How to pick WordPress plugins like a pro

WordPress expert David Vogelpohl from WP Engine answers questions from the Wealthy Affiliate community around WordPress and strategies for hosting WP sites.

With affiliate optimization experience as a publisher, affiliate, and in outsourced program management, WordPress expert David Vogelpohl shares a unique and very informed point of view on how you can use WordPress to help drive success in your affiliate business.

In the second part of our interview series, we spoke to David to get more of his take on answers to the most common affiliate questions around WordPress plugins (you can read part 1 here.)

What should I look for when choosing a plugin? What are warning signs to not use a specific plugin?

DV: Choosing a plugin for your site can be a great way to add much needed functionality; however, choosing a plugin is like choosing a partner in your business. Their success is your success, but their failures are also your failures. Because of this, it’s a great idea to choose your plugins carefully.

The criteria I use to choose a plugin for the sites I manage cover four key areas.

The functional review

I ask myself, “Does the plugin do what I need it to do, and am I using most or all of the things the plugin does?” For example, if all you need a plugin to do is generate a sitemap, perhaps Yoast is more than you need. Yoast does indeed create sitemaps, but it does much much more than that. For someone who only needs to create a sitemap and doesn’t need all of Yoast’s other wonderful SEO features, I might recommend they seek out a plugin more focused on their specific use case. In some cases, installing plugins that solve problems outside your target use case might still be the right call, but think long and hard about if the plugin you’re evaluating does more than you need it to do.

The business audit

The second area I focus on is understanding the importance of the plugin to the person or company which made the plugin. The goal here is to understand the role of the plugin in the plugin author’s business. The reason this is important to me is that as WordPress evolves, plugin authors need to release updates in order for the plugin to work properly with new features released in WordPress itself. If a particular plugin was a weekend project or part of a failed business venture, then I might not have confidence that plugin will be maintained.

Click on the people and company names under “Contributors & Developers” in the plugin’s wordpress.org/plugins listing (example) to see who is involved in the project. Research the companies or individuals listed in “Contributors & Developers” and see if you can figure out if the authors’ businesses are aligned with keeping the plugin you’re considering up to date. If the plugin seems like a weekend project or unimportant to the author’s overall business, it might not be the best plugin for you.

The wordpress.org audit

Most plugins in the WordPress ecosystem will be listed on wordpress.org/plugins and each plugin’s listing can provide you with valuable information on the quality of the plugin. When looking at a plugin in wordpress.org, click on the “Advanced View” link in the righthand side of the listing. Here is an example of that view for WP Engine’s automated migration plugin.

When auditing a plugin, I typically look to see if the plugin is “Tested up to” the most current version of WordPress, the last time the plugin was updated under “Last updated,” the number of “Active Installations,” and the “Ratings & Reviews” for the plugin to get a sense of how popular the plugin is and how dutiful the plugin’s author is at keeping the plugin up to date. Plugins with very little users, bad reviews, or with infrequent updates may be a plugin worth avoiding.

The functional tests

After finding a plugin that I think will do the job, where the author seems to be invested in keeping the plugin up to date, and has a healthy profile on wordpress.org, I’ll then install the plugin on a staging or local copy of my website and start to test. Of course, part of this testing is to see if the plugin I’ve selected truly will do the job I need it to do, but to also see if the plugin introduces any conflicts with other plugins or negatively affects my website’s performance.

Run all of your normal tests for the functionality of your website after installing a new plugin (e.g. Do my forms still work?, Does my slider still work?, and so on.) Once you confirm the plugin works as expected, there are no conflicts with existing plugins, and that any hit to your website’s performance is acceptable, you should be good to go to live.

For your convenience, you can also check out the WP Engine Solution Center, which is free for anyone to use and includes a list of plugins where WP Engine has performed similar audits to the methods described above. We also also perform code quality reviews of plugins listed in the Solution Center. While informed recommendations like those found in the Solution Center can be a helpful shortcut to discovering quality plugins, always make sure to do your own homework and be comfortable with the plugins you add to your site. Remember, choosing a plugin is like choosing a partner in your business.

