How to Use WordPress Plugins: A Guide for Beginners

WordPress currently powers more websites around the world than any other website-building platform. The list of websites ranges from small blogs and indie startups to large corporate sites, each with its own unique functionality and features. The core WordPress code provides the framework for building a basic WordPress website. But plugins provide the tools to customize that site to meet a user’s specific needs and goals.

If you’re looking to build a website on WordPress, you need to know about plugins. They will make your life much easier by allowing you to do things you can’t do with just the standard WordPress setup. In this article, we’ll go over how plugins work, what they can do and how you can use them.

There are thousands of WordPress plugins available from both WordPress itself and a worldwide community of developers. These independent pieces of code can be integrated into any self-hosted WordPress site – no coding or web development experience required.

What is a WordPress plugin? 

A WordPress plugin is a separate piece of software that adds a specific kind of feature to any self-hosted WordPress site. As the name suggests, you ‘plug in’ a piece of software to add new functionality or extend existing functionality on your site without the need for coding knowledge. It can make small tweaks or massive changes to how your site looks and operates, depending on the plugin’s features.

You can also think of plugins as similar to extensions on your web browser. All you need to do is download an extension, install it and it’s ready to go. This is also one of the most crucial benefits of plugins: the ability to quickly add or remove them from your site without altering fundamental operations.

Keep in mind that WordPress plugins only work with self-hosted WordPress websites. Hosted versions such as WordPress.com (different from WordPress.org) typically offer theme options for customizing sites. However, it isn’t possible to install plugins freely to customize sites on these platforms.

How do WordPress plugins work?

Plugins leverage the existing structure of the core WordPress code to provide additional functionality. WordPress plugins are written in PHP, the programming language for WordPress itself. Hence, they can be seamlessly inserted and integrated into the code of your website.  

Some plugins add general functions to make your site secure and searchable, while others provide features for specific needs, such as product pages and shopping carts for an eCommerce site. Some of these specialized functions can be added by choosing certain WordPress themes, but those features usually relate to customizing the structure of the site itself. For example, a theme designed for photographers might include options for a gallery or slideshow. And an eCommerce theme might have basic functionality for setting up product pages. Plugins incorporate a fully developed set of functions into your WordPress site and can include options for customization and configuration.

What can plugins do? 

Plugins make it easy to convert a basic WordPress site into a fully functioning online storefront, a blog, or a website capable of handling the complex professional needs of a multinational corporation. Plugins can enhance your WordPress site by: 

1: Improving user experience. Plugins can add features to help users navigate the site, find content, leave comments, subscribe for updates, and contact site administrators. 

2: Adding essential security features. The core WordPress install comes with basic security features, but plugins can go further and add sophisticated firewalls, alerts, user verifications, and spam blockers for greater site security. 

3: Speeding up site loading time. Plugins can speed up a WordPress site by enabling caching and optimizing media. 

4: Streamlining your workflow. They can help optimize your site for searchability, add editorial calendars, schedule posts, and manage social media sharing and email lists. 

5: Improving the site’s appearance. Plugins can add designer fonts, galleries, sliders, and media players to your site. Some themes require certain plugins to perform properly. 

6: Adding needed features for your site’s goals. Plugins can add features like product pages and shopping carts to eCommerce sites, landing pages, paywalls, and a long list of other features to support the site’s intended purpose. 

How to choose plugins for your site

There is a massive selection of more than 55,000 WordPress plugins currently available for you to choose from. First and foremost, it’s important to take stock of your site’s needs to determine what plugins are necessary. Although there is virtually no limit to the number of plugins you can add to your site, a backlog of unused or outdated plugins can make your site run slower and create potential security risks. So, really consider the purpose of your website. And with that in mind, locate and install quality plugins for such purposes.

In general, you should install plugins that offer: 

Then, consider the specific functions your website should have. For example, a blog site might need a different set of plugins than a designer’s portfolio or an online store. 

Many quality plugins for WordPress from the plugin directory are completely free. There are also other options available in both a stripped-down free version or a fuller-featured premium version that offers ongoing support, tutorials, and upgrades. Not all sites need these features, and you can typically install the free version for a test run to determine whether a premium plugin is for you.

