WordPress Plugins 101

WordPress plugins are pieces of software that add functionality to your website.

When you download and install your WordPress site, you automatically get the most important features right “out of the box.” It already comes with three default themes, built-in comments, SEO optimization, and importers.

There’s also a strong application framework and the ability to use custom post types to create different content types for your site (e.g., videos, ecommerce product pages, and forms).

While this is enough to get you started with your website, you’ll want to use plugins to add functionality. Without plugins, you don’t have access to calendars, spam protection, social networking, complex galleries, forms, or other useful features.

Essentially, if you stick to just the basic features, you will have a fairly simple website. If you want to stand out from the competition or even add things like forms, you will need plugins.

Read our article to answer some of your top questions related to WordPress plugins, including how to choose the right plugins for your own WordPress site.

What is a WordPress plugin (and why do you need them)?

WordPress plugins are pieces of software that extend the functionality of a WordPress website.

WordPress is open-source software, which means that developers worldwide can build plugins that integrate easily with WordPress core, as they use a common programming language called PHP. This means that site owners or admins can choose from thousands of WordPress plugins, ranging from free to paid, to receive enhanced functionality for their WordPress site. Best of all, they can accomplish this without hiring their own developers or knowing how to code.

Before we get stuck into the world of WordPress plugins, however, let’s clear up any confusion we may have with the differences between widgets, themes, and plugins.

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Widgets vs. plugins

While both widgets and plugins let you add features and content to your WordPress site, the biggest difference between widgets and plugins is how you interact with them and how they appear on your page. Plugins typically run in the background, while users can typically interact with widgets.

On WordPress, widgets appear on the sidebar, top, or bottom of the page. They are usually buttons or icons. Some common widgets include buttons to share on social media, calendars, and search bars.

Themes vs. plugins

While plugins refer to elements that alter your WordPress site’s functionality, a theme is software that governs your site’s look and feel. Your theme is responsible for dictating the appearance and design of site elements like navigation, colors, and layout. A big difference between plugins and themes is how many you can use on your site at once. You can theoretically use as many plugins as you want on your site simultaneously, but you can only use one theme at a time.

Let’s take a closer look at the common plugins needed for a WordPress site and how to go about choosing between all the available options.

Default WordPress plugins

WordPress comes with a handful of default plugins to get you started. They include the following:

  • Askimet: This plugin, developed by Automattic, filters comments and trackback spam.
  • Jetpack: A popular security and backup plugin that assists with site migrations, scans for malware and threats, monitors your site’s uptime, and much more.
  • Hello Dolly: This plugin, developed by WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg, displays a random lyric from the song “Hello, Dolly” by Louis Armstrong. Is it useful? No. Is it fun? Yes, which is why we give this plugin a 10 out of 10!

As you can see, an “out the box” WordPress site is more or less a blank canvas, providing a golden opportunity to transform it into a tool that works best for your business and brand.

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How to choose the right WordPress plugin

With thousands of WordPress plugins from which to choose — and all of them different in their functions and features — how do you know you are selecting the right one? WordPress has a useful 15-minute video to help you decide.

We have summarized this video’s salient points below in a four-point checklist if you don’t have time to watch it. Use this checklist while browsing through the WordPress plugin repository to make the best decision for your website’s needs.​

1. What do you want the plugin to do?

Start by thinking about what function you want the plugin to provide. (To get you started, have a look below at the types of plugins we recommend for a WordPress site.) Then, confirm that your chosen plugin fulfills that function. For example, you may want a calendar that lets clients book appointments, but the plugins you have looked at don’t enable that function. Carry on looking!

2. What version is the plugin on — and is it still being supported?

When you browse plugins, you can see the version and when it was last updated on the right side of the screen. This can let you know if the developer still actively develops and supports it. Remember, a more recent update indicates the plugin likely has fewer security concerns.

This is also the time to check what version of WordPress you can use the plugin with. For this information, look at “Tested up to.” The best plugins will work on the latest WordPress version.

3. How many installations does this plugin have?

Look at the number of “active installations,” which is directly underneath the date of the last update. This gives you an idea of how popular the plugin is.

4. What do the plugin reviews say?

Reading reviews will give you a more holistic view of the plugin. You can confirm that it performs the functions you want in the way you want. Reviews will also let you know about any common bugs or issues, as well as what to expect from plugin support.

What types of WP plugins do I need for my site?

There’s a WordPress plugin for everything. Some plugins increase your site’s security, and others assist with customizing your website’s front-end, while others help you sell your products online.

Below is a list* of plugins to consider when setting up or optimizing your WordPress site.

We have applied our four-point checklist to the lists below and provided you details about the plugin version, number of active installations, reviews, and ratings (as of March 2021).

