end of your site and testing any key features that the plugin might affect.
- Does the plugin cause any performance issues? You can test this using a tool like WebPageTest or GTmetrix. You'll need to make your staging site public to run the test.
If you're not experienced with performance issues, it can be tough to assess the impact of a single plugin. At a high level, you're just looking to see if there are any big differences in your site's load times before and after installing the plugin.
You can also look at your site's page size and HTTP requests before and after installing the plugin, which will give you a good idea of the plugin's "weight":
If you feel comfortable, you can even dig into the performance waterfall chart to assess the individual scripts that a plugin is loading, though this is an advanced topic (so you can feel free to totally skip it if you don't know what a waterfall chart is).
If a plugin passes these last two checks, you should feel confident that you can install it on your live website and start using it.
Is It Bad to Use a Lot of WordPress Plugins?
How many plugins a site should use is a tricky topic in WordPress.
If you read around, you'll see a lot of people say that using a lot of WordPress plugins will slow down your WordPress site.
This actually isn't completely true, but it's still a good rule of thumb for most WordPress sites nonetheless.
Why isn't it completely true? Mainly because the number of plugins isn't quite as important as the number of features in each plugin and how optimised the code is.
For example, you could have one plugin that has five features. Or, you could split each feature into separate plugins and have five plugins that have one feature. It's still pretty much exactly the same code either way, so there's little difference between the two scenarios.
Similarly, you could have a site that has 100 lightweight, well-coded plugins and loads blazing fast and you could have a site that has one bloated, poorly-coded plugin that slows down the site.
There's a problem though:
If you're not a WordPress developer, it can be hard to judge for yourself whether a plugin is "well-coded" or "poorly-coded". And that's why trying to limit how many plugins you use is still a good rule of thumb for most non-technical WordPress users.
The more plugins you install, the greater the chances that you run into a poorly-coded plugin that could cause issues with performance, security, or compatibility.
With that in mind, a better way to think of it might be like this:
- You should always try to avoid using unnecessary plugins on your WordPress site. If you don't absolutely need a feature, it's better just to leave it off.
- As long as your site still loads quickly and you're using high-quality plugins from well-respected developers, you shouldn't worry too much about the number of plugins that your site has.
Start Choosing the Best WordPress Plugins Today
Plugins are one of the things that make WordPress so great. But when it comes to picking plugins for your site, it's important to make the right choices to avoid issues with security, performance, or compatibility.
In this post, we've shared some tips for how you can use plugins to add the features that you need without causing problems. Implement them today and you'll be able to benefit from plugins without any issues.
Still have questions about how to choose WordPress plugins? Let us know in the comments!
If you want to find out more about the personalised help that our Onyx Managed WordPress customers receive, feel free to get in touch via Live Chat.