Lastly, whatever plugins you choose to install, it’s crucial to check for compatibility with your version of WordPress. Some may include code that’s incompatible with the WordPress version you’re running, or with other plugins installed on your site. WordPress typically notifies users when updates to installed plugins are available. It is important to accept these upgrades in order to keep all parts of the site working smoothly together and avoid security issues that could open the door to malware and viruses. 

Where to find WordPress plugins?

Get plugins from the WordPress Directory

Every installation of WordPress includes access to the official WordPress Plugin Directory right from the site’s dashboard. The directory contains thousands of free plugins for all kinds of functions. Some are free with a premium option, and some are available only on premium plans.

To install WordPress plugins from the Directory, click Add New from the Plugins tab on your site dashboard. You can browse plugins here or search for the kind of plugin you need.

You can install plugins directly from your WordPress backend

The Plugin Directory includes a description and key information about each plugin, such as user ratings, number of downloads, and whether a plugin is compatible with your version of WordPress. Click Install to add a selected plugin to your site. Once the plugin is successfully installed, click Activate to begin using or configuring it.

Get plugins from other sources

Because WordPress is a free and open-source software, anyone with programming skills can design plugins. There are many free and premium plugins available for purchase from digital asset marketplaces, theme and plugin developers, or even independent users. If you choose to buy or download a plugin from one of these third-party sources, it’s important to make sure the plugin comes from a quality developer. Next to that the plugin must be compatible with your version of WordPress. Poorly designed or incompatible plugins can introduce bad code or even malware to your site.

Plugins typically come in a compressed .zip file. To install these plugins, click Add New on your site’s plugin manager. When prompted, upload the plugin .zip file and click Install. After installation, click Activate to use the plugin. Plugins can also be uploaded and installed manually to your site’s WordPress files.

Adding a plugin manually is the easiest way to install a downloaded plugin 

Activate and configure your plugins 

All installed plugins are listed under your site’s plugin folder or tab. From there, you can perform a variety of actions to configure and customize them. Plugins can also appear in your site’s main dashboard menu, and their settings can include options for editing the plugin’s code for additional customization.

To configure a plugin, click its settings options. Some plugins are configured from the developer site or require an API key. Other plugins integrate your site with an external platform, so you may need to create an account there as well.

How to use WordPress plugins

Plugins require different levels of interactivity and ongoing maintenance. Many plugins work immediately upon activation. For example, the Disable Comments plugin does exactly that, with no more actions required.

But some plugins have more complex functions and need user input. The Yoast SEO plugin helps you write better content for search engine optimization, but users must provide keywords for checking and make specific changes to their content to improve searchability. Form creator plugins such as WPForms provide templates, but users need to customize them, add content, and indicate where the form is to be displayed. Plugins with more complex functions may come with tutorials and other resources to help you use them properly.

Keep your plugins updated

In order for plugins to work properly, they need to be maintained. Just as WordPress itself releases periodic updates, plugin developers regularly update their plugins to resolve bugs and add new features. Your plugins page posts notifications of available updates and allows you to update all plugins at once or choose the updates you want. Keeping plugins updated ensures they’re compatible with your version of WordPress and other plugins you’re using. Next to that, updating plugins helps to keep your site secure. Outdated and inactive plugins can provide avenues for security risks, so managing your plugins should be a part of your site maintenance.

Although there’s no real limit to the number of plugins you can install, it’s important to stick to quality plugins that provide the features you need. If a plugin isn’t appropriate or no longer needed, it can be deactivated or deleted. Deactivated plugins remain available and can be activated again if needed later. Deleting a plugin completely will remove all its files from your WordPress installation, and that could affect other aspects of your site that were connected to the plugin.

Final thoughts

Plugins give WordPress site owners virtually unlimited control over all aspects of a site’s performance and appearance. With the help of thousands of plugins from a worldwide pool of developers, WordPress users of all skill levels can add the features and functions they need to create a unique, fully functioning WordPress site.

To get started in building your website or choosing a web hosting plan, contact our team of experts at Bluehost today.

Devin Sears
Devin Sears | Field Marketing Manager

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