Don’t avoid plugins
By on March 29, 2016
If you’re ever interested in the pain points associated with WordPress, you should ask someone in the trenches of providing technical or customer support. We’ve heard it all, over and over again. One recurring theme I’ve noted since my tenure in the support forums is this: users are afraid of installing plugins.
The original tickets are usually about some feature they need on their website. I’ll pick a common example we’ve dealt with — a mailing list subscription form. A user, we’ll call her Jane — asks her theme authors, “How do I add a mailing list subscription form to my website?” and we explain, “The theme doesn’t include this kind of functionality. But you can install a plugin to do this for you.”
Jane balks, “I’m trying to avoid plugins.”
I’m sure the first time Jane installed WordPress, she was giddy with power. She instantly sought out a new theme to change the look and feel of the front page. Because the more modern-looking and featured themes on WordPress.org are typically well-maintained, this experience likely went pretty well for her. Change theme = success.
Next, Jane learns about plugins. Understanding that plugins add all kinds of cool things, Jane searches for a social sharing plugin. “This plugin hasn’t been updated in two years…” Well, it’s here in the search! “This plugin hasn’t been tested with your version of WordPress.” What does that even mean? Install, activate. Best case scenario? Sidebars look wonky. Worst is the white screen. What kind of experience has Jane had now? Plugins = things breaking.
Then something magical happens. Jane notices a theme that includes social sharing functions. A lightbulb goes off in her head. It will just work, and that’s all that matters to her.
It turns out, the WordPress plugin directory is not the greatest resource for people seeking out well-maintained plugins. Developers might initially have altruistic intentions when they added their plugin, but it’s all too easy to get overwhelmed by the demands of support and maintenance, so abandoned plugins abound. It’s one thing for WordPress folks to understand this is essentially a volunteer gig — but it’s not easily communicated to the other sixty million users out there who expect things to just work by virtue of it being listed on the website.
On the other hand, there are also so many brilliant and useful plugins out there — built by passionate, professional, and generous community members. It’s just harder for new WordPressers to sort those out in the search results.
We shouldn’t be avoiding plugins at all. In fact, I wholly advocate going plugin crazy. Just be smarter and more responsible about it. Look for plugins that have been updated in the last year (at least!). Check out the developer’s other work and suss out whether they’re valued members of the community. And…
Don’t avoid plugins, review them
Most of all, I think we all should be writing useful and insightful reviews for the plugins we’re using — when they work well, and when they don’t. Keep in mind that a review is not the appropriate place to request support. If something is broken, it’s really important to open a thread on the appropriate support forum — even if you end up moving on and using a different plugin.
If the WordPress community would be better about those two items, users would have an easier time sorting through the results for well-supported and updated plugins. I recently went through my own website plugin list and left a review of each one I’d activated and used. I even wrote a review for one I activated and liked, but ended up going with another I liked better. I explained the feature difference in my review, and I hope it’s useful to the next person whose looking for a fancy Instagram integration. ?
Here’s a template you can use for your own plugin reviews:
I installed[plugin name] on my blog/business site/portfolio.
The plugin has these features which I really like:
I wish these features could be improved upon:
These features didn’t work for me, even after I tried to get support in the forum:
Overall I would recommend/not recommend this plugin if you’re trying to accomplish __________.
I get that reviews and open threads in the WordPress.org forums alone won’t solve the problem of abandoned or poorly coded plugins. I know that we’ll still see unfortunate conflicts between plugins and themes. But I think as a community, we could do a lot better about flagging what we notice. Who knows, your review or your open ticket just may save some new WordPresser from the panic that goes along with their very first white screen of death. It could even save someone from getting so frustrated with WordPress that they jump ship altogether.