*This list is by no means exhaustive – there are too many plugins to list and new ones being added daily – so be sure to do your own homework to find the right plugins for your WordPress website.

Security plugins

Without WordPress security plugins, you leave your website vulnerable to security threats. Various security plugins can help reduce the risk of fraud, unauthorized logins, and potential attacks on your databases.

  • Google Authenticator: Delivers two-factor authentication for your website visitors. It works with WP versions 4.5 or higher, has 30,000+ active installations and has a 4.5/5 rating.
  • iThemes Security: Provides more than 30 security features, including two-factor authentication, strong passwords, Google ReCAPTCHA, and online file comparison. It works with version 5.4 or higher, has more than 1 million active installations, and has a rating of 4.5/5.
  • Malcare Security: Detects and removes malware. It works with 4.0 or higher, has more than 100,000 active installations, and has a 4/5 rating.
  • Password Policy Manager: Helps you enforce strong passwords and locks inactive users. It has strong reviews.
  • Sucuri Security: Audits security activity, monitors blacklists, remotely scans malware, notifies you of hacks, and more. It works with WP 3.6 or higher, has 800,000+ active installations, and has a 4.5/5 rating.
  • Stop User Enumeration: Detects and prevents hackers from looking for usernames on your site. It works with 3.4 or higher, has 30,000+ active installations, and has a rating of 4.5/5.
  • WordFence: A malware scanner and endpoint firewall. It works with 3.9 or higher, has more than 4 million active installations, and has a rating of 4.5/5.
Web design and development

Page builder plugins

Page builder plugins let you use drag-and-drop functionality to build your website. This eliminates the need to learn complicated coding.

  • Elementor: This trendy website and page builder has over 5 million active installations, 5000 five-star ratings, and is compatible with WordPress 5.0 and higher. Some users rate it highly, but others have made comments about poor support when issues do arise.
  • Beaver Builder: Offers a “complete design system” with a page builder and a theme. More than a million websites use it, and it has numerous 5-star reviews.
  • Divi: Offers the world’s most popular theme and a page builder with bulk editing, transforms, hover states, and more than 40 website elements. There are more than 800 premade designs. It has many 5-star reviews.
  • SeedProd: This drag-and-drop builder helps you design landing pages, including opt-in, webinar, sales, and coming soon pages. There are more than 100 templates. More than 1 million people use the plugin, and it has strong reviews.
  • WP Page Builder: A drag-and-drop web builder with plenty of functionality. It works with WordPress version 5.0 or higher, has 10,000+ active installations, and has a rating of 4.5/5 stars.

Content management plugins

A content management plugin lets you easily create and manage your web content. Using one of these will provide you with a more convenient organization method, saving you time and effort as you manage your website’s content.

  • My Content Management allows you to create custom post types without default styling. It works with WP version 4.2 or higher, has 300+ active installations, and has a 4.5/5 rating.
  • Pods: Lets you create and customize content types, add custom fields, and create relationship fields. It works with 4.5 or higher, has 100,000+ active installations, and has a 5-star overall rating.
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WordPress plugins for small businesses

Many WordPress plugins for small businesses make it easier for these companies to improve their exposure and visibility. This makes it easier to compete with midsize and larger companies.

  • Five Star Business Profile and Schema: Helps with structured schema for an SEO boost and adds a contact card. It works with version 5.3 or higher, has 20,000+ active installations, and has a 5-star overall rating.
  • Jetpack Publicize: Easily shares your new posts on social networks with the click of a button. It also allows for scheduling.
  • WP Google Maps: Lets you add a customized Store Locator or Google Map to your post. It works with versions 3.5 and higher, has 400,000+ active installations and has a 4.5/5 overall rating.
SEO

Search plugins

Search plugins make it easier for visitors to navigate your website by providing a search bar. There is a built-in search bar for WordPress, but it is not as accurate as plugins.

  • WP Extended Search: Lets you customize searches with custom taxonomies, tags, categories, author names, post meta, and more. This plugin works with versions 4.0 or higher, has 20,000+ active installations and has a 5-star overall review.
  • Ivory Search: An advanced search that allows for custom search forms. It works with WP versions 3.9 or higher, has 60,000+ active installations and has a 5-star rating.
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WordPress performance plugins

Performance plugins for WordPress can optimize your website or assist with website maintenance. Remember that strong website performance keeps your bounce rate low. That not only helps you convert visitors but also boosts your search ranking.

