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September 6, 2017

Why Less is More for WordPress Plugins

“There’s a plugin for that” is a phrase that has potential of being just as common as “There’s an app for that,” considering the 50,000 WordPress plugins available. But just as most people don’t use more than 10 different apps per day in their Smartphones, the average WordPress site should have a similar number of plugins.

There are several good reasons that plugin installations should be enjoyed in moderation if you strive to have a professional site worth investing in.

When to use plugins

Before going into when not to use plugins, let’s talk about when to use them.

There are certain plugins that we always install on the sites we build. They help provide some of the basic functionality that are best built and maintained by a specialized company rather than being part of the core functionality of WordPress. Here are a few examples of useful plugins:

  1. Login Lockdown. Add a layer of protection to your WordPress site by limiting the number of login attempts from each IP address to avoid brute force attacks.
  2. Gravity Forms. Access more advanced functionality for the forms on your site. A premium plugin where you pay to get more, and since it’s part of driving conversions on your site it’s probably worth the investment.
  3. WooCommerce. You don’t want to build your own eCommerce solution, and luckily you don’t have to. Perfect example of when to use a plugin. This one is so good that Automattic (the owner of WordPress) bought it.
  4. Advanced Custom Fields. Easy way to make your WordPress site more customizable from the admin panel. A real favorite.
  5. CPT UI. Neat plugin for adding your own custom post types to your project.

All these represent the typical power-ups you value WordPress for as a CMS. Others include integrations with analytics software, social media buttons, custom post types, SEO support plugins, etc.

If you are a complete novice at all things code related, then you might need to extend your use of plugins a bit further, but otherwise the following chapter outlines cases when you should avoid the use of plugins.

When not to use plugins

Assuming you’re not allergic to HTML, PHP and CSS, there are good reasons to avoid using plugins for every functionality that you want implemented on the site you’re developing. Most experienced developers even take pride in building customized features instead of relying on plugins, but it’s probably a waste of time to go crazy on custom coding everything.

First up; things that are easy to do yourself shouldn’t be implemented with plugins. Examples are back to top buttons, tabs, accordions, showing your latest photos from Instagram, and social share buttons. Using plugins for such features only restricts your freedom to do it like you want it, assuming you are in fact a developer and not primarily a blogger.

The second case is when you want a certain functionality and cannot find any good plugins for it. Maybe you find some but they look shady. They haven’t been updated in a long time, they don’t have many downloads or they have poor reviews. This one will probably get you in trouble with security and compatibility.

Alternatively, you find an allround plugin that claims to be able to do 100 different things, including that one that you want. In this case, you’re likely to either have to pay premium for getting a simple feature, or you end up slowing down your site with a heavy plugin that you hardly use.

The key issues with excess use of plugins

Whether the number of plugins by itself is an issue can be discussed, and it doesn’t really have to be. But excessive use is often a symptom of an inexperienced or lazy developer, and comes with the risk of a low-performing WordPress site as the result.

There are four key issues with plugins to look out for when planning a site:

  1. Security threats
  2. Possibility to customize functionality
  3. Compatibility
  4. Page loading time

Security threats

According to an article about security on WordPress.org, plugins and themes are the most common target for attacks on WordPress sites.

The more plugins you use, the more doors there will be that someone might try to break. This is not necessarily a problem if you stick to trustworthy plugins with continued support and updates, used by many others.

But maintaining a plugin can be a real pain for a plugin developer, so if there’s not enough traction or reason for them to spend the effort of keeping them up to date, it might become outdated and vulnerable to attacks. Especially free plugins are prone to this threat, since they’re not making any money for their developers (unless they have ads or premium versions).

Possibility to customize functionality

There’s often a tradeoff between picking something ready for use and being able to customize it to your needs. Your local interior design store has a limited number of frames for your new painting, the framing store can make you anything you want. The lunch restaurant has three options, you can make whatever you want in your own kitchen.

Going in and tweaking a ready solution can mean untangling wires that you don’t know how to put back together correctly. Same thing goes with plugins. Developers often complain about the difficulty of going in and changing someone else’s code. Even between the developers in our company who are trained the same way, they are much faster adjusting their own code than that of a colleague when customizations are needed.

Adjusting a custom solution that you coded yourself will be much faster and more predictable than adjusting an existing plugin. The same goes for changing a premium theme, which I’ve written about before in another article comparing custom WordPress themes to premium.

Compatibility

In the WordPress plugin directory, you can see what version of WordPress that a certain plugin has been compatibility tested for. This is an indication that you shouldn’t take compatibility for granted, and if you’re using a lot of plugins, chances are bigger that they will interfere with each other and create cross-plugin compatibility issues.

As a fan of analogies, I think about it similarly to the way doctors worry about drug interactions. There are so many different possible combinations, it’s impossible to check them all. Most of the time it’s fine, but when it isn’t — you’re in trouble.

Again, sticking to the most common plugins should keep you out of that trouble.

Page loading time

Heavy plugins might not go well with your wish for great visitor experience. Visitors are very sensitive to page loading time, and studies show that if a page takes more than four seconds to load, a whopping 25 percent will leave before they’ve even seen your site.

A custom coded site (or functionality) will not contain more code than necessary, and you’re able to combine the CSS, javascript etc. with the rest of your page to avoid multiple requests to the server. This lean approach will be particularly useful if you’ve got a fairly large site, and if you need to use multi-functionality plugins to solve your needs.

Check your pagespeed with Google’s Pagespeed Insights tool, chances are you’ve got some images you can optimize as well to make your site load faster. If you want even more ideas for pagespeed, here’s an article to help you set the right ambition level and find links to great resources online on the topic.

Conclusion

While it can be argued that the main problem with plugins is not the number in use per se, think twice when you add your 11th plugin. Do I really need all of these to make my site effective and useful for my visitors? Can I custom code some of these features, like the social media buttons for instance?

If you’re active analyzing your site and making improvements to it, you’re more likely to run into problems of compatibility and constraints to customization. We recently got the request to rebuild a WordPress site for a client just because they wanted to make some updates and couldn’t untangle the mess created by the 30-something plugins running on it.

On the other hand, if you develop the site once and don’t plan to adjust it again, you should mainly look out for security issues from plugins that are no longer supported by their developers. Stick to the popular ones and log into the admin dashboard once in a while to update them or set them to update automatically.

And lastly, remember to always analyze your pagespeed to make sure your visitors have a nice experience on your site, whether they’re on desktop or on mobile.


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Daniel Corin Stig has a PhD in technology management and is CEO of White Label Agency, a subcontractor for digital agencies that want PSD to WordPress done for them on a regular basis.

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