If you want to leverage any of the thousands of available plugins for WordPress, make sure you do it right! In this episode, Liz explains how to find suitable plugins, test them in a staging environment and deploy them to your live WordPress website.
How to Find, Test and Deploy Plugins for WordPress
Sandro Hi there, and welcome back to Liz and Sandro’s Marketing Podcast. We are the podcast that helps companies and marketing departments control their business, control their brand and get the word out. We are back after three or four episodes that we recorded back in November of last year. We’re finally catching up here.
Liz That’s right. Life has been a little crazy and clearly it’s become even crazier with COVID-19.
Sandro Yes. But things are settling down and we are happy to be back. Today Liz is going to discuss WordPress websites, specifically testing and installing WordPress plugins.
Liz That’s right. Sandro had a really great idea to share some insight into our favorite plugins. And I said “You know what? Let’s take a step back and let’s chat through the process of finding the right plugins, testing them and then actually deploying them on a website.” So I figured we’d start there because there is a process to all of this. And I think it’s really important to know. I want to walk everyone through that.
What Are WordPress Plugins?
Liz So step backward. Again, just to clarify, WordPress is a content management system that leverages plugins. They’re like apps. WordPress at its base is truthfully nothing more than a blogging platform. Now they are adding more features to WordPress on its own, but you’re likely going to need plugins to expand the functionality of your site. Now that could be a form plugin like Gravity Forms or Contact Form 7.
Sandro And those are used to capture your name, address, email, things like that?
Liz Correct. Yes. So a form that appears on a contact page, there are plugins that make that happen. Exactly. It could be a calendar plugin. If you are a business that has upcoming events and you want to show that in a way that provides some type of calendar view, you’re gonna need to leverage a calendar plugin. And WooCommerce for e-commerce because WooCommerce is a plugin. WooCommerce has been developed by the same people that develop WordPress.
Liz So some of these plugins are free. Some of them cost money. When we’re evaluating different plugins, we often start with a free version or I always see what out there is free. And then later we might decide to upgrade to a paid version if we decide we need more features.
Liz I do want to quickly note that if you are using a free version of WordPress.com, you can’t install plugins unless you upgrade. But I don’t really think this is going to apply to many of our listeners. I’m going to make an assumption that you are a business that’s self-hosting and by self-hosting, meaning you might be hosting with GoDaddy, Flywheel, HostGator, whatever it is. But you’re hosting your site somewhere and you want to leverage WordPress with the thousands of plugins that are available. Because, by the way, there’s, I think the last count was like fifty thousand plugins available. Again, some are free, some are paid.
Only Business Level of WordPress.com Allows Plugin Installs
Sandro Just a quick correction. Sorry. I believe all versions of WordPress.com except the highest. Do not let you.
Liz Yeah, you have to upgrade to the Business version of WordPress.com I think I saw.
Sandro They do not make it easy to look at their pricing, I’ll tell you that.
Liz Yeah, again, I feel like a lot of the, anyone pursuing that option is probably a brand new business or they’re a blogger. They may not have any income coming in, but if you are a legitimate business and you want a good web presence, I firmly believe that you need to invest in a website, good hosting and plugins go along with this. So, yeah. Thanks for clarifying that.
Sandro It is $4, $8 or $25, Personal, Premium, Business. And only the $25 a month Business lets you do plugins. Not the $4. Not the free, not the 8 dollar.
Liz So at that point, you might as well have a website, yeah, get your website professionally designed. Go to a good third party hosting company cause you’re gonna pay that much anyways.
Sandro That’s correct. Absolutely.
Avoid Installing Plugins Haphazardly
Liz First things first, we want to identify suitable options because not all plugins will work. We vet plugins very carefully because we don’t want to cause any issues. You could find a plugin, install it, and lo and behold, you’ve got a conflict between that plugin and an existing plugin or your website theme, your WordPress theme. And it could be as simple as maybe your images aren’t appearing correctly on the screen or some formatting is off or it could be as massive as your e-commerce doesn’t work. So you never, you never want to quickly search for a plugin, install it and hope for the best.
