Plugin Palooza

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By Michael Fields

This May, I lead a discussion at the Portland WordPress User Group on the topic of plugins. This post contains a collection of the idea expressed as well as links to many of the plugins that were mentioned.

Don’t fear the Plugin!!!

Over the years I’ve read articles, listened to interviews and had conversations with people that focus on how plugins are bad. If I were to be absolutely honest, there was a period of time when I would not install a plugin on my site for any reason. Although these days are well in the past, I know that a certain black cloud still hovers over using plugins in WordPress. Hell, just search Google for the phrase “without a plugin”. You’ll find page after page of results giving examples of how users have extracted functionality from plugins and added the code directly to the active theme. Mind boggling! In my opinion, plugin functionality is best served via plugin while theme functionality is best served in themes. Please read this article by Ryan Imel that digs a little deeper into this concept.

So, if you’re new to WordPress and plugins kind of freak you out, there’s a couple of things that you can do before installing a plugin on your site.

Test Locally!!!

Fully testing a plugin before you install it on your live site is very important. It is easy to set up a server environment on your computer where you can install WordPress and test functionality before going live.

XAMPP is a great bundle including Apache, MySQL, PHP and PERL. It has packages for Linux, Mac OS X, Windows and Solaris. Best part is … it’s free!!! Install on Windows tutorial.

MAMP is a bundle including Apache, MySQL and PHP which is available for Mac OS X. It has both free and paid versions. Tutorial.

Make an Informed Decision

The best thing that you can do before installing a WordPress plugin is to open the files and read every line of code. This will tell you exactly where the plugin hooks into WordPress and what it does. Although I believe that this is the best possible solution, I’m aware that there are WordPress users that may not have the skills to do this. Don’t fret! All is not lost if you find yourself in this position. There are quite a few things that you can do without knowing how to read the code.

Who Wrote It?

Personally, this is one of the most important questions that can be asked! I am more likely to install a plugin by an experienced WordPress developer than someone who I have never heard of. It’s really hard to compare developers and can be somewhat of a sensitive issue. I’ll do my best to illustrate what my thought process would be if I were presented with a handful of different plugins designed to accomplish the same task.

  1. The first thing I would look for is if a member of the core WordPress development team is listed as a contributer to any of the plugins. As soon as WordPress 3.2 hits the shelves, you will be able to click the “credits” link in the footer to view all contributers to the current version. Until then, you can visit wordpress.org’s about page and there is a list in the right-hand sidebar.
  2. The second thing I would look for is if there is a plugin in the group that lists Automattic as a contributer. Automattic is the company behind wordpress.com a service that hosts over 20 million WordPress powered websites. Seeing Automattic as a contributer informs me that the plugin has been created/reviewed by a developer with extensive knowledge of the WordPress codebase who has experience coding for millions of users. Some of the plugins listed on Automattic’s profile are also installed on wordpress.com. These plugins are of interest, because they have been tested with a very large user-base and will generally present you with the best experience available.

How many times has it been downloaded?

While popularity is not be considered as an indicator of quality, it can be a powerful tool in choosing between different available options. Perhaps you are looking for a plugin that accomplishes a specific task and you find 5 different candidates. If one of these plugins has been downloaded considerably more times than the others, I would consider trying it out before the others. One thing that popularity can be a great indicator of is community. If many people are using a plugin it may be easier to find someone who can answer questions as they arise.

When was it last updated?

If the plugin was last updated 3 years ago, you might want to stear clear of it. While there are definitely exceptions to this rule, this date should be strongly considered. Version 2.5 was stable 3 years ago and much has changed in WordPress since then! A 3-year-old plugin may not be using the most up-to-date features + APIs. If there is another plugin that has been updated more recently, I would strongly suggest considering these other options. On the other hand, age does not necessarily suggest poor quality. It is completely possible for a plugin written for WordPress 2.0 to work seamlessly with 3.1. It all depends on what the plugin does and where it hooks into WordPress.

Ask Someone Who Knows!

There are a lot of resources that you can use to get feedback from community members. First of all, there are many WordPress developers on Twitter. I follow about 200 WordPress developers there and it’s awesome! The WordPress support forums are also a great resource. Many volunteers view the threads there and can steer you in the right direction. WordPress Answers may also be worth checking out. There seem to be a really great group of developers that hang out there and answer questions. Last, but certainly not least, there is a plugin review service provided by WordPress developer Joost de Valk. Joost regularly reviews plugins hosted in the official plugin directory. He even takes suggestions! You can suggest a plugin for review by filling out this form on his site.

