What Is A WordPress Plugin? What do they do and how do I use them?

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One of the first hurdles of learning WordPress is understanding the terminology used. There isn't much to learn, but there are big differences between certain terms – one of them being plugins and themes.

What is a WordPress Plugin?

At it's most basic and general level:

  • Plugins add or modify features of your blog.

For example a website backup system, sticky widgets, a system for inserting tables or and emai opt-in system. These are extra features that wouldn't exist if the plugin wasn't installed and activated.

You'll find there are thousands of plugins and often you'll find that there are several plugins that all try and do the same job.

See, even though they are made to do the same job you might find there will be differences in how they work and one plugin might be better suited to your website than another.

If there are a few plugins that all claim to do the same task, I like to test the plugins myself and find one that works the best. If they're paid plugins you have to check a few more things before making a choice.

Plugins Vs Themes

So what's a theme on WordPress?

  • Themes are responsible for how your website visually appears.

A theme determines how your WordPress blog or website looks to visitors. Because WordPress has been around forever, there's a HUGE catalog of themes for you to choose from.

Literally every kind of theme exists out there, business, news magazine, personal blog, directory style, price comparison, gaming, floral, cute…and so on…

Do Themes Need Plugins To Run?

Some do.

Some themes can be highly developed and require their own set of plugins to function properly.

Bimber and ReHub or good examples. The themes require extra functions to display what the developers intended so they used plugins to achieve those functions.

You'll be prompted to install the recommended plugins when you install the theme.

New blog? You already have plugins pre-installed

When you first start your WordPress site or blog, you'll have some plugins pre-installed. These plugins are included by the developers of WordPress and they think that you'll need them.

Sometimes, depending on your webhost and the way you've installed WordPress will determine what plugins you'll see when you first install it.

Let's check out the most common plugins you get when you first install WordPress and get into the admin dashboard.

Hello Dolly

This plugin will add a random lyric from the song Hello, Dolly by Louis Armstrong. Honestly, this really has made no sense to me and has been a thing for years.

Akismet

Akismet – This is an anti-spam system. It will manage comments on your site and automatically check if they are spam or real from a human. This has managed hundreds of spam comments for me and his recommended.

Tip: A lot of webhosts will include their own plugins if you install WordPress through an installation wizard like Softaculous or via a custom panel in your web host's cPanel. Your install might come with:

  • Classic Editor – WordPress has launched a brand new post creation interface called Gutenberg. A lot of people disliked it and wanted the classic editor to be available. This plugin makes the classic editor the default editor for posts and pages.
  • A Website Optimization Plugin – Web hosts like SiteGround and A2 Hosting add plugins that will help make your site faster by utilizing their custom server setup. Usually they do this to take advantage of mem caching which makes your site faster by reducing database calls to retrieve your websites information.
  • An Image Optimization Plugin – You could have a plugin that automatically optimizes images when you add them to your WordPress content. This will reduce the size of the image while keeping the quality. This is important as you could have hundreds of photos. Making sure they are optimized means you'll make the image sizes smaller which results in faster load times. Faster load times mean better user experience and better user experience factors heavily on your search engine page rankings.

These are the plugins installed when with a fresh copy of WordPress for me:

These are plugins to speed up your website, add some security, optimize images and create a contact form. They are recommended, but not required.

Types Of WordPress Plugins

WordPress is open source – that's given room for thousands of plugins being developed into a robust catalog of extras you can quickly to your WordPress powered website or blog.

I want you to see the selection you have to design your website exactly as you want it. Here are some of the (super super) general categories of WordPress plugins:

  • eCommerce (online store) 2,000+ plugins
  • Forms (contact me form, customer enquiry form) 300+ plugins
  • Social networking 270+ plugins
  • Media (photos, videos, audio) 260+ plugins
  • Galleries (photos, videos, audio) 250+ plugins
  • Extra widgets and widget options 160+ plugins
  • Advertising 100+ plugins
  • Calendars 95+ plugins
  • SEO (Search engine optimization – better Google rankings) 70+ plugins
  • Newsletter management 55+ plugins
  • Membership 45+ plugins
  • Forums 12+ plugins

Let me show you what a plugin is in a little more detail, they can be highly developed and go really deep into the core functions of a WordPress website.

Thrive Leads Plugin

Ths plugin is a complete lead management system. What I mean by that is that the sole purpose of the plugin is to collect email addresses from your website visitors.

That's all it does…

…and it does it very well.

I think of WordPress like a framework that allows web designers – like you – to construct any sort of website they want. Often, you'll find plugins are also frameworks, but for a specific thing…like asking for and collecting people's email addresses.

