I’m sure that you don’t need me to tell you that WordPress is huge. Let’s look at the statistics – at the time of writing, there were just under 65 million WordPress sites in the world, and over 371 million people view more than 4.1 billion WordPress pages every month.
That’s just for WordPress.com – self-hosted WordPress.org sites are arguably even more popular, thanks to their adaptability and the ease of use that the CMS offers. In fact, TechCrunch, CNN and the NFL all use WordPress sites, and it’s likely that WordPress as a CMS will continue to see dramatic growth.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I love third-party plugins, they can offer a whole host of new functionality to your website and enable you to do things that you never even dreamed of. But they can also cause problems, particularly if you’re plugin happy and install everything that you can find.
Here are some of the most common problems that WordPress plugins cause, along with a few hints on what you can do to avoid them.
Let’s jump in at the deep-end – the worst-case scenario is that you’ll install a plugin which opens up a huge security vulnerability, allowing hackers or even the plugin’s developer to access the back-end of your website.
And it’s not always because of a malicious developer, too – take this case from a couple of years ago, when three popular plugins had unwanted backdoors added to them. Luckily, in this case, WordPress reacted quickly to reset all users’ passwords as a precaution and no lasting damage was done.
Of course, some other plugins are designed specifically to try and catch an unsuspecting admin out, and you need to look out for the warning signs. But don’t worry, help is at hand!
What to do: Change your password regularly, and use a separate password for your WordPress site than you do for all of the other sites that you frequent. Also, consider using a .htaccess file that blocks anyone from accessing your admin panel unless they’re logging in from your IP address(es). Make sure that you update your plugins whenever new versions are released (checking several times a week), so that you’re not running outdated software that might not have been patched. And finally, always take a look at the rating of the plug-in on the WordPress.org website – if it has a low rating, other admins have probably experienced problems.
Clashes with other plugins
Unfortunately, not all plugins were created equal – a quick Google search turns up over 550,000 results for ‘WordPress plugin clash’. The sad fact is that, on the odd occasion, two different plugins are completely incompatible, often due to duplicate variables, or two lines of code that get stuck in a loop.
Worse still, many developers aren’t aware of these clashes – there are just too many plugins out there for even the most dedicated development teams to test their work against every other plugin on the market.
What to do: If you can track them down, report the problem to the developers – if they’re still supporting the plugin, they’ll probably fix the bug for future releases. If you can’t find them, or if the plugin is no longer supported, you’re just going to have to avoid using whichever plugin you value the least. To make matters worse, if you really need the new plugin and you’re not sure which of your existing plugins it’s crashing with, you’re just going to have to try deactivating plugins in batches of three to try and narrow down which one is causing the problem. Oh, and have a look around online first to make sure that it is a clash, and that it’s not just a plugin that doesn’t work.
As we’ve just established, not every plugin works first time, and quite a few of them no longer work at all. In these circumstances, you’ll find that you’ve installed and activated the plugin, but it’s not having the desired effect. Now what can you do?
What to do: Unfortunately, if the plugin doesn’t work, all you can do is report it to the developers, give the plugin a poor rating on WordPress.org to warn other admins, and move on. See if you can find another plugin that does the same thing, and try that instead.
Let’s presume that you’ve pinpointed a problem and you want to report it to the developers. How do you go about doing that? Well, the first step is to find the plugin’s page on WordPress.org and click on the ‘support’ tab – with a bit of luck, you’ll be shown a list of recent posts about the plugin, and you’ll be able to raise your own issue here.
Alternatively, most plugins have either an author bio alongside them, and you’ll be able to find more information about the developers here. It’s also worth checking any documentation that came with the plugin.
But if you use enough plugins, you’ll eventually find a plugin that doesn’t include any developer information or documentation, and you’ll be left scratching your head and wondering what to do next.
What to do: Have a look around on Google and see if you can find someone else that’s had a similar problem. If it’s a popular plugin, you might well find that someone has already encountered and solved the problem, documenting the process along the way. If not, you’re out of luck – you’ll just have to remove the plugin and move on.
Not specifically designed for the site
Even if you find that your plugin is working correctly, it might not fit the look and theme of your website. This is quite a common pitfall, and one that’s impossible for developers to predict – they design their plugins to work on as many themes as possible, paying particular attention to the most popular ones during their testing, but it’s just not possible for them to guarantee that their plugin will display correctly on whatever theme that you’re using.
What to do: Learn how to use CSS and play around with the plugin’s stylesheets – you might find that you’re able to correct the issue yourself. Depending upon your budget, it’s also worth looking for a freelance developer who may be able to come up with a fix. If all else fails, report the bug to the developers, but they’re less likely to correct an issue with how the plugin displays than they are to correct a problem that stops it from working altogether.
Slowing the load time
Let’s presume that everything is working correctly, that it all displays fine on your modified template and that the plugin does everything you were hoping for. But then you load up your website and spot a noticeable difference in the amount of time that it takes for your pages to load.
This is even more important in the age of Google – they found that when they ranked slow websites in their results pages, people actually used the search engine less frequently. Because of this, they now take loading times into account when they generate their results. It’s not just Google, either – Shopzilla shaved three seconds off their loading time, and experienced a 25% increase in page views and an increase in revenue of up to 12%.
What to do: Deactivate any plugins that you aren’t using, and investigate Google’s Webmaster Tools – they can increase your loading speed by up to 60%, by using a couple of innovative techniques. First off, they’ll pre-load information in anticipation of a user clicking through to the most popular pages. Secondly, they’ll defer the less important information and get it to load after everything else on the page has displayed.
As long as you’re sensible and look out for the warning signs, there’s no reason that you can’t add plugins safely and securely to your WordPress website. There are also other things that you can do, like backing up your database and your website files, to ensure that even if there is a problem, it won’t knock your site out of commission for good.
What WordPress plugins do you use? Have you ever experienced a problem? Let me know with a comment!
Dane Cobain is a social media specialist for UK-based creative agency fst the Group. He’s also a gadget-lover and tech fanatic, as well as an internet addict.
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