Should I ever pay for a plugin?

DV: The answer here depends a bit on the site you’re building and your strategy, but my general answer here is “Yes!” There are tons of free plugins in the WordPress ecosystem that are typically found on wordpress.org. While all of these plugins/themes are free to download and use, many will still require some form of paid service in order to use certain features.

For example, MailChimp has a free plugin on wordpress.org, but that plugin requires a MailChimp API key in order to send data between MailChimp and WordPress. The plugin itself is free, but access to the needed API functions requires a paid account of some kind.

There are also plugins that are not listed on wordpress.org which may be free or paid.

So why would you ever pay for a plugin when you may be able to find a 100% free version that offers similar functionality?

DV: The answer here is simply quality. If a plugin or theme author receives payment for their software (in one form or another) they are more likely to invest in keeping that software up to date, adding new features over time, and generally building a quality product. If the author has no financial benefit, they might not feel the need to continue to invest in that plugin. If you’re going to rely on a plugin to support your digital business, choosing plugins with a clear financial benefit to the author likely means that software is as valuable to the author as it is to you.

While many free plugins are maintained by responsible authors without any form of direct financial compensation, choosing premium plugins can help provide you assurances the author will continue to invest in the software you’re choosing to rely on in your digital business.

How many plugins are too many plugins?

DV: People are often concerned about the number of plugins that run on their site and the effect of multiple plugins on their website’s performance. This is such a common question that a student in my son’s 3rd grade class asked me this very thing during my career day presentation on WordPress.

The answer to “How many plugins is too many?” is nuanced. The way to think about this is that each plugin you have installed performs a collection of actions, and each of those actions can (but not always) tax your website’s performance. A plugin’s tax on your performance might be necessary (e.g. processing a lead form) or might include actions you don’t even realize the plugin is performing, which may or may not be necessary.

The answer to “How many plugins is too many?” is more of an analysis around the actions the plugins you have installed are performing vs. a raw number of plugins.

For example, If you have 100 plugins that individually perform a single simple action each, then 100 plugins might be just fine for you. If you have even just one plugin performing 100’s of inefficient and complex actions, that one plugin could be too many plugins.

In general, I don’t worry too much about the number of plugins I’m using, but I do spend a lot of time wondering if a specific plugin would add value or continue to add value to my website.

When you choose a new plugin, test your site’s performance (in a staging copy of your website) before and after you add the plugin. If the plugin slows your website down a bit, then ask yourself “Is the value that plugin is adding to my site worth a performance hit?” In many cases, a plugin won’t slow down your site at all. But if it does, be aware of the performance cost of introducing the plugin in the first place.

I recommend using WebPageTest.org for testing the performance of your website’s speed.

If your site is slow now and you have a lot of plugins, try disabling each plugin (in a staging copy of your website) one-by-one and test the performance of your site before and after you disable each plugin. Using this approach can help you isolate the plugins that have the biggest impact on your performance and help guide you on the need to possibly remove a plugin, replace it with a better plugin, or find other alternatives.

Plugins are a wonderful way to add functionality to your website, but make sure you understand the impact a plugin will have on your performance before you add it to your live website!

We will continue to speak to David on WordPress in part three, which covers more popular Wealthy Affiliate community questions including:

  • What is Gutenberg?
  • How do I pick the best WordPress theme?

If you’re looking for other insights into how to optimize your affiliate business, we encourage you to register for the Wealthy Affiliate community, as well as read more of our Market Insights.

How do I pick the best WordPress theme?

DV: WordPress allows you to either build a custom WordPress theme with a design 100% unique to you or a theme designed by others. Pre-designed themes can be found in the themes section of WordPress.org or on websites of theme companies like StudioPress, MaiTheme, or BrandiD.

When choosing a pre-designed WordPress theme, I link to think about seven key areas.

