Lesson 4: Plugins
Can y’all believe this is the last of my 4 part series? Time does fly. I know my posts up till now have been a little on the long side but I promise, I’ll keep this one short (ish).
If you haven’t been keeping up, in Lesson 1  I ran through setting up a URL and web site hosting. Then in Lesson 2  we examined themes and how they help control the look and feel for your site. Finally, in last week’s Lesson 3  I ran you through the mechanics of creating posts (and indirectly pages) in your new site. For today’s 4th and final lesson I wanted to talk a little about WordPress plugins.
You ever bought a car?
I taught a class up in Warren, MI a couple of months ago for General Motors and right in the lobby of the Cadillac building where I was working, they had a spanking new Corvette Stingray. She was a looker. When I got home to Mississippi after my trip, I headed into one of the dealers near me to find out how much exactly it would run me, to bring one home. The conversation started something like this:
Slick car guy (SCG): “Can I help ya?”
Me: “Yes, I’d like to get some information on your new Stingray.”
SCG: “Perfect timing. We got a guy, a Corvette guy.
Me: “A corvette guy?”
SCG: “A corvette guy. Just back from school and everything.”
Me: (Blank look)
SCG: “You see, cars’ve got so many options these days that we gota send guys off to school. You know, so they can sell ‘em proper.”
Your WordPress site might not be exactly like a brand new Vette, but the two things do have something in common: option packages. Just like how you can order a Vette with the paddle shift, six-speed automatic transmission, you can get WordPress with an add-on that will copy all of your site posts to your Facebook site without you having to go through an additional step.
A WordPress plugin extends the standard out of the box functionality by adding something new to it. Exactly what new ability or options the plugin adds is really up to the plugin, but there are loads available. =)
But just like that cool transmission, plugins aren’t free. There are two ways you and your site pay for plugins: performance and cost. The cost part is obvious; some plugins you can download for free and some you’ll have to buy. The performance cost though is more insidious.
Hosting companies have to pay for the hardware (computers) that actually run your web site. To make sure the maximum number of sites will run on a given machine, the hosting companies use software to limit the resources (memory, processing power, etc.) dedicated to handling any one site. That means if you go plugin crazy you might actually slow the load time down for all the pages in your site.
Least you need to know: Plugins give WordPress additional functionality (cool menus, fancy image galleries, ways to organize your media content, shopping carts, PayPal integration, etc.)
Finding, installing, and using plugins
You can find plugins a number of different places. The WordPress plugin homepage is always a good place to start and it has a nice search engine to boot:
The plugins you find there will have a free version and many follow that up with pay options. As we discussed in the Theme lesson, look for plugins that seem to offer the functionality you need, have a good number of positive reviews, seem to release new versions frequently, look to have documentation and perhaps even a demo site, and make sure they don’t trap you into something you really don’t want: like they start charging you monthly after a month free. Also remember that sometimes you get what you pay for. Don’t be afraid to pay for a plugin if you really think it’s going to make a difference to your site. Many of the pay ones are really cheap.
Besides the main WordPress.org plugin page, Google is a great resource for finding plugins. Again though, you need to spend some time researching any plugin you find. Find reviews, articles on using the plugin, etc. Whether you’re paying with simple server resources or out of pocket, every plugin has a cost.
To install a plugin into your site:
- Download the plugin .zip file to your local computer
- Navigate to your site and log in using the standard /wp-admin URL.
- In the WordPress Dashboard main menu, click Plugins | Add New
- Some installs of WordPress will allow you to search for plugins from the resulting page but if you’ve already downloaded the new plugin to your local machine however, simply click Upload
- Use the dialog to select and upload your plugin
Now that you have the plugin uploaded it should be displayed on the Plugins page, but it won’t do anything until you activate it. Navigate to the Plugins page, locate your plugin on the list, and click Activate.
Once a plugin is activated however, there is no standard way to configure it. Spend a little time on the plugin documentation page and figure out what configurations it will need.
Least you need to know: Plugins are installed and activated though the dashboard Plugins section.
I could probably wax long and explicitly about the wonders of some of the WordPress plugins I’ve run across over the last several years, but I did promise to keep this post short so let me just hit a few that you should seriously consider.