My Picks

Here are a few plugins that I have used and think are really great.

Regenerate Thumbnails by Viper 007 Bond. Allows you to re-size images uploaded to you site in on click! Helpful for when you have switched themes and the new theme requires new image sizes. Worth it’s weight in gold!

Subscribe To Comments by Mark Jaquith. Keep the conversation going on your site by installing this easy-to-use plugin! Adds a simple check box to each comment form on your site that allow commentators to opt-in to receiving email notifications when new comments are made on a post. Awesome!

Options Framework by Devin Price. Quickly and easily create a theme options page without writing a lot of code! Provides support for many different form controls. Rock!

BNS Inline Asides by Edward Caissie. When you write do you find that you go off on epic tangents? If so this is definitely a plugin that you should check out. It allows you to hide certain bits. Your readers have the option to expand the hidden text or just keep reading. Rad!

Posts 2 Posts by Scribu This plugin allows you to create direct relationships between different posts on your site. Really handy when using multiple custom post_types. A handy way to set up custom “related post” functionality. Slick interface. Supports reciprocal relationships. Amazing!

Grunion Contact Form by mdawaffe, Automattic and Nick Momrik. This is a really simple (yet powerful) contact form solution. It adds a new icon to the media icons section above the post editor which allows you to easily construct a custom contact form that you can insert into any post or page.

Community Picks

Thanks to everyone who shared their favorite plugins! I was able to write many of them down and find links + descriptions online. Here’s the list:

Audit Trail by John Godley. Creates a log of actions taking by logged users. If you run a site and have multiple editors or authors, and have asked yourself the question “Who did that?”. This plugin gives you the answer!

Customizable Post Listings by Coffee 2 Code. Display Recent Posts, Recently Commented Posts, Recently Modified Posts, Random Posts, and other post listings using the post information of your choosing in an easily customizable manner.

Explanitory Dictionary by Ruben Sargsyan. This plugin is used when there are some words, words expressions or sentences to be explained in the posts or pages of your wordpress blog. It will help the visitors to read the explanations of the words (words expressions, sentences) you need via tool-tips. It can also be used as a glossary.

File Gallery by Aesqu. Extends WordPress’ media capabilities by adding a new gallery shortcode handler with template support, a new interface for attachment handling when editing posts, and much more…

HTML5 and Flash Video Player by Rodrigo Violante. This plugin allows the addition of video (and other media) to a WordPress website, now you can also watch videos in your iPad or iPod.

Photo Dropper by markus941 and tgardner. Lets you add Creative commons licensed Photos to Your Posts from Flickr. By activating this plugin you agree to be fully responsible for adhering to Creative Commons licenses for all photos you post to your blog.

Post Avatar by garinungkadol. Simplifies the process of including a picture when writing posts by allowing the user to choose from a predefined list of images. The image can be automatically shown on the page or output customized with the use of a template tag in themes.

WordPress Backup to Dropbox by Michael De Wildt. Automatically creates a backup your blog and uploads it to Dropbox.

WordPress File monitor by Matt Walters. Monitors your WordPress installation for added/deleted/changed files. When a change is detected an email alert can be sent to a specified address.

WordPress.com Custom CSS by multiple authors. Enables you to generate custom css for your website without modifying theme files. If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where you need a “Grandchild” theme this plugin is worth checking out.

WP Events Manager by nutsmuggler and netweblogic. Events Manager is a full-featured event registration management solution for WordPress based on the principles of flexibility, reliability and powerful features!

7 Comments Comments are closed

  1. barrya May 26, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    Thanks for the talk and for poating this as a followup, it’s going to be useful to keep this handy.

  2. barrya May 26, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    Meant “posting” not “poating”.. Ha

  3. Daniel Payne May 26, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    My favorite photo gallery plugin is: NextGen Gallery
    http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/nextgen-gallery/

  4. Josh May 27, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Thanks for sharing these tips. They’re all so good. One thing I like to do while testing out a plugin in a dev environment is to turn WP_DEBUG on. It’s an easy way to find potential problems like deprecated functions or even errors in the code.

  5. Kelli Sussman June 7, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Thanks Michael – your talk was very helpful and I appreciated you sharing your favorite plugins as well as ways to determine if a plugin is a good one to try, because there are soooo many plugins in the directory to choose from. Thank you!

  6. Karen Groves June 7, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    Thanks Michael – Really good discussion and this is a really useful list. See you next time.

    Karen

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