Business AaAudit

As discussed in my previous article “How to pick WordPress plugins like a pro,” understanding the business interest of the person or company who makes the software you use can go a long way in understanding if that software is likely to be maintained and improved over time.

With themes the same rules apply.

Start by trying to understand the importance of the theme to the person or company that made the theme. The goal here is to understand the role of the theme in the theme author’s business. 

The reason this is important to me is that as WordPress evolves, theme authors need to release updates in order for the theme to work properly with new features released in WordPress itself. If a particular theme was a weekend project or part of a failed business venture, then I might not have confidence that theme will be maintained.

See if you can see who/what owns the theme you’re researching by reviewing information on their website, or if the theme is available on WordPress.org, click on the people and company names under “Contributors & Developers” in the theme’s wordpress.org/plugins listing to see who is involved in the project.

Research the companies or individuals who make and distribute the theme to see if you can figure out if the authors’ businesses are aligned with keeping the theme you’re considering up to date. If the theme seems like a weekend project or unimportant to the author’s overall business, it might not be the best theme for you.

Design Aaesthetics

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that same principle is certainly true for web design. While there are “best practices” with web design (which I describe a bit below), in the end the “best practice” for you is the design you like and the design that helps you generate the most revenue!

By sake of example, the very successful UK car rental site Ling’s Cars breaks every web design “best practice” you can think of, yet the design of the site is specific to their brand of being quirky and funny. The quirky rules-breaking design is exactly the design that Ling’s Cars needs.

Your mission in choosing a theme is to pick the design that works best for you.

As you shop for pre-designed themes, visit the demo sites for the themes you’re researching and consider what you think looks best in terms of the layout of the pages, designs of on-page elements (navigation, buttons, headers, etc).

Don’t worry about the color scheme of the theme or any of the images or content used on the demo site as those things can easily be changed later and often without code.

The layout of the theme’s demo content and the design of on-page elements (buttons, forms, etc) are typically what I focus on when choosing a theme based on design aesthetics.

There are many ways of thinking about what makes the best design (e.g. less is more, more is more, attention to CTAs, and so on), but if you’re not a design nerd who is going to get into that level of detail, my suggestion would be to go with a theme with a clean and beautiful design you’d be proud to represent your brand.

Support for the “Gutenberg” Block Editor

Fundamentally, themes are a collection of styles represented as code. The most basic styles your theme controls are your navigation, footer, sidebar, layouts of types of pages/posts, and other base-level elements of your website.

In today’s world, theme designers will often not include styles specific to the WordPress block editor commonly referred to as “Gutenberg.” This is especially true for older themes or themes created before the block editor was released in WordPress in late 2018.

Themes that include styles for the WordPress block editor will typically include designs for the blocks that are included in WordPress itself (e.g. paragraph block, quote block, gallery block, and so on). Themes may also provide their own custom blocks or blocks provided by other plugins.

The general idea here is that theme’s with styles for blocks include styles specific to the theme’s design aesthetics for the blocks you use when building pages and posts. Having a consistent design aesthetic for your site’s theme and blocks will help you build better looking and more consistent web pages in the future and help you avoid building a “Frankensite!”

In the video referenced above, I walk through using a theme that includes styles for the WordPress block editor to show you how easy block styles in your theme makes building posts and pages in WordPress.

If you’re unsure if the theme you’re considering supports the WordPress block editor, look for mentions of “Gutenberg” or “WordPress block editor” in the documentation or marketing material for the theme.

If you don’t see any mentions of “Gutenberg” or “block editor,” that could be a sign that the theme doesn’t support the block editor and that may make it harder for you to build consistent posts and pages in the future.

Search Engine Optimization

As previously mentioned, your theme is essentially a collection of styles and layouts, but those styles are often applied to elements of your site that can directly affect SEO.

By sake of example, the “H1 tag” on your site represents your site’s main title and is super important to SEO; however, some theme designers can use bigger font, more emphasis, and so on to make an H7 title appear to be the main title of your website.