Jetpack is not really a single plugin it’s more of an essential needs, combo pack of plugins originally created by the WordPress.com (not .org) hosting company. Enable it and take advantage of a number of extra plugins for everything form site use statistics to social networking integration. To use Jetpack you will need to setup a free account over at WordPress.com so do that first
You can download Jetpack and get loads of great documentation over on:
Spend some time getting to know the Jetpack features:
- Monitor: Emails you if your site goes down
- Publicize: To send posts automatically to your Facebook etc. page whenever you post something new
- WordPress.com stats: to keep up with your page traffic
- Subscriptions: So people can subscribe to your site and receive emails when you post something new
- Carousel: For a cool way to display a group of images
- Sharing: Adds those share with Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, etc. links to aid in social networking
- Contact Form: to help you build a “Contact me” style form
Like I said, Jetpack’s a whole smorgasbord of different essential plugins and I haven’t even mentioned half of the ones it contains.
It won’t take long after you setup a new WordPress site before you start to see comments like, “What i do not realize is in fact how you are no longer actually much more neatly-liked than you might be now. You are very intelligent. You know thus significantly on the subject of this topic, produced me for my part believe it from so many varied angles. Its like men and women aren’t interested except it’s something to do with Woman gaga! Your personal stuffs great. Always take care of it up!”
Yes, that’s spam. Meaningless posts with strange return email addresses are just people trying to get a toe hold in your site. By default, WordPress only makes you approve the first comment a person makes. After they get in, they can and will post all kinds of nonsense to your site through the post comment feature.
Akismet is a great plugin that will send 99% of junk comments to the junk pile. You can download it from the main WordPress plugin site:
To use Akismet you will have to get a key from the maker’s site:
I’ll let you decide if your site qualifies as free or if you should be paying $5 a month.
Enhanced Media Library
If your site has a large number of media files (images, videos, etc.) then you might want to grab a copy of the Enhanced Media Library plugin. It does a great job of allowing you to categorize information:
Gravity Forms and Contact Form 7
If you need a little more control over the feedback/contact forms you use on your site then take a look at Gravity forms and Contact Form 7. Gravity has a lot more options and extensions but you’ll pay for them. Contact Form 7 is free.
On a side note, I use the PayPal integration add on to Gravity forms and it’s a real nice way of letting people pay for stuff using PayPal, but without ever having to leave your site.
Yea, it’s really easy to get lost in all of the plugin choices, so I wanted to wrap up with a simple list of other plugins I’ve found useful:
- Search engine optimization (SEO) to help search engines to better find and classify your site
- Backing your site up (pay and free)
- Something to do automated security checks of your site and notify you of anything suspicious
- Something to do backups and security checks, for a small fee
- Mail out newsletters through your site, though he advanced formatting and larger audience of recipients options are only available in the pay version (Personally, I prefer MailChimp.com for this kind of thing)
Least you need to know: There are tons of plugins so use them wisely and remember, they are never truly free.
As I’ve said over and over, plugins offer sometimes fantastic functionality, just make sure said functionality is something your site is going to really benefit from. Remember that each plugin adds overhead and if there’s something you don’t need, aren’t actively using, go into your plugin settings and deactivate it to save resources.
Well that’s about all I have for you this month. I hope you’ve enjoyed the series and please feel free to hit me up if you have any questions.
Okay, last chance to ask Pat questions about your wordpress site – go!!
Tune in tomorrow for Layering Multiple Tropes with Lea Nolen.
Bio: After four years in the USMC, Patrick Haggerty studied Actuarial Science and Computers at Georgia State University. He has spent the past 15+ years developing and delivering technical training courses for Learning Tree International. On the side he has a successful consulting practice doing web application development for clients ranging from the United State Marines to Delta Airlines.
Seven years ago, stuck reading a mediocre book in yet another hotel, Patrick decided to try his hand at fiction. He may not be published, but these days you are much more likely to find him spending his evenings writing romance, than code. Patrick is an active member of RWA, RWAustralia, RW New Zealand, and is VP of Membership for Gulf Coast Romance Writers of America, and VP of OIRWA.
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