If you’ve been using WordPress for any time at all, you’ll probably have realized that you can get a lot more from it if you install plugins on your site.
Plugins are extra bits of code that will add additional functionality to your WordPress site: in other words, they let it do more things.
In this article, I’ll explain exactly what a plugin is, when you might want to use one, and how it works. I’ll also share some tips to help you identify which plugins you should be adding to your WordPress site.
Plugins vs Themes: What’s the Difference?
The first question to clear up is the difference between a theme and a plugin.
Your theme is the code that makes your website look the way it does. It includes styling for all of your content, images, layouts and more. It contains the code that fetches your posts and pages and displays them on the page, and it’s essential for your site to work.
Every WordPress site needs a theme. Without one, you won’t be able to display any content on the page. In fact, if you don’t install a theme of your own choosing, WordPress will install and activate the default theme for you. At time of writing, that theme is Twenty Twenty.
A plugin is different. Instead of dictating the way your site looks and the way it outputs content, it will add extra functionality to your site.
In theory, you could run a WordPress site with no plugins installed. WordPress would still work just fine; it would display your blog posts and your static pages. It would provide you with some widgets that you can add to your sidebar or footer.
But in reality, if you want to get the most from your WordPress site, you’ll probably need to install some plugins.
How Does a Plugin Work?
A plugin works by adding extra code to your site. The plugin will consist of functions or classes that make stuff happen. In turn, these will be hooked to action hooks or filter hooks. These action or filter hooks are snippets of code in WordPress itself (or sometimes in your theme) that are designed to make WordPress extensible. That means that WordPress is designed to be extended by plugins.
I’m not going to go into detail about how plugins are coded here, but if you do want to code your own plugin, or at least understand how the plugins you install work, then check out our complete course on writing your first plugin.
What Kind of Plugins are Available?
There is a vast range of plugins to help you add extra functionality to your WordPress site. These include the free plugins on the WordPress plugin directory and premium plugins from providers such as Envato.
Plugin types include:
- Plugins that add small snippets of code to your site such as Hello Dolly, which just adds a song lyric to your admin screens.
- Plugins that add eCommerce functionality to your site, including WooCommerce, the world’s most popular free eCommerce solution.
- Plugins to help you keep your site secure and backed up, such as the free UpdraftPlus.
- Page builder plugins to help you build content with a WYSIWYG interface, like WPBakery.
- Plugins to help your site run faster, such as W3 Total Cache.
- Plugins to add visual effects to your site, like the Slider Revolution plugin.
- Plugins to give you extra widgets you can add to your widget areas, such as the Instagram Widget plugin
- Plugins to help you enhance your search engine optimization (SEO), such as Yoast SEO.
This is just the tip of the iceberg—there are thousands of plugins available. Which ones you need will depend on the specifics of your site.
How Do I Install Plugins?
You can install free plugins from your WordPress admin screens, without having to upload or download any files. For premium plugins, you’ll need to upload a file, but you can do this from your admin screens.
Start by going to Plugins > Add New.
Then use the search box to find the plugin you’re looking for. You can either type in the name of a plugin if you know which one you want, or type in a description of what you need and then pick from a list of suggestions.
Find the plugin you want to install, and click the Install Now button. Once it’s installed, that button will change to an Activate button. Click it to activate the plugin (the plugin won’t work unless you activate it).
If you’re installing a plugin you bought from a third party instead of from the plugin directory, then you’ll need to upload the file. When you buy the plugin, you’ll be emailed a zip file (or you’ll be able to download it). Follow these steps to install the plugin from this file.
Go to Plugins > Add New. Click the Upload Plugin button at the top of the screen. This will take you to the plugin upload screen.
Upload the zip file from your computer and click the Install Now button. You’ll then be given the option to activate it. Once you’ve done that, it will work in the same way as if you’d installed it from the WordPress plugin directory.
Once you’ve installed some plugins, you’ll be able to see them in the Plugins page in your admin. From here, you can activate and deactivate plugins, see more information about them, and in some cases access settings screens.
Some plugins will also add extra menu items to the WordPress admin menu on the left hand side. For example, if I activate the Yoast SEO plugin, it adds a menu item of its own. Some plugins won’t add a top level menu item, but they will add an item under an existing menu item, such as the Tools or Settings menu.
What are the Pre-installed Plugins?
If you install WordPress using the manual ‘famous five-minute install’, then you’ll find that it comes with two plugins pre-installed:
- Hello Dolly, which adds some text to your admin screens and to be honest isn’t very useful.
- Akismet, which is useful and prevents spammers from attacking your site through the comments.
If you install WordPress using an auto-installer from your hosting company, or your hosting company installs WordPress for you, you might find you have different plugins installed. These will either be plugins developed by your hosting provider to help you site run on their servers, or other plugins to make your site more efficient or secure.
