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Whether you’re designing your first website or revamping your third, one of the most overwhelming aspects is often the sheer amount of add-ons available. Add-ons for websites take many forms: WordPress, Wix, and Shopify have Themes (Squarespace calls them Templates) that change the design of your website; WordPress has plugins (Wix and Shopify call them apps; Squarespace calls them extensions) that add or change functionality. You may have also heard of “widgets,” “elements,” or any number of other things. The point is that they add something that’s unavailable “out of the box,” rather than built-in to the core software that makes your website work. Between WordPress’ official repositories for themes and plugins, Wix’s App Market, Shopify’s App Store, and extensions for Squarespace, there are easily more than 100,000 options out there. How do you even know where to begin?
Look for Lots of Recent, Thorough Ratings and Reviews
Regardless of what platform your add-on is for, or where you find it, there will inevitably be a rating system of some kind. Many repositories and marketplaces use a 5-star rating, meaning the best of the best plugins are rated 5 stars, while poorly performing plugins get 1 star (or fewer, if possible)! When it comes to WordPress themes and plugins (because I build using WordPress primarily), I don’t rely on the star ratings from just one source though: I like to check and see if the add-on is available elsewhere, and what rating it has on different app stores or marketplaces.
Take, for example, this comparison: one theme is rated 5 stars in the WordPress Theme Repository (on the left side of the image), but only three people have bothered to rate it. It’s likely because it’s a “lite” or limited version of a paid, premium theme, but often this is the only way to get a free trial or demo of what might otherwise cost a fair bit of money. On the right side of the image is the 4.71 star average rating for the premium version of a the theme on ThemeForest, a popular marketplace for themes and plugins. Seeing high ratings from thousands of users should increase your confidence in whatever you’re downloading, whether it’s paid or free.
By the same token, if you see high ratings in one place, but low ratings elsewhere, be suspicious. Be sure to read the reviews to get more details behind either a glowing 5-star review or a brutal 1-star review. Ask yourself a few key questions:
- Are the reviews recent?
- Do they all mention the same (or similar) issues?
- Are there any responses from the developer? If so, are they polite and helpful?
- Is there a FAQ section, or installation instructions? If so, are there screenshots? Is everything kept up-to-date?
Go Beyond the Feature List
When you stumble across any theme or plugin, bear in mind that the developers are putting their “best face forward,” so to speak. That means they’ve put together gorgeous mockups of what the add-on looks like in action, even if that’s nothing like your website, or the website you want to build. Many of these add-ons will advertise all kinds of features that you may not need, and will ultimately confuse you or slow down your website. When you look for a theme or a plugin, look for a short list of specific must-have features. Take into account whether you can get the features you want from one place, or whether you might be better off “cherry picking” and getting them from different sources.
Let’s take a look at one of the most popular WordPress plugins, Jetpack. It’s made by Automattic, the same company that makes WordPress itself, along with a number of other contributors. It bills itself as the “all-in-one toolkit for WordPress,” and “the most popular WordPress plugin for just about anything.” There are more than 40 “modules,” divided into categories like Appearance, Security, and Writing. Some of these modules include things like website backups, contact forms, and analytics. Many of them are enabled by default, in part to simplify the Jetpack interface (previously you could activate them individually). You can still disable modules you don’t use, but that doesn’t “delete” them from your website; they’re still part of the plugin, taking up space.
Build Your Shortlist
So how do you build a shortlist of features you need your add-on to have? First, decide whether what you want has to do with how your site looks or how it functions. If it’s the former, it’s likely going to be part of a theme’s feature list, while if it’s the latter, it’s more likely to be a plugin, extension, or app. Some examples of theme features, according to WordPress, are:
- Grid Layout
- One Column
- Two Columns
- Three Columns
- Four Columns
- Left Sidebar
- Right Sidebar
- Wide Blocks
- Accessibility Ready
- Custom Colors
- Custom Menu
- Full Width Template
- Threaded Comments
- Translation Ready
These are just a short list of possible features you may want to consider for your shortlist. Now, organize them into wants and needs. You may know you want a modern, sleek web design, but not know what that will look like when all is said and done. So you don’t know if you actually need a theme that supports a grid layout, or precisely three columns, or a sidebar on the left. Until you do, you can put features like those into a “wants” list, and keep your shortlist… well, short!