  • Autooptimize: Uses CSS to optimize your website for improved performance. The plugin works with WP versions 4.9 or higher, has more than a million active installations, and has an overall 4.5/5 rating.
  • Cloudflare: Automatically optimizes your platform and is simple to set up. It works with 3.4 or higher versions, has 200,000+ installations, and a 3.5/5 overall rating.
  • Fast Velocity Minify: Reduces your HTTP requests and minifies JS and CSS files. It works with WP 4.7 or higher, has 100,000+ installations, and has a 4.5/5 rating.
  • Imagify: Optimizes your images without sacrificing quality. It is compatible with 4.0.0 or higher, has 400,000+ installations, and has a 4.5/5 rating.
  • Jetpack Boost: Currently in the prerelease version and offers one-click optimizations for SEO and performance. It works with 5.5 or higher and has 100+ active installations.
  • Lazy Load: Reduces HTTP requests by only displaying iframes and images when the users can see them. It works with 4.7 or higher, has 100,000+ active installations, and has a 4/5 rating.
  • WP Rocket: A caching plugin to boost your website speed. More than 1,506,000 websites already use it, and it has a 4.9/5 rating on Trustpilot.
Analytics

Marketing and SEO plugins

Digital marketing and search engine optimization (SEO) help you boost traffic to your website. WordPress already has some basic SEO functionality, but it is not enough for a full SEO campaign.

As background, UTM tags are parts of the URL to track campaigns, sources, and mediums. Affiliates are people who earn commissions for directing people to your page or products. SEO is the process of optimizing your website, so it organically appears higher on the search results page. Google tags are tracking pixels or code snippets that come from third-party tools.

  • CallRail Phone Call Tracking: Shows detailed information about callers from your website. It has 20,000+ active installations, works with WP version 3.0 or higher, and has a 5-star overall rating.
  • Google Analytics Dashboard: Integrates Google Analytics into your WP page, including advanced features. It works with 3.8.0 or higher, has more than 2 million installations, and has a 4.5/5 rating.
  • Google Tag Manager for WordPress: Manages marketing tags, analytics, and other code snippets. It works with 3.4.0 or higher, has 400,000+ active installations, and has a 4.5/5 rating.
  • Hotjar: Features heatmaps of user actions, visitor recordings, form analysis, and feedback polls. It works with version 4.6 or higher, has 70,000+ active installations, and has a 4/5 rating.
  • Helpie FAQ: Makes it easy to create an FAQ. It works with version 5.4 or higher, has 4,000+ installations, and a 5-star rating.
  • Hubspot: Provides chatbots, popups, email newsletters, a free CRM, and analytics. It works with 4.0 or higher, has 200,000+ active installations, and has a 4/5 rating.
  • OptinMonster: A popup builder to increase leads and subscribers. It works with version 4.7.0, has more than a million installations, and has a 4.5/5 rating.
  • Pixel Caffeine: Manages Facebook Product Catalog and Facebook Pixel. It works with 4.4.24, has 90,000+ installations, and has a 4/5 rating.
  • Pretty Links: Shrinks, manages, and tracks URLs. It works with 5.1, has 300,000 installations, and has a 5-star rating.
  • Redirection: Tracks 404 errors and manages 301 redirections. It has more than 2 million downloads and a 4.5/5 rating.
  • Yet Another Related Posts Plugin — YARPP: Ensures readers see relevant content on your website related to the current entry. It has 100,000+ active installations and a 4.5/5 rating.
  • Yoast SEO: Manages and streamlines SEO. It has more than 5 million active installations and a 5-star rating.

WordPress image plugins

You can include images on your WordPress page in various locations, including in galleries and sliders. You can insert an image anywhere into the text of your WordPress post. Plugins also let you display social media feeds, add image galleries, and more.

  • Default Featured Image: Use to add default featured images. It has 60,000+ installations and a 5-star rating.
  • Enable Media Replace: Lets you easily replace files or images without having to delete, rename, and reupload. It has 500,000+ installations and a 4.5/5 rating.
  • External Media: Makes it easy to import files from DropBox, Google Drive, OneDrive, and more. It has 8,000+ installations and a 4/5 rating.
  • FooGallery Photo Gallery: Allows you to create and manage a gallery within minutes. It has 200,000+ installations and a 5-star rating.
  • Image Widget: Helps publish an image grid on the sidebar. It has 5,000+ installations and a 5-star rating.
  • Regenerate Thumbnails: Used to regenerate the thumbnail sizes for as many of your images as you want. It has more than a million installations and a 4.5/5 rating.
  • SmashBalloon Social Photo Feed: Lets you create a feed from your Instagram account. It has more than a million installations and a 5-star rating.
  • Soliloquy Slider: Used for responsive video and image sliders. It has 70,000+ installations and a 4.5 rating.
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Ecommerce plugins

Ecommerce refers to selling items online. If you choose to sell items via your website, you will need to display your products and accept payments. You will also need to gather basic information, such as name and address, from clients. Ecommerce sites should also let clients sort the inventory and have advanced options for the shopping cart, such as discount codes and returns.

