How to choose what WordPress plugins to use

July 9, 2024
tl;dr: Before you install plugins on your WordPress site, use this list of recommendations to find popular and well supported options.
Featured image for “How to choose what WordPress plugins to use”

One of the reasons why I prefer building websites with WordPress is because it’s open-source, well documented, and has a vast library of scripts, themes, and plugins.

Instead of proprietary platforms like Wix or Squarespace where customers pay a monthly or annual fee to host and use the service, WordPress is installed on a customer’s server ensuring that they own and maintain the files and database.

💡 Tip: WordPress.org and WordPress.com are two different services. Learn more about the difference in this article I wrote about WordPress user content for AI training.

WordPress itself is a content management system (CMS) that allows you to create or configure your own theme: typically responsible for the design of your website, and create or install plugins: responsible for applying additional functionality to your website.

If you are embarking on creating your first WordPress site, reviving an outdated one, or ever experienced error code while installing and maintaining your plugins – learn how to choose what WordPress plugins to use!

A screenshot of WordPress notifying of 17 pending system updates available.
A screenshot of the WordPress admin dashboard notifying 17 pending available updates to system components like WordPress itself, installed themes, and plugins.

Before you install additional WordPress plugins

Because I build a lot of WordPress websites that new users intend to manage themselves, I personally try to limit the amount of plugins on their sites as much as possible. So my biggest piece of advice (after security and accessