WordPress Plugins – a beginners guide

Wordpress plugins 101. Beginners guide all about what they are, where to find them, how to use, install and update plugins on your WP blog.

I’m a dedicated WordPress blogger.  I wouldn’t use anything else, and one of the reasons why is the huge array of add-ons you can get to the WordPress system that basically allow your site to be customised in thousands of different ways, and to function exactly how you like, and in ways you can only start to imagine! These add-ons to the basic framework are called WordPress Plugins and here is my beginner’s guide on what they can do, how to find and install them, and just a few ways you can use them.

What exactly is a WordPress Plugin?

Plugins are ways to extend and add to the functionality that already exists in WordPress. The core of WordPress is designed to be lean and lightweight, to maximize flexibility and minimize code bloat. Plugins  then offer custom functions and features so that each user can tailor their site to their specific needs.

So yes, exactly that.  Plugins are little bits of extra software you can add to your basic WordPress setup to give you some extra functions.  All websites are different and want to look or operate in unique ways and by combining these plugins you can create all the functionality that YOU need without having to have a fully functioning website full of code that you don’t need.

One of the major advantages of using the self-hosted verion of WordPress from WordPress.org is the ability to upload and use these plugins.  These aren’t available on the free version of WordPress.

Where can you find plugins to use?

All approved free WP plugins come in a searchable directory.  Login to WP and on the left-hand side of your site you have a menu bar.  Scroll down until you get to ‘Plugins’.  When you click here you will see all of the plugins already included in your site and their status – are they activated or not.  You can deactivate a plugin to keep it there ready to use, but not active should you need/want to.

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Just click on the Add New and you can browse through the entire directory of all the free WP plugins. If you can imagine it, there is a plugin or a combination of plugins that can help you create it.

Pro Tip – don’t just browse and add hundreds of plugins because they all sound so cool!  Better to search for plugins to solve specific problems or add specific functions and use them sparingly.  Too many plugins can cause issues on your site with compatibility.  More on that later.

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Just a few of the plugins available. Search by name, subject, description or use the ‘hot topics’ at the bottom

Are plugins free or do you have to pay?

You can get both free and paid plugins.  So the question is, if you can get some for free, what is the benefit of paying for some too?  Well as with most things, it comes down to quality.  A premium plugin would usually have these sort of features:

  • Full range of premium features with more options than a free version
  • Full time support staff to help you with technical questions
  • Developers to keep the plugin updated
  • Ongoing maintenance to make sure it’s compatible with new versions of WordPress
  • A free slimmed-down version with reduced features for you to trial (often)

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With a free plugin, it may not be so well maintained, or kept up to date with security updates, and if you do run into a problem there may not be any support other than a user forum.  However, there are some very high quality free plugins that are well maintained and secure, and if you pick wisely you won’t usually run into too many problems.  Most of what I’ll recommend on this site are free plugins, so if I do recommend a paid one from time to time, you can be sure it’s because I think it’s really worth investing in.

How do you install a WordPress plugin – two ways

There are two ways to add a plugin, and this often depends on if the plugin is free or paid.

Add from the Plugin Directory. You can browse for the plugin you want by name in the plugin directory.

  1. click on plugins on the left-hand side menu, then hit Add New at the top of the plugins page
  2. search for the plugin you want to add.  Double check you have the right one because sometimes there are several with similar names.  Take a look at the number of downloads or active installs, that should give you the right idea about which is the best.
  3. click the ‘install now’ button
  4. you see the installation successful screen (see image below)
  5. hit ‘Activate Plugin’ to make it live
  6. visit the settings page for the plugin to customise as needed.

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Upload a plugin .Zip file.  If you have bought a premium plugin to use, you will usually download this as a .zip file.  No need to un-zip, just leave the file as it is, WP will take care of it for you.

  1. click on plugins on the left-hand side menu, then hit Add New at the top of the plugins page
  2. click on the ‘Upload Plugin’ button at the top of the page
  3. search for your .zip file and select it.
  4. click ‘Install Now’
  5. you see the installation successful screen (see image above)
  6. hit ‘Activate Plugin’ to make it live
  7. visit the settings page for the plugin to customise as needed.