Thrive Leads is a framework.

You can design eye catching opt-in forms (that ask people for their email address) how ever you want, you can setup certain opt-in forms to display in one place and a completely different form in another place.

Maybe you want to add a form that pops up on the visitors screen when they are just about to navigate away from your website?

Thrive leads will let you do that too.

It has way, way, waaay more to offer than that, but just this one plugin is super powerful.

Another plugin might be:

TablePress

With this plugin, you can make and insert tables in your posts and articles that online visitors can then sort and search through if they want.

TablePress also makes viewing tables on mobile good as you can just scroll around the table and see all the details clearly. Making a table look good on a tiny screen has been a thorn in WordPress' foot for a while, TablePress clears that up.

This two plugins do completely different things. If I were to deactivate the plugin, the features I just detailed would be gone.

Where To Get WordPress Plugins – Free & Paid

There are two main places to get WordPress plugins. To make things easy, one place lists free plugins and the other has only paid plugins.

WordPress Plugin Directory

Your WordPress website has a link to the WordPress plugin directory and you're able to search the directory and install widgets right from inside your WordPress Website. Go to Plugins -> Add New.

You can always browse the WordPress plugin directory by using this link https://wordpress.org/plugins/

The WordPress directory isn't the most user friendly website and it helps if you know what type of plugin you're looking for so you can perform a search.

Maybe you're looking for a plugin to manage how Google indexes and displays your website on it's search results pages. Typing in SEO (search engine optimization) you'll see a long list of results, the first one being Yoast and I recommend that.

It's a free plugin, but heads up, some plugins are freemium….meaning that they're free but also have paid upgrades where you'll unlock more features. Whether you need those features or not is your choice!

Need a plugin to compress your image so your website loads faster? Type in image optimizer


Code Canyon

A site called Code Canyon has thousands of high quality plugins you can add to your WordPress install. You can see the week's top selling WordPress plugins using this link – https://codecanyon.net/popular_item/by_category?category=wordpress

I don't want you to think you can and as many plugins as you want – you'll find your site might slow down dramatically and you could see conflicts between plugins if you install…20+.

For my sites, I usually have less than 20. The plugins I choose are all well developed and coded properly so they work well and don't have much impact on site speed or user experience.

Code Canyon is much better laid out that the WordPress plugin directory and you have a huge choice in which plugin you might choose to use on your website.


Because the plugins on Code Canyon are often much more developed and have tons more features you can search for things more advanced plugins like “membership” and you'll see the options you have for buying a premium membership management WordPress plugin.

A membership management plugin allows you to close off access to certain parts of your WordPress site and only allow people that have signed up to your membership plan (and paid you) to view and consume it.

You could create a membership site about anything. What do you know lots about or what hobbies have you spent some time with?

What To Look For When You Need A Plugin

So let's say you want to add a plugin to optimize and compress the photos you add in your posts. By using an image optimizing plugin your photos will be smaller in file size, but still be about the same quality when you view it on your website.

Why is this good?

Your pages will load faster. Site speed is one of the factors Google takes into account (among many others) that determines where your post might ends ranking.

Fast site = more Google love.

How Use The WordPress Plugin Directory To Find Plugins

So, the first place we can look for the image optimizer plugin is the free WordPress Plugin Directory here https://wordpress.org/plugins/. Once that's open, type in “image optimizer” in the search field:

You'll see lots of results, showing all the different types of image optimizers you have to choose from. To make sure you get a good plugin, there are some things to look out for.

These checks don't necessarily mean that the plugin is amazing and a must download, they just help reduce the chance of the plugin being bad, support is bad and the updates are non existent. \

If you look at the search results page for image optimizer on the wordpress plugin directory you'll see EWWW Image Optimizer is the #1 result. Let's check out why that might be with these quick checks:

  • #1 – The average rating and the total amount of reviews left
  • #2 – The number of active installations of this plugin

If you click through to a plugin, they are always laid out the in the same format. You can quickly see the most important stats in the top right of any plugin's page in the directory.

#1 – Last Updated

How long has it been since the developer updated this plugin? This tells us how up to date the plugin is. New updated versions of the core WordPress code are released frequently to squish bugs, fix security issues and update features. Plugins have to be updated to make sure they function properly with the current WordPress version.

If the plugin hasn't been updated for a while, it could leave security holes open or not be compatible with any of your plugins or the current WordPress version.

#2 – Active Installations

This shows how many WordPress installations around the world are currently using this specific plugin. In the screen shot above it shows 200,000+ installations are active of this SEO (search engine optimization) plugin.