From the visitor’s perspective, an H7 that looks like an H1 is probably fine; that said, when Google indexes your site it may be harder for Google to figure out what the most important content is.

You can use tools like Semrush to scan the demo content for the theme you’re considering, but keep in mind that some of the “problems” Semrush will find may be things you’ll fix when you use the theme on your site (e.g. having a descriptive & keyword-rich H1 tag, etc).

If you’re not an SEO professional or have an SEO professional on staff, you can do a little research on the reviews or reputation of the theme you’re considering. Some theme companies are known for their SEO prowess (e.g. StudioPress, SEOThemes, etc), so you may be able to use reputation as a measure, if SEO isn’t your specialty.

The Sspeed of Yyour Ttheme

WordPress themes are fundamentally software used to define the styles of your website. Just like any other kind of software, themes can either be fast or slow and can affect your site’s performance in a variety of ways.

If you’re comparing multiple themes, I suggest using tools like Google’s PageSpeed Insights or WebpageTest.org to test the speed of each theme’s demo website. This can help you determine which theme might be more performant than another.

I say “might be more performant” though as comparing load times of demo sites isn’t always fair. For example, if one theme company has a video on their demo site home page and another theme’s demo site doesn’t have a video, the site without the video will almost certainly win in a speed comparison even if the underlying theme was less performant. Yikes!

To help avoid this, choose a page on the demo site of the theme you’re considering that has as few images or videos as possible. This will help isolate the performance of the theme itself. A sample blog post on the theme’s demo site is usually the best place to look for such a page in order to run your speed tests against.

To measure the true impact of a theme on the speed of your site, it’s best to just install the theme on your site and measure the performance before and after you make that change. As always, do tests involving themes and plugins in a copy of your website and not your live site. Ask your host if they offer “staging” copies of your website (WP Engine and Flywheel offer one-click staging if your host doesn’t) or use the free software Local to test your site locally on your computer.

To get a fair speed test for your site, create one copy of your site where you don’t change anything and create another copy of your site where you install and activate the new theme. Make sure both copies of your site are located in the same place (staging on your host or in Local). Testing copies located in the same place will help eliminate the server hosting the copies affecting the speed results.

Once you have both copies in place, run Google Pagespeed Insights or Webpagetest.org speed tests to measure the impact (good or bad) to the performance of your website.

By testing the speed of demo sites for the theme and eventually the effect of the theme on your own site’s performance, you can get visibility into the true performance of the themes you choose.

What to do after you pick your theme

DV: Once you’ve selected your theme, you’re ready to start building a new site or replace the theme on your existing site. As discussed in the speed testing section above, it’s best to do all this in a staging or local environment for your site. You never want to make changes on the live version of your site if you can avoid it.

If you’re replacing a theme on an existing site, you’ll want to make sure that all your existing pages look good with the new theme and make adjustments as necessary.

That being said, you should take note that changing your site’s design might actually decrease your conversions. Before implementing a new design it’s best to A/B test the new design with a tool like Google Optimize; however, if that’s beyond your ability, just carefully measure your sales after you launch the new theme to make sure your revenue holds steady, or better yet… increases!

In the end, your visual voice is your voice. What looks good to you, your potential customers, and the audience you serve is what’s best. Don’t worry too much about what people tell you your design should look like. Listen to your audience, use your instincts, and test your changes. 

If you’re looking for other insights into how to optimize your affiliate business, we encourage you to register for the Wealthy Affiliate community, as well as read more of our Market Insights.

These insights were brought to you by David Vogelpohl. David serves on the senior leadership team at WP Engine, where he leads WordPress ecosystem strategy and its Genesis business unit. David is a digital vetern with over 20 years of experience leading teams building, growing, and scaling digital businesses. David also owned and operated an advanced WordPress agency serving clients globally including marquee clients like WP Engine, Pioneer Electronics, and Esurance.

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