Sandro Actually the worst thing, I was gonna say the worst thing that could happen is your whole website goes down, right?
Liz Yes. In a worst-case scenario, you could. You could take your entire website down. And if look, if you’re following the proper protocols and you’ve got a backup copy, that is an easy fix. But you don’t want to have downtime. You know, you never know when someone’s gonna be searching for your services or your products. So we want to maximize uptime, minimize downtime and test and deploy plugins properly. That’s what I’m going to start to walk you through today.
Look at Number of Active Installations
Liz So in terms of actually looking for a plugin and evaluating a plugin. There are a couple of things that we look for. And this is in no particular order, I’m just going to run through my list, first thing we look at is the number of active installations. When you are on WordPress, you can see how many times this plugin has been installed. Now, that probably does not include if the plugin is being actively used because, and I’ll get to this in a moment. You can install a plugin, but not actually activate it. But we look, we do look at the number of active installations. If there’s 10, kind of a red flag, if there are thousands, that’s a good indication that this plugin is working and doing what it’s supposed to do for many sites. So, again, look at the number of active installations.
Consider User Ratings
Liz Also, take a look at the user ratings. Are people happy with how this performs? Are they unhappy? Look at the positives and the negatives and understand what you might be getting into.
Sandro Yeah. Just taking a quick look at the plugins, the place where you add new plugins, I’m seeing some of these have five million-plus active installations. Three hundred thousand plus installations. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of installations or millions of them for the more popular ones.
Liz I’m sure something like the Yoast SEO plugin has millions.
Sandro Yes. Let’s see. Yeah, they have five. Everything seems to max out at five million-plus. That’s the most.
Sandro Everything seems that. So yeah, you’re right. And they all have four to four and a half to five stars.
Compatible w Your Version of WordPress?
Liz Yeah. Yeah. So pay attention to those details. The other thing we take a look at are what’s known as the compatibility detail. So is the plugin or what version of WordPress is this plugin compatible with? So we are at I think at the time of this recording WordPress 5.4, I believe. I wouldn’t require that the plugin you’re looking at be compatible with the absolute latest version if it just came out. I think WordPress 5.4 came out like within the last week. So again, it doesn’t have to be completely current, but if you see that a plugin is compatible up to WordPress 3.5, I would tell you to run. That’s probably not one that you want to explore because there could be again, potential conflicts between that plugin and the latest version of WordPress.
What Kind of Support Does Plugin Offer?
Liz Another thing that we take a look at is support from the plugin developers. And this is another piece that I want to clarify. WordPress is a content management system that is, well, it was developed by Matt Mullenweg and it’s now associated with the company Automatic. They maintain WordPress. They update it and push out these updates like we were just talking about. The individuals or other companies that develop these plugins could be anything from a developer in his basement to a company who has developed a whole suite of plugins and offers them for sale.
Liz So we want to look at what type of support the plugin developers might be providing. Is there a good track record of support? If you run into issues, are they going to be able to help you? And going back to the compatibility piece of this. Again, if this plugin hasn’t been updated in two years, I might be a little hesitant to move forward with that particular plugin.
Reach Out to Support to Test Response Time
Liz One of the other things that I have done as I’m exploring potential plugins is I might even reach out to their support and ask some questions, particularly if I have questions, send them a message and see how quickly they get back to me. Does it take an hour? Does it take a week? Do I never hear from them? That could be a good indication again of how actively they’re supporting a plugin. And, you know, if they’re not getting back to you and they’re not supporting it again, that could be a red flag. That’s not to say you couldn’t install it and move forward with it in the short term, but long term, again, you might need to find a replacement.
Read Through Documentation from Plugin Developer
Liz The other thing we like to do is read through any of the documentation provided from the developer to understand how the plugin works, how the install is going to go, and just any pieces that we’re going to need to effectively test and deploy this for a client. If there’s great documentation, that’s another great sign that this plugin developer has their act together. If there’s minimal documentation, that could be a little bit of a red flag as well. Next step, we always want to test on staging first.