Can you have too many plugins?

Absolutely you can.  There is no need to go crazy and fill your site with all this extra code you don’t need and won’t use.  Why?  Because although most of the time plugins work perfectly well together, the more you add, the more chance there is of running into some sort of compatibility issue.  Some plugins that offer advanced functionality may also cause your site to run a little slower – add a lot and your site speed could be affected.

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Compatibility issues

Sometimes you can end up with unexpected results, or one or more plugins not functioning correctly.  This may be where one set of code is interfering with the code from another plugin, both trying to access the same file at the same time, or clashing in some way.  With a lot of plugins it can be really hard to narrow down which ones don’t play well together, and if they are free plugins, there is less chance of getting the personal tech support you need to sort out the problem.  You may end up having to remove certain functions you really wanted if the plugins won’t work together.  So limit your plugins to just those you really need and don’t add too many bells and whistles to your site.

Pro Tip – Jetpack is the standard plugin set from WordPress and may already include a lot of the functions you are looking for, all in one package that is guaranteed to work together correctly.  Plus Jetpack has support so if you do run into trouble, they’ll help you out.

Keeping your plugins up to date

Over time, WordPress and the plugins that work with it will be updated and a new version becomes available.  You will see a notification in your dashboard that an update is available.  Next to plugins on the left-hand menu there will be a number to show how many updates are waiting for you.

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Click on Plugins, then at the top click ‘Update Available’ and you’ll get a list of everything that needs updating.  You can either run all updates at once, or run them one at a time.

Pro Tip – updating plugins can occasionally have unexpected results. Always best to take a backup of your site before running any updates.  Run each plugin update individually and check everything works as it should before running the next update.  Just to be safe!

Just a few of my favorite WordPress plugins

Here are just a few of my favorite plugins.  Just because they work for my site though, they might not be right for you.  Remember what I said about not just overloading your site with cool plugins – go for the ones you will really use.  You or your site developer should make your own investigations, not just install anything to your site based on my recommendation or anyone else’s!

GA Google Analytics – easiest way to enable Google Analytics on all of your site pages without having to install any code.

Reply Me – sends an email to anyone who comments on your site when they get a reply to their comment.

WordPress Editorial Calendar – at a glance organisation of your posts, with quick drag and drop to move things around your schedule.

Yoast SEO – make sure you aren’t forgetting a thing when optimising your articles for Search Engines.

Magic Action Box – the perfect way to increase your website sign ups and increase your subscriber list.  Create beautiful custom sign up and share boxes and forms, add them to posts and pages, or your sidebar.  Integrates with all mailing list suppliers – there’s a free version, but the upgrade to the paid version is worth its weight in gold for newsletter sign ups, contact us boxes, viral sharing boxes and ‘click here’ affiliate link boxes. (You can see an example of the sign-up boxes it can create at the bottom of this article.)

For a more comprehensive list of recommended plugins for bloggers, please check on the Blogging Resources Page.

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6 Responses to WordPress Plugins – a beginners guide

  1. Malea says:

    This is a great article! Thanks for sharing! Would you by chance know why I can’t get my comments working? I’ve tried to installed the WP Advanced Comments, but that doesn’t seem to work either. I’m at a loss!

    • Deby says:

      I don’t use any commenting plugins at all, just the regular commenting that comes as standard with WordPress. I’d suggest taking out any comment plugin and getting back to basics first. That should just work fine unless you have a setting checked somewhere that disallows commenting across the board for some reason. Is there any other plugin that might contain a setting like that?

  2. This is a great guide to plugins, which I know a lot of people struggle to understand when they use WordPress! Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  3. Anika says:

    Great guide! It is really helpful! I installed comment email reply plugin but it doesnt seem to be working and sending emails. I will try Reply me plugin instead.

  4. Jayne says:

    Thanks, I’m adding more after reading this..

  5. Emily Rose says:

    Awesome post! Thanks for sharing. I am new to this pluggins thing and it’s very appreciated to learn more about how it works!

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