It’s up to you whether you keep these plugins activated or installed—it’s your site, after all. Sometimes, plugins added by hosting providers will add code to your site that you don’t want, so you might choose to delete them and replace them with your own preferred plugins.
Where Can I Get WordPress Plugins?
You can get WordPress plugins in a verity of places, both free and paid-for.
Where Can I Get Free Plugins?
The best place to get free WordPress plugins is the official WordPress plugin directory. You access this via your plugins screen, as described above.
Unless you really know what you’re doing, I would avoid downloading free plugins from anywhere other than the plugin directory. This is because it’s much harder to know if the code can be trusted. Developers who want to distribute plugins fro free know that by submitting their plugin to the directory, their code will be checked to ensure that it’s secure and reliable. If you get a free plugin elsewhere, the developer could have an ulterior motive for distributing it.
You might wonder why anyone would want to make a plugin available for free: after all, it costs time and sometimes money to develop and maintain a plugin. There are four main reasons for plugin developers giving their code way for free:
- The plugin is a free version of a premium plugin that has more features. The developer hopes that you’ll try out the free version and decide you need the extra features in the premium version.
- The developer sells add-ons to the plugin that you have to pay for. These are separate plugins that will add extra functionality. WooCommerce is a good example of this.
- The plugin links to s service that you have to pay to use. So the plugin itself is free, but to get the most of it you might have to pay a subscription.
- The developer wants to contribute to the community. WordPress is an open source project which is free for everyone to use. Lots of developers like to give something back in the form of plugin development.
If a plugin as available for free outside the plugin directory, you can add another potential motive for distributing the code for free: malicious or at least spammy code. This is particularly likely to be the case if a site is allowing you to download a plugin fro free that you’d have to pay for elsewhere. This is pirating. You have been warned!
Where Can I Get Premium Plugins?
There are plenty of premium plugin providers out there, including providers who specialize in just one plugin and those who offer a range of plugins, such as CodeCanyon.
If you buy plugins, do your research. Look at the reviews for the plugin. Ask other WordPress users. Find independent reviews, and look at roundups of the best premium plugins.
Check that there isn’t a free plugin that meets your needs first. Sometimes there will be something in the plugin directory that does what you need, but on some occasions you’ll need a premium plugin for the extra functionally.
A good plugin provider like CodeCanyon will offer support, will keep their plugins updated, and will offer a money back guarantee our a trial period.
Which Plugins Should I Install on My Site?
Exactly which plugins you install will be up to you and will depend on the needs of your site. But there are key plugins that I would recommend every site owner include on their site. This is because these plugins will make your site faster, more reliable and secure, and will help you get more visitors.
A Backup Plugin
The very first plugin you install should be a backup plugin. This is because anything you do on your site, you will want to keep backed up.
When looking for a backup plugin, try to find one that makes the process of restoring your site from a backup as easy as possible, This is because while backing up is easy, restoring is less so. Chances are when you have to restore your site, you’ll be panicking because it’s just developed a fault or has been hacked, and you won’t be able to follow a complicated process.
Your backup plugin should also include the ability to schedule regular automatic backups, and to store these on remote servers or services such as dropbox or Google Drive. This is because is your server experiences problems, you don’t want your backups to be stuck on it.
A Security Plugin
Once you know your site is going to be backed up regularly, the next step is to install a security plugin.
This will make it much less likely that you’ll have to use that backup plugin to restore your site, because it will protect you from hacks and other security problems.
A good security plugin will alert you by email if there is a problem, and let you scan your site to identify any vulnerabilities.
A Performance Plugin
A performance plugin will make your site run faster. It will do things like caching pages, minifying files, and compressing images. It will scan your site and identify anything that might be slowing things down, and tell you how to fix it.
Sometimes the plugin won’t be able to make those fixes for you (e.g. if your hosting is too slow or you’ve got an inefficient plugin installed), but sometimes it will include the option to fix the problem and speed up your site right from within the plugin screens.
A SEO Plugin
Using a performance plugin to make your site run faster will help with your SEO, as search engines like sites that load quickly (and so do users).
But it won’t make as big a difference as installing a SEO plugin.
A SEO plugin will help you optimize your metadata and descriptions to improve your search engine rankings. It will analyze your content to identify ways you would make it more search engine-friendly. And it will create an XML sitemap and a robots.txt file to give search engines the information they need to crawl your site.
Plugins Can Take Your Website to the Next Level
Plugins are what make WordPress more than just a simple blogging platform. You can use them to turn your WordPress site from a simple website to a full-featured online store, a media hub, a sales platform and more.
By installing plugins you will make your site more robust and effective. You’ll also give it a whole lot of extra functionality. Try installing some plugins today and seeing how they can enhance your site.
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