WordPress 101: Plugins

Up until now, I’ve kept the discussion focused on the WordPress.com edition of WordPress. Now, I’m going to talk about something only self-hosted WordPress users can fully enjoy – plugins. The WordPress developers were very shrewd and included a facility which makes it relatively simple (from a developer’s view) to create custom elements that will add functionality to a basic WordPress installation. Developers build there plugins using a standard model and the self-hosted version of WordPress includes a facility for selecting, installing and configuring them as part of your site.

WordPress.com users have the functionality of several basic plugins already built into their version of WordPress. We self-hosted folks will need to add them to our WordPress installation to have those same capabilities. However, there are currently more than 20,000 plugins available doing any number of amazing things. If you want some special functionality for your site, chances are good there’s a WordPress plugin that can do it.

Here’s a look at part of the installed plugins at the Moultrie Creek Books site. You see the plugin title and description along with links to activate/deactivate the plugin, configure any settings or edit the plugin. You’ll also see the version number of each plugin and links to the developer’s site and the plugin’s site. Notice that not all of these plugins are active. the Onswipe plugin has been installed, but isn’t being used. Normally, if a plugin isn’t being used, you would want to delete it from your site.

At the top of the screen and in the sidebar menu you see the option to add new plugins to your site. When you click on the Add New link, you will be taken to WordPress.org’s plugins directory where you can find and install the plugin of your choice. As you can see from this example, it isn’t the best way to browse for plugins. Use this once you know which plugin you want to install.

The best place to start is a visit to the WordPress Plugins Directory. Here you can browse through the available plugins and compare their features. You can look for plugins by clicking on a tag in the left sidebar or using the search facility.

Each plugin has its own page describing the plugin, including instructions and sometimes even screenshots of the plugin’s back-end screens and front-end effect. The more information included with the plugin, the better. Granted, some very good plugins have little or no information on their plugin page, but unless a plugin has been recommended by a trusted source, I keep looking. Notice on the right, the last updated, ratings and compatibility information. You want to be sure this plugin is being actively maintained and works with the version of WordPress you are using.

Once you’ve found the plugin you want, make note of its name and developer (many of the names are almost identical) then go back to your plugins screen, click Add New and enter that name into the search box. As you can see, you’ll still get a number of options. I’m looking for Austin Matzko’s backup plugin and he just happens to be at the top of the list. Normally, you would see an Install Now link just below the plugin’s title, but in this case I have already installed this plugin – on every one of my sites. More on that later.

Once installed, click the Activate link just under the title to turn it on. Most plugins also require some kind of configuration settings. Often, your active plugin appears in the Settings area of the site, like the sample you see here. Our database backup plugin appears in the Tools area and you’ll notice the SEO (search engine optimization) plugin has its own place in the menu. Be sure to read the instructions for your chosen plugin to determine exactly what you must do to configure each one. Something like the WP to Twitter plugin could be as simple as entering your Twitter login information while others require more complex information.


Here you see part of the database backup plugin’s settings screen. As you can see, you can perform on-demand backups and schedule automatic backups. I use the on-demand function before performing a WordPress upgrade, and I have this site scheduled to perform a backup every week and email the backup file to me.

Plugins get updated frequently. You’ll see a notice in the Updates section of your Dashboard. Each update should include information on what is included in the update – new features, bug fixes, etc. – and you should check this before you perform the update.

In this example, there aren’t any plugin updates, but I do have a theme update. Plugin updates will look very similar. All it takes to perform the update is to select the ones you wish to update, then click the Update Plugins button. You’ll be taken to a progress screen showing the progress of your updates and announcing a successful completion. It’s that easy.

Now that you see how plugins are managed in WordPress, you’re ready to put them to work on your site. I’ll be adding plugin reviews regularly, but one of the first ones I would recommend is the WP-DB-Backup plugin used here in my example. It really is as easy to manage as shown here. This plugin saved one of my veteran’s sites just a couple of months ago when the datacenter hosting the site took a hit from those awful storms that hit Dallas. Having database backups done and sent to me with no effort on my part not only keeps my work protected, but also simplifies my life. Let it do the same for you.