Building a shortlist for functional add-ons (plugins) is similar, although there are a lot more possible ways to describe what any given add-on can do. You might want to add a form for people to contact you… or to act as a quiz to add interactivity to your site. Maybe you want to add social sharing buttons so people can share your blog posts to sites like Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter with one click. The goal is to come up with common keywords to add to your shortlist: forms, for example, or social media. Then you can look at the results and see if they do what you want. Maybe one plugin handles contact forms really well, but it can’t create the sort of quiz you have in mind. That, in addition to the star ratings, number of ratings, and reviews, should help eliminate add-ons that aren’t a good fit for your situation.
If you don’t need more than half of the features of any given add-on, then downloading a plugin like Jetpack will just bloat your website and make updating it more difficult for you. The only reason to download an “all-in-one” plugin is because it consolidates the work of multiple other plugins (perhaps ones that are outdated or unsupported) and because you’ll use most of the features.
By the same token, if you find a plugin that does one thing only, make sure it does it well. There’s not much point in getting a 5-star contact form plugin if you’re forced to get another plugin to be able to style your forms, or to connect the form to your email marketing platform. One plugin should do everything you need for that function.
Check the Requirements
Similar to a piece of software you’d download to your computer, many add-ons have their own requirements. For example, WordPress themes and plugins have a minimum WordPress version they work with, and a latest version they’ve been tested on. They also have a minimum PHP version that’s required, and languages they support. Your website needs to meet or exceed the requirements in order for the add-on to function properly.
Sometimes you’ll notice that an add-on hasn’t been updated in a while. This can mean that updates aren’t necessary, because it’s a lightweight plugin written in stable code, but otherwise the code can be unstable, insecure, or otherwise risky to use on a live website. Just as your website needs to meet an add-on’s requirements, an add-on should meet your host’s requirements for stability and security. Look into how developers get their add-ons added to a marketplace. Are they reviewed or vetted by other developers at all? Are there requirements for updating it regularly? If anyone who wants to post an app, plugin, or extension can, then you don’t want to install it without verifying that it’s:
- Compatible with other add-ons
- Does what it says without adding unnecessary or suspicious functions
Most of the time, you can look at a combination of the ratings/reviews and support requests to determine if the add-on you’ve selected is safe to use and suitable for your needs. When in doubt, contact your hosting provider about any concerns you may have.
Meet the Developer(s)
A good way to find out if an add-on is well-supported is to look at who built it. Is it an individual person doing it in their spare time, and asking for donations? Maybe it’s a small agency that offers free and paid “tiers” for different functions. Or perhaps it’s a team of upwards of 100 people, like the Jetpack plugin. The more people (or the larger and more established a company) behind a plugin, the more likely it is to be regularly updated and kept stable and secure. One person will find it challenging to respond to support requests, add new features, and keep the code behind any add-on up-to-date and secure. A well-funded group, on the other hand, will be able to do so as a matter of course, and will be more reliable for you as a customer.
One thing to keep in mind is that often larger agencies and companies go by different names for different products. The folks behind WP Beginner, for example, also make the plugin WP Forms, OptIn Monster, and MonsterInsights, to name a few. You don’t want to trust what appears to be an unbiased, third-party blog reviewing plugins only to find out they’re the same people who make the plugin! But on the other hand, if you like many of the add-ons offered by a specific company, it’s a safe bet you’ll also enjoy their other offerings, and find them compatible with one another.
