OK, Judge Me: Evaluating WordPress Plug-Ins

By some counts, there are over 15 bazillion WordPress plug-ins available today, narrowly outnumbering both the Kardashians and all of their former spouses. There are WordPress plug-ins for just about everything, from the super useful, such as those that identify spam in user comments, to the questionable, such as the one that puts random lyrics from the Louis Armstrong tune “Hello Dolly” on your admin pages. Seriously.

As you might expect, WordPress plug-ins vary widely in quality and usefulness. If you think you need to extend your WordPress site’s functionality with a plug-in, how do you know which one to choose?

You could just pick one and try it, and if it doesn’t suit your needs, just pick the next one in the search results. However, unless you just want to make a hobby of trying WordPress plug-ins, this is not a really good use of your (or your web developer’s) time. And experimenting with your customer-facing website in this way is a sure way to make your visitors go elsewhere. So you need to do some homework first, before you download anything.

There are two aspects from which a WordPress plug-in should be evaluated: that of you, the website owner and that of your web developer.

Website Owner Considerations

As a website owner, you should consider, at a minimum, the following criteria:

  • Does it support an actual business need? Let your choice of plug-in be driven by an actual business need, not the other way around (Not, “Ooh, that plug-in looks cool; maybe I can add a new product line that it would help promote!”)
  • Does it support the whole business need or only sort of? A halfway solution will take more than twice as much effort to fill the targeted business need because it will need to be customized in some way, which means time and money for development and testing. Find a plug-in that comes as close as possible to satisfying all of your requirements without a lot of extra features you don’t need.
  • Is it from a reputable source? Whether it’s available at the WordPress official plug-in market or some other source, a plug-in should have independent, meaningful reviews from others who have tried it. Don’t go just by the “star ratings”—read the actual reviews, which should be informative enough to tell you if the plug-in is a good candidate. Don’t limit yourself to plug-ins that have a high number of downloads, but at the same time, be wary of those from developers who seem to have little WordPress experience.
  • Is it ready for prime time? Unless the plug-in is one that you are truly, keenly interested in—to the point where you want to help the developer by doing some real-world testing on it—stay away from plug-ins that are “beta” or “early release.” These will typically have bugs, incomplete features, poor documentation, and no support.

Web Developer Considerations

Your website developer has the somewhat tougher job of evaluating a plug-in from a technical standpoint:

  • Is it compatible with the client’s version of WordPress? If it isn’t, can it be trivially modified to be compatible, or is it worth the effort to upgrade WordPress? Work with the client to consider risk versus reward.
  • Do you understand how it works? Review the code and its comments/documentation—do they make sense? If you don’t understand how the code works, chances are good that it will bite you (or your client)—ouch!
  • How much effort is required to install, configure, and customize? Chances are pretty good that any plug-in your client is interested in doesn’t fill the requirements fully. Some modifications may be required. Is the code designed to be easily modified for your client’s needs, or is it “spaghetti code?”
  • Any security red flags? Know the common security threats, and consider whether the plug-in has any vulnerabilities. Are they easily mitigated? If not, it might be wise to look elsewhere.
  • How will you test it? Even if you aren’t introducing any customizations, a good, comprehensive test plan, based on the client’s requirements, is a must.

A good web developer should have the advantage of having some experience with some of the most popular plug-ins and can help with both the technical and business aspects of the evaluation. This should help you narrow down the 15 bazillion choices to a manageable number from which you can choose the one that’s right for your site.