WordPress Tip: There’s a Plugin for That

I sent out this tip in my last WordPress newsletter. You can subscribe to my WordPress newsletter here.

One of the many advantages of WordPress over other blog platforms is the number of plugins available. Plugins are scripts that you can add to WordPress to increase the functionality in some way. For example, a contact form plugin gives you an easy way to drop in a contact form into your site.

If you use Firefox, you’re probably familiar with the concept of “extensions.” Plugins is WordPress’s term for the same concept — a little bit of code that adds functionality to your site in some way.

9,793 Plugins

At the time of this post, there are 9,793 plugins available for WordPress. That’s a lot for a blog platform — more than any other blog platform. For example, BlogEngine.net, a blog platform that runs on .NET, has less than 100 plugins available.

If you have an iPhone or have seen the “There’s an app for that” commercials, it’s much the same with WordPress. If you have a problem or specific situation, most likely there’s a plugin for it.

Finding Plugins

All plugins for WordPress are listed here: http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins. You can search for keywords, sort by tags, or look at the most popular plugins. You can also do a keyword search for my favorite wordpress plugins on Google to find popular plugins.

The easiest way to get started with plugins is by looking for widget plugins, since most of these widget plugins are drag-and-drop simple. After activating the plugin, look in your widgets area (Appearance > Widgets) for a new widget.

Installing Plugins

To install a plugin, go to Plugins > Add New in your WordPress admin interface. You can install and activate the plugins you need directly from within WordPress. But be sure to read the Installation instructions for the plugin. Some plugins may have special instructions, such as adjusting the file permissions for a specific folder in your directory.

Updating Plugins

After you install a plugin, in a few months (or with new releases of WordPress), you’ll probably need to update the plugin. When you need to update a plugin, the Plugins page in your WordPress admin area shows the following message:

There is a new version of [plugin name] available. View version details or upgrade automatically.

Always keep your plugins up to date. Out of date plugins pose security risks for your blog. Additionally, many plugins may not be compatible with the latest version of WordPress, so look for updates from the plugin authors.

You can update plugins either from the Plugins page in WordPress, or you can update them in bulk by going to Tools > Update.

Dangers with Too Many Plugins

Plugins are fun to experiment with. Try browsing and playing around with plugins when you’re looking for an adventure. But know this: too many plugins will slow down your blog. If you have more than 20 or so plugins, these plugins may add 2-3 seconds of loading time to your site. In contrast, if you don’t use any plugins at all, your WordPress site loads usually loads quickly (under 5 seconds or less).

To check your site’s loading time, go to Pingdom Tools and enter your URL. Blue bars indicate excessive loading time. You can sort the details by Load Time and see what the load impact is for each plugin.

Troubleshooting Plugins

Most plugins are coded by third-party developers who may have needed the plugin at the time, but have since grown weary of updating it for each new version of WordPress. If the plugin doesn’t work with your current version of WordPress (in my experience, at least 15% of the available plugins don’t work), try going to the plugin author’s page to see if there’s a comment thread or forum with complaints about broken functionality.

My Favorite Plugins

Here are some of the plugins I use on my blog.

Questions?

What are some of your favorite plugins? Do you have a specific situation that you’re trying to find a plugin for?

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for The 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS or by email. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

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