Examine Active Installations
With WordPress plugins from the Plugin Repository, in addition to the minimum requirements to install a plugin, you can also see how many other users have installed the plugin and are actively running it on their website. This doesn’t apply to plugins purchased and/or installed from third-party marketplaces like Envato’s CodeCanyon, but it’s still a pretty useful metric for determining if a plugin is not only popular, but actively used. If you go to the “advanced view” for any WordPress Repository plugin, you can also see what version of a given plugin most people are using. This can tell you if an update caused problems and people “rolled back” to a prior version of the plugin, or if people are slow to adopt a new version because of a changed interface or functions, for example.
Peek Behind the Scenes
Last but not least, if there’s a website out there that you love the design of, or it has some functionality you want for yourself, you can peek behind the scenes to find out what that site is using. There are a few ways to do this: one, the easiest way, involves installing a browser extension like Wappalyzer or What WP Theme is That (which also detects plugins for WordPress). Either install the browser extension or visit the website and enter the URL of the site you’re interested in examining, and check out the list of results. I often use both tools, since one will often pick up on details that the other won’t.
Another way to peek behind the scenes of your favorite website is to use your browser’s “Inspector.” In Safari, you have to enable the sepcial “Develop” menu in your Preferences > Advanced, and then you’ll get a Develop menu between your Bookmarks and Windows menus. Go to the site you want to check, and then go to Develop > Show Web Inspector. A new pane will pop-up on your screen; look for something that says “Sources.”
In Chrome, you can find this under View > Developer > Inspect Element or by right-clicking and choosing “Inspect Element.” Again, look for the “Sources” menu.
In Firefox, this option is under the Tools Menu > Web Developer > Debugger. Again, you want to look under “Sources.” For all of these browsers, you should see a pane that includes a list of folders, like wp-content. Click the arrow next to the wp-content folder and look for plugins and themes folders. Within those, you should be able to find the names of some, if not all, of the plugins and themes a given site is using.
Not that the above method doesn’t work as well for sites that use their own special code, like Wix, Squarespace, and Shopify, but you can usually get some clues by looking at the folders that show up. Note that the above screenshots were all taken on a Mac, so your browser may look different if you are using a different operating system. A similar feature should exist in other browsers, such as Microsoft Edge.
Periodically Update Your Shortlist
Now that you know how to find the best of the best add-ons, an important habit to cultivate is that of regular updates. While you don’t necessarily have to update your add-ons yourself, it’s a good idea to check every once in a while if a given add-on still serves you. Is your theme or template out-of-date and lacking features? Have you gotten feedback from readers or clients that an element of your website doesn’t work or is difficult to use? Consider revamping your shortlist of “wants and needs,” and check whether or not you still need all the add-ons you have. This is especially true if you have subscription model or other paid plugins; there’s no sense in paying for an add-on that doesn’t do what you need!
Every few months, ask yourself these questions about your site’s add-ons:
- Is it kept up-to-date, with stable, secure code?
- Are lots of people actively using the latest version? If not, why not?
- Are there plenty of positive ratings and detailed reviews available from multiple sources?
- Does the developer answer support requests in a polite and helpful manner?
- Does the add-on do what I need, or do I have to extend its functionality further with additional add-ons? Is it bloated with features I don’t use?
- Is the add-on compatible with my website/host’s settings and security requirements? What about other add-ons I need?
- Do other website owners I know and trust recommend this add-on? Why or why not?
I like to keep a spreadsheet with information about the plugins that I’m using across multiple websites, and how up-to-date and compatible they are, both with my site and other add-ons. I also make sure that I know how to update the add-on myself, if necessary, and where to go to get those updates. I keep my license codes for paid add-ons in a password manager (I use 1Password, but there are lots of others out there), so they’re always available with a single click; this is especially helpful if you get more than one premium add-on from a single source, such as a popular plugin developer or theme builder.
No matter what add-ons you need, make sure to follow the Goldilocks Rule: not too many, not too few, but just the right amount that do exactly what you want!