  • WooCommerce: An open-source plugin that lets you create storefronts, customize pages, and display goods. It has more than 5 million downloads and a 4.5/5 rating.
  • Easy Digital Downloads: Helps you sell digital products. It has 60,000+ installations and a 4.5 rating.
  • WP Simple Pay: Lets you integrate Stripe into WP for simple payments. More than 11,300 customers use it.
  • WooCommerce Customizer: Helps customize labels and button text without coding. It has 50,000+ installations and a 4.5 rating.
  • Booster for WooCommerce: Features more than a hundred modules related to prices and currencies, buttons and price labels, products, checkout, and payment gateways. It has 80,000+ installations and a 4.5 rating.
  • TaxJar for WooCommerce: Manages your sales tax. More than 20,000 businesses use it.
  • Metorik Reporting: Offers a quick dashboard for KPIs and more. It has 6,000+ installations and a 5-star rating.

CRM/lead generation plugins

Customer relationship management (CRM) allows you to automate how you store details about customers and their interactions. It also improves organization by providing a system that shows where to store the relevant information about a customer. CRMs and lead generation go hand in hand, as CRM is used to manage leads as they become clients.

  • Groundhogg: A CRM without limits on emails sent, automations, funnels, or contacts. It has 2,000+ installations and a 5-star rating.
  • 3CX Live Chat: Lets you easily live-chat with visitors. It has 40,000+ active installations and a 4.5/5 rating.
  • Hubspot: Provides chatbots, popups, email newsletters, a free CRM, and analytics. It works with 4.0 or higher, has 200,000+ active installations, and has a 4/5 rating.
  • WP Fusion Lite: Integrates WP with dozens of CRMs to let you use automation.
SEO Audit

Form plugins

The most common use of form plugins on websites is to capture leads.

  • Gravity Forms enables you build and publish forms quickly. In addition, Gravity Forms offers seamless integration with many CRMs via add-ons. Some add-ins include ActiveCampaign, EmailOctopus, HubSpot, Mad Mimi, and Mailchimp.

You can find more form plugin examples on our list of the best WordPress form plugins.

WordPress plugin updates — what you need to know

When WordPress offers an update, you should install it. This will keep your website secure. Updates account for and protect against new cyberattacks and vulnerabilities. Without the update, cybercriminals can exploit those vulnerabilities and hack your website.

You may want to defer the update if your theme update still needs compatibility testing or the updates require testing with the server’s PHP version. However, you should never put them off indefinitely. Remember that it is a matter of security.

In addition to security concerns, updating your WordPress plugins ensures you always have access to the latest features and functionality.

WordPress plugins

Need help researching and choosing which WordPress plugins to install on your site?

Our team is standing by to chat you through your options.

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WordPress Plugins FAQs

  • Help! I updated a plugin, and now my site is broken. What happened?

    Your updated plugin is most likely incompatible with either the theme software or core update. If you have a backup of your site that dates back to before the update, you should be able to temporarily roll back the update to get your site back up. Need assistance? The SiteCare WordPress support team can help resolve the issue for you.

  • What happens if I don’t update my plugins?

    In the best-case scenario, you will miss out on the latest features. In the worst-case scenario, you may face serious security threats or downtime caused by compatibility issues.

  • How many WordPress plugins are there?

    There are more than 54,000 free plugins listed on the WordPress.org repository alone. This does not include paid plugins.

  • Is it possible to have too many plugins installed?

    Some experts say that having too many plugins will slow down your website and reduce your security. They typically suggest sticking to 20 or so plugins at most. However, if you choose the plugins carefully, you should not have too many. Just ensure you choose regularly updated plugins from reputable developers.

    If your website loads too slowly, you can reevaluate.

  • How do I know if a WordPress plugin is safe?

    Look for warning signs, such as an old plugin repository, bad reviews, a bad developer reputation, few active installations, incompatibility with the latest WordPress version, and no recent updates.

    If a plugin does not have these warning signs, it is likely safe. Read reviews to confirm.

  • WordPress plugins glossary of terms

    Content management system

    Software that makes it easier to maintain the content on a website.

    Database

    Software to keep your information organized.

    Developer

    A computer programmer who creates, modifies, or updates software.

    Gallery

    A series of images on a post.

    Open-source

    Programming code that anyone can read, view, modify or distribute. WordPress is an example.

    PHP

    A programming language commonly used in WordPress.

    Plugin

    PHP functions that form a group to improve page functionality.

    Sidebar

    A vertical column in your theme that is separate from the page’s main content.

    Tag

    A keyword that describes at least a portion of a post.

    Widget

    A self-contained part of a website that serves a specific role.

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