Liz So a staging site could also be referred to as a development site or some people refer to it as the sandbox. So this is essentially a direct copy of your live site, but it’s in a staging environment. It’s hidden. You can break it, do whatever you need to do to make sure you’re not messing up anything on your live site. Most good hosting companies will include a staging site in the hosting plan. I just think that’s really important. And again, I think the good ones do that.
Use a Staging Site
Liz So again, we want to test on staging in case there are any conflicts with your theme or another plugin. We want to learn about all of this in a safe environment before we deploy it on the live site. And as Sandro said, you know, in a worst-case scenario, your site could crash and then things just get messy. So we work in a staging environment and I’m not going to go through step by step exactly how to do this. But I do want to touch on the fact that, again, you need to install the plugin, you need to actually activate it because you could have a plugin that’s installed on your site that isn’t active. So you need to install it, activate it and then configure it.
Remove Unused Plugins
Liz By the way, if you have a bunch of plugins installed on your site, but they’re not active, they’re not doing anything. You probably want to just remove them. It’s just never a good idea to have tons of inactive plugins that you don’t need on your site. So yeah. Just get rid of them. Focus.
Sandro Clutter-free. Yeah.
Liz Yeah. Focus on keeping the ones you’re actually using. Keep those up to date. Now, obviously, the configuration of any plugin is going to vary drastically depending on what the plugin is. If you’re looking for an event calendar plugin and you have a couple events that you need to share on your website, that setup is going to go pretty smoothly.
Configure Your Plugin
Liz If you are launching an e-commerce website and you’re going to leverage WooCommerce, well, there’s a lot of setup that goes into that, from setting up your store to setting up shipping methods and actually adding your products. So I can’t really speak to too much about how the configuration would go because again, that’ll vary drastically. But once you are confident that everything is functioning properly, then you can deploy the plugin on your live or your production site.
Liz Now, yes, this does seem very redundant. It probably seems as if you are creating twice the work for yourself. But again, I want to stress how important this is. What we’ve just outlined is a best practice for anyone maintaining a WordPress site. It’s better to be safe than sorry. And also, depending on your hosting and what the edits are, some of those can be pushed from staging to production pretty easily. So keep that in mind as well.
Sandro These are all great tips. People don’t keep in mind, people, sometimes clients will go in and install their own plugins and suddenly they call you. Things are broken. The website’s down. My photos aren’t appearing. Whatever the reason, if you have access to your back end, make sure you follow all these steps before installing a new plugin. Now, if a friend says, hey, you should check out this new alternative to Yoast, a new plugin. Definitely talk to your, if you have questions, talk to your developer before doing it. Ask them their opinion, they could do the research for you if you don’t have time, potentially. But you want to be thorough before you install these plugins. So these are great tips. Thanks.
Talk to Your Developer for Plugin Recommendations
Liz Yeah, and actually, you brought up a good point. Make sure you are in contact with your web development company and get their insight. They do this all day long. They probably know off the top of their head. Oh, you need a, you need a new form plugin? Well, we recommend Gravity Forms. Or, you need a calendar plugin? We recommend this one. You can save time and headaches by reaching out to the professionals who do this all day, every day. And they might, again, they’ll know which ones are great and which ones might suck. So keep that in mind.
Liz So those are our best practices. And like I said at the beginning, in future episodes, we plan to get even more granular and speak specifically about different plugins. Which ones we like best and why. I mentioned some, I’ve rattled some off in this episode. Gravity Forms, WooCommerce. We’ll be sharing a lot more about this to come. We’ll do episodes specifically on some of these plugins. So stay tuned for that.
Share Your Plugin Story
Sandro If there’s a plugin you like, a plugin story you have to share that took down your whole website or caused a conflict you did not expect. This only has to happen to you once where you pop in a new plugin without testing it first.
Liz And then you’ll learn a lesson. Yeah.
Sandro It just happens to you once and you’ll never do it again. So if you have a story to share or a plugin, you love, definitely send it out to us. Our email address is in the show notes. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and of course, we will give you a shout out and a link back to your website. Thanks again for joining us. See you next time.