#3 – WordPress Version

To keep WordPress up to date and secure, developers frequently release updates to WordPress. This field shows which versions the plugin will work as expected with. This field shows which version of WordPress the plugin has been tested and works with.

#4 – Tested Up To

From the screen shot above, it says Tested Up To: 5.4. This tells us that the most recent update of WordPress (which is 5.4 currently) will work as expected with this plugin. Before you update your plugins, it's a good idea to check if they will work with the current WordPress release.

Sometimes developers aren't on the ball and don't update their plugins so they work with the latest WordPress version. Sometimes nothing happens, some times bugs start to appear.

Read the plugin's description

It's always to check the plugin's description to see if will accomplish what you need. Like I said earlier, you'll often find several plugins all achieving the same thing but in slightly different ways.

Check to make sure what the developer says the plugin do matches your requirements.

Read the Reviews

It's always smart to check out the reviews before you decide to use a plugin. Even if the average review is 4.5/5, it's never hurt me to take a look and make sure the reviews look genuine.

Installing A Plugin From The WordPress Plugin Directory

So you've been browsing the WordPress Plugin Directory via a separate browser window. You could download the plugin from the WordPress Plugin website then upload it manually to your WordPress site.

But there's a faster and easier way to do it. In your Admin Dashboard of your WordPress website, click Plugins from the left hand menu. Then click the Add New button.

Next, type the plugin you're looking for in the search field. I searched for Smush, a good image compression plugin that's free.

If you click on the plugin title, you'll see a window pop up with all the details about the plugin. You can check all the things I detailed earlier about what to look out for.

Clicking the Install Now button will install the plugin to your WordPress website.

The process is identical for any plugin type on the WordPress Plugin Directory. Search, evaluate, install.

How Use Code Canyon To Find Plugins

There are some great plugins on the free WordPress Plugin Directory…

But if you want to see some awesome ones – ones that are paid – you have to check out CodeCanyon.

It's a website that enables developers to sell their plugins. They have a huge range and lots of reviews to back up what the plugin claims to do.

CodeCanyon also sells things for other content management systems like Joomla and Drupal (WordPress kicks their ass!). So you have to make sure you're searching in the right category so you get plugins that will work with WordPress.

One of the awesome WordPress plugin collections CodeCanyon has is of image sliders. I was trying to think of a better name because that doesn't really do it much justice.

Image sliders allow you to build visual interfaces to display an array of different data pulled from your WordPress Database.

You can animate things, add icons, scroll effects and all sorts of things. On CodeCanyon, you have about 10 different choices of image sliders.

To do a search for WordPress image sliders on CodeCanyon, go to https://codecanyon.net.

  • If you're on a desktop or laptop right now, hover your mouse over WordPress and click once.

  • If you're on a phone or tablet right now click the menu button in the top left and then click WordPress

[Mobile] Click show all WordPress 

In the next screen, you'll see a search box where you can enter the type of plugin we're looking for. Type slider into the search area and hit enter/search.

Code Canyon On Desktop and Laptops

Here's how the search screen will look once you've typed slider and hit enter. 

#1This is the cost of the plugin. Code Canyon adds $2 as a service charge.
#2Number of reviews
#3Average score of reviews
#4Total number of sales
#5The date the plugin was last updated
#6The title of the plugin
#7Which versions of WordPress the plugin will work with
#8Which page builders this plugin works with
#9What type of files are included in the plugin's zip file
#10The tag's assigned to this plugin. Click for similar plugins.
#11A feature photo of the plugin.

All of the plugins are formatted the same, so you can quickly assess each one and determine if you might want to take a closer look.

For mobile, you get a different layout, but most of the same features are there. Here's what it looks like:

#1Opens the filter window. Search by price, rating, sales..
#2Search by best match, best sellers, newest, best rated, trending and price
#3The title of the plugin
#4The category the slider is in.
#5The developer of the plugin
#6Price of the plugin
#7The number of reviews the plugin has
#8The average review rating the plugin has
#9Expands an extra window showing more details about the plugin.
#10A shortcut to viewing a plugin demo directly
#11Add the plugin to cart and checkout.

It's the same layout for all the plugins, no matter which category. You can quickly scan over a plugin and get a feel if it's something you want to check out or pass on.

If you click the title of the plugin, you'll see all the features and details about it. Check them over and make sure it will achieve what you need. Also check the reviews to get a feel of how the plugin does.

