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Whiteboard Wisdom: Let’s Talk About Plugins

Do you smell smoke?

No?

Good. Must just be me being overly dramatic again.

Fewer Plugins Are Better

I witnessed something recently that confirmed what I have long suspected: fewer WordPress plugins are better. The case in point was a redesign of a website we did for a client in which the old site was running over 30 plugins. The site design didn’t have a lot of graphics, or really any large ones to speak of. I was a little concerned about the site speed of our new design because it featured a lot of large edge-to-edge hero images and a lot of custom graphics.

But after we launched our redesigned theme and the 10 plugins still required, we ran some speed tests to see where it stood.

The new site was more than twice as fast.

How important is site speed anyway? Depends. But this article says people prefer to wait less than 2 or 3 seconds.

The engineers in our Skunkworks Department won’t let me tell you actual numbers. They’re trying to convince our sales team that we can market a proprietary “Total Optimization And Stealth Technology” and make millions. They’re calling it T.O.A.S.T.

“Use us and your site will be T.O.A.S.T.!”

Hmmm. I’m sure we’ll come up with a better name.

Anyway, I will tell you that there was a 61.5% decrease in wait time over the original site.

And I’ll tell you the key to the “optimization” was simply a reduction in the added overhead of plugins. Yes, each and every WordPress plugin on a site carries overhead. In the most general terms that overhead can be loading in scripts, styles, or images that the plugin needs to function. But many plugins make external calls either to load assets from a third party site, or just to check if they need to be updated.

And if you are running any redundant plugins (more than one SEO or security plugin) … well … each one is making pretty much the exact same calls as the others. It’s not even a matter of one being “better” than another. Plugins do their thing by using WordPress “hooks” that are a part of WordPress core API. You don’t even need to understand what hooks are. Just know that all plugins have to use the exact same hooks so adding more is redundant, not wider reaching.

In our case the load-time reduction was clearly a matter of reduced “requests.” A request is just that: every item on a web page that needs to come from somewhere else is requested. The original site’s homepage made 120 requests and our new site made 46.

Now that I’ve told you “fewer plugins are better” I’m going to tell you that it’s not always the case. I’m not waffling. I am talking to two different groups. If you are a website owner who just wants the fastest and best site possible – stay with me.

But if you are willing to dive in and do a full analysis on what each plugin is doing on your site and what it’s overhead actually is, here is an excellent article for you about determining plugin quality.

Plugins Have Power

Some other things to remember about WordPress plugins:

Thing #1: They have admin access.

Plugins can make changes to your database, settings, and pretty much everything in the configuration of your website. They also know everything about your users and any content that is stored in the database. This is a great help when it comes to non-developers creating a very robust website. But you have to invite that plugin into the castle. And give it the keys.

Thing #2: They can (and usually do) connect to an external site.

Plugins can make contact with external sites. This is how they keep track of licensing, whether or not they need updating, or pull up-to-date assets. They can call home every time someone hits your site.

So, in the scariest scenario possible, you welcomed Dracula into the castle, gave him keys to all the rooms, and the WiFi password. That is scary.

How To Pick Your Plugins

So how can you make sure the plugin you’re installing isn’t a vampire? Here’s a few guidelines we try to follow when looking into a new plugin:

  • Does it have a lot of downloads? We kind of feel like 10,000 is the WordPress plugin definition of “a lot.” If a plugin has a lot of downloads then it should have a decent amount of reviews …
  • What are the reviews? There are a lot of haters out there (I called a plugin Dracula after all) so don’t quickly dismiss a 3.0 star score. Read some of the reviews to make sure the 1-star reviewer isn’t just playing out a lack of attention in their daily life.
  • Who made it? If it’s from reputable companies like Automattic, Delicious Brains, etc. or notable independent developers then it’s likely good and supported. If Yuri Androvskiskipopovski developed it … maybe do a deep dive into his GitHub and make sure he didn’t just appear on the scene last week. No offense, Russia, but your rep on the Internet isn’t awesome these days.
  • When was it last updated? If it hasn’t been updated in a couple years – keep looking for another that does the same thing. It’s there.

We Like Plugins

About now you may be thinking that I absolutely hate plugins. Not true. I am really happy that plugins are a thing and now we’re going to talk about some great ones that we here at Ainsley & Co. use on a regular basis. (These are not paid endorsements, but if any of the plugin developers read this, you can find the address to send the fruit basket to on our contact page.)

DB Migrate Pro

This is a plugin that has one job. And it does it. When we migrate an old WordPress site to a development environment or to a new server we need to move a database. The old way was exporting and importing and hoping everything matches up. This plugin basically lets us securely connect the old and new and the data flows between. Easy peasy chicken greasy.

Advanced Custom Fields Pro

This is pretty much a required plugin when it comes to custom designed WordPress themes without bulky page-builders. This allows the backend developer to set up robust data structures that the front end developer turns into the amazing pages you see.

BackupBuddy

This is another straightforward plugin that does that the name says. It’s an easy way to set up regular backups or your site data and files and even send them to a safe external repository. It will also have a beer with you. (Not really.)

These are kind of the bland workman plugins of the WordPress world. Now I’m going to turn it over to Associate Creative Director, Tim Moorhead, to talk about some slicker plugins that we like for conversions and SEO and whatnot.

The SEO Framework

Look, If you’re looking to reach that number one spot on Google, you’ll have to do more than installing a plugin. That said, this plugin is a great choice for most sites’ on-page SEO work. In a category where a lot of the plugins are bloated, The SEO Framework is incredibly lightweight, clean and simple.

Safe Redirect Manager

Need to do 301 Redirects for a few pages? Safe Redirect Manager is the way to go. It is clean, simple — and just works. It features a clutter-free user interface and is as reliable as it gets. There are never any surprises with Safe Redirect Manager.

TLDR;

Plugins are a major component of the WordPress ecosystem that keeps web development affordable and attainable to users of all budget levels. But like everything in an open source environment you should be aware, if not careful, of your reliance on them. Run as few as possible. Know where they are from and what they do. This will ensure your site never becomes toast.

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