Plugins are a special feature of WordPress, in which any functionality that wasn’t included in the basic software can be added. Yes, anything. Plugins can create files on the server, update files on the server, and even modify (sometimes in very dramatic ways) the basic WordPress code itself. Because plugins can be so powerful, they can also be very dangerous. We’re not actually going to install any new plugins in this class, because things could get pretty weird pretty fast, but that doesn’t keep us from digging in a little bit and seeing what they’re all about!
Where can I find plugins?
The easiest answer to this question (and frankly, most of the questions) is simple: wordpress.org. The free, open-source side of WordPress, wordpress.org (versus the site of the same name that sells WordPress hosting, wordpress.com) is a great source of information and software related to WordPress, all of it free! One great feature of the wordpress.org site is that they maintain a large database of free plugins (19,946 at last count), ranging from those that help you manage lots of users in your site to ones that help you add Twitter feeds to your site.
Of course, like many free repositories of software, there are some great examples, and some horrible ones. There are some basic rules to distributing a plugin through the WordPress repository, but it’s pretty easy to get your plugin added, and neither the folks at WordPress.org nor those at WordPress.com (many of whom also get paid to help with WordPress.org) examine each plugin to make sure it’s not going to do something Very Bad to your site. There are just too many plugins to check.
So how to tell the Good from the Bad or the Ugly?
I’ve actually asked one of the core developers of WordPress this question, and it takes a little work, but the formula is fairly simple:
- When is the last time the developer updated the plugin?
- Does the developer claim that it works on the current version of WordPress?
- Has the developer responded to questions on the forums fairly quickly? Were they rude or patient and helpful?
- How many people have downloaded the plugin?*
- Does the code look like “spaghetti code” (tangled and messy, like spaghetti thrown against a wall)?**
The good news is that almost all of these can be easily determined by just a few minutes at the WordPress.org plugin repository (http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/). In just a quick glance, you can see when the developer last updated the plugin, what version they claim it works with, how many times it’s been downloaded, and the most recent posts on the wordpress.org forums can be seen in the lower right. (Click on a couple and see how long it took the developer to respond. If you already have a concern about the plugin, do a few quick searches to see if someone has already asked about this.)
* The WordPress core developer I asked was quick to point out that the number of times it’s been downloaded should only be a “tie-breaker”. If the plugin has a decent rating in the plugin repository, but you see that it’s only been downloaded 100 times, and the other plugin you’re considering for the same task has been downloaded 316,000 times, there might be a real advantage to “going with the crowd”. Maybe they know something you don’t. However, the download number just indicates how many people have decided to LOOK at it, not necessarily even install it…
** “But I’m not a developer! How should I know?” You may not be a PHP programmer, but if you really want to know if the developer is experienced and conscientious about the code they write, there’s no replacement for looking at their code. PHP is really just text. Download their plugin, and open some of the files in Notepad (or your favorite text editor) and see if they have put little notes to the people reading their code to explain what they’re doing. If there aren’t any comments in the code that explain what each section does and how to modify it, BEWARE!
Activate the GT Tabs plugin so we can try out some shortcodes
Let’s go to the Plugins panel and check out one of my favorite plugins, GT Tabs.
- Click on Plugins in the left menu of your Admin panel
- Just below the title of the GT Tabs plugin, click the Activate link
Now we’ve activated the GT Tabs plugin, what next? In the editing screen of whichever page you chose, lets create some tabs in our page. It’s time to try out some Shortcodes!