The lure and trap of plugins — tips and hints

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Recently my work has involved a lot of plugins. And I mean a LOT. From the simple to the complex, they have featured prominently in a range of client websites. So, it seems timely to blog about my experience to date and share some practical advice for those who are looking for it.

What’s a plugin?
In the context of websites, a plugin is a piece of software which can extend functionality and/or add new features. They are designed to ‘plug in’ to your existing software and work happily within that environment. There are tens of thousands to choose from, including free and paid options. The most common places you’ll find them are content management systems (CMS) such as Wordpress, Drupal and Joomla.

My experience with plugins is predominantly within a Wordpress context and the most popular way to install one is through the Plugins directory.

Note: up until recently, hosted websites could only access Wordpress built-in plugins. Business plan subscribers now have access to third-party plugins the same as self-hosted websites. It is also possible to create your own plugin for a specific project, or submit it to Wordpress for inclusion into their publicly available directory.

There’s a lure…

Anyone who loves installing new apps on their phone or tablet would understand the lure of a plugin. It’s about discovery, trying something new, making life easier and finding ways to be more efficient. A plugin’s purpose may not be very extensive at all; its sole purpose may be to automate the publication of your blog post onto Facebook. Others may be built for more complex purposes such as creating a member space with individual logins, forums and exclusive content.

Done well, plugins can make managing a website a much better experience. They also allow you to individualise your site without (potentially) too much effort or expertise. They can save you money on hiring a professional and allow you to exercise your own creative flair.

Additionally, the nature of open source software means that its built with extension and compatibility in mind so you can potentially add a limitless amount of plugins and your site will still work…

Will it still work?

And a trap…

Yes, there is a catch or two with plugins. Let me explain…

Image by Amerindub

Scenario A
You start off with a few plugins, then decide you don’t like them. So you add some different ones. You use them for a while, then decide you don’t need them anymore. There are now 30 plugins installed but only eight are being used.

Solution: deactivate or (ideally) delete plugins that you don’t need. This will reduce the load and size of your website.

Scenario B
You start off with a few plugins, then forget about how you are using them and begin to install additional ones which overlap in functionality to your original ones.

Solution: keep a log of the plugins you install and where you use them in your website. It could be some time between changing your content on particular pages, therefore keeping a log will help you recall why you installed a particular plugin and avoid duplication (and conflicts).

Scenario C
This one relates to managing plugins… you are performing some routine plugin updates and all of a sudden your site goes down. You cannot log in and so you call your tech. contact to fix the issue.

This is worst case scenario territory, but it does happen!

How to manage plugin updates

After seeing too many nightmarish situations, I’ve established some ground rules for updating plugins from now on. This is my current ideal list (though there are likely additions I could consider), so even if you can only follow some of the points it could reduce unfavourable outcomes.

Step 1: Check for an update to your CMS
Since Wordpress v3.7 (Oct 2013), Wordpress performs automatic background updates (usually security related) unless it detects version control settings. These updates are small and incremental. Larger updates are optional and involve changes to how your Wordpress software operates. This means your plugins need to be compatible also.

It’s quite common for plugins to release an update in response to a Wordpress update but not every plugin will require it. You will find that each plugin has a ‘View details’ section that indicates which version of Wordpress they are compatible up to. This may change your mind about updating your Wordpress software straight away.

Step 2: Perform your plugin updates on a staging site first
This means asking your tech. contact to create a clone of your website with its own website address (usually a subdomain). It looks and feels the same as your website, except it’s only a copy and whatever updates you do will only affect that site.

Once you are confident that there are no plugin issues, then you can perform them on your live site (or ask your tech. contact to do a file and database transfer).

Step 3: Update your plugins one at a time
Before you reach for the ‘Update All’ button, it’s better to ‘update, refresh and test’. This way if you do experience issues, you will know which plugin is the problem.

  1. Open up your website in another browser but don’t log in. This is so you can test your website as a member of the public and see if your plugin updates has caused any problems.
  2. Go back to your browser where you are logged in and ready to update your first plugin. Click update and wait for a message to say that the plugin has been updated successfully. In some cases it will give you an error but let’s assume you have the friendly success message. Hop over to your other browser and hard refresh the page. Navigate some pages that use the plugin that you are aware of. If all looks okay, you are ready to perform the next update.
  3. Rinse and repeat.

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