#1 Item DetailsGet all the quick info and features of the plugin
#2 ReviewsSee what other people that have purchased the plugin think of it
#3 CommentsCheck the last page of this to see how quick people are responded to
#4 SupportHow to get support of the plugin
#5The price of the plugin + $2 for CodeCanyon.
#6Extend the support for a further 6-months. You call.
#7Add the plugin to your shopping cart.

How To Install A Plugin Purchased On CodeCanyon

Once you've downloaded the plugin from your user area on CodeCanyon (Downloads), you need to upload it to your website, install and activated it.

Here's how you do it.

Go to Plugins -> Add New. Then, click Upload Plugin.

Next you'll need to click choose file and locate the .zip package you downloaded from CodeCanyon. Click install now once you've done that.

You'll see the plugin begin to install, click activate when prompted.

How To Use A Plugin Once You Downloaded It

Plugins can create different ways to access their settings – if there is any. To access the settings of a plugin you just installed, try going back to the plugins page, scroll down to find the name of the plugin  you just installed and see if there's a settings link like this:

If there isn't any settings listed on the plugins page, scan down your admin sidebar on the left of your WP-Admin Dashboard. Sometimes new menus are created.

If that doesn't yield any luck, go to the settings menu on the admin dashboard sidebar and see if any extra menu items have been created there.

If that still doesn't give you any settings, go to the page on code canyon that you purchased the plugin from, click the support tab and see if you can find any documentation for the plugin. Often plugins with hundreds of sales have detailed documentation showing you how to do everything.

If that still doesn't work, comment on this post and i'll check it myself.

A Word On Free And Paid Plugins

I wanted to note that just because a WordPress plugin is free, doesn't necessarily mean it's low quality. Often, you'll find that WordPress plugins that are free are pretty simple and other's that are substantially more feature packed (yet still free) are usually limited versions of a paid-for plugin.

For themes, i'd recommend paid over free – i'll discuss that on the what is a theme? post.

But with plugins you can find some awesome free ones (Akismet, Smush, Elementor) and some equally awesome paid ones (Slider Revolution, Uber Menu, EventON). The choice is literally yours.

How To Update Plugins

Updating plugins on your WordPress website is easy. It's all done through the WordPress Admin Dashboard. Go to Plugins then click Update Available.

The next screen will show you all the plugins that have updates available. You can scan down the list and click the Version Details (#1) to see more information about the plugin and what changes have been made.

To update all of the plugins at once, scroll back to the top of the page where it said Update Available and click the check box underneath Bulk Actions.

Click Bulk Actions to display a drop down menu.

Click Update and then Apply to update all of your plugins.

You'll see the plugins being updated individually like this

That's it. You've updated your plugins!

How To Delete Plugins

If you need to remove a plugin for any reason, you can easily and quickly do that via the Plugins menu option on the WordPress Admin Dashboard.

Find the plugin you want to delete and click Deactivate.

Next, find the same plugin again and you'll notice a Delete option has appeared.

Once you've clicked delete you'll get a confirmation box asking if you're sure. Click OK and the plugin will be deleted. You'll see a message like this once the plugin has been deleted:

How To Find Help And Support For A Plugin

WordPress Plugin Support

If you got the plugin from the WordPress Plugin Directory, find it's page again. Type the plugin's name that you need help with in the search bar: https://wordpress.org/plugins

Then, select the plugin from the list of results and click the support tab on the individual plugin's page.

You'll see a message board setup and be able to view other people's support messages in case the question you have has already come up and been answered.

First, try searching the support board and see if anyone else might of encountered the same problem you have.

If that doesn't help, create a (free) account and create a new topic. One of the developers should answer you back. Because this is a free plugin, don't expect paid-for support. It might be a few days before you hear back. If you wanted quicker support…go for a paid plugin.

Code Canyon Plugin Support

If you bought a plugin from CodeCanyon, you can expect better support (in both response time and quality) from a paid plugin. Generally!

Find the page on CodeCanyon that shows the plugin and all it's features like this one:

Next, click the Support tab.

Read the page so you know how this specific plugin's support works.

#1 – What you can expect from support

#2 – What the support doesn't do

#3 – A link to the support site the developer has chosen. In this case, they linked to a site that lists in depth tutorials and FAQs on the plugin and a support ticketing system if you don't find the answer to your problem.

WordPress plugins are amazing tools to add new features and enhancements to your website. They come in all shapes and sizes, from professional to at home-programmers that offer small tweaks. It's an amazing system and one that will allow you to sculpt the website that you want.

Hopefully this guide has given you have a better understanding of what a plugin is, what it does and how it can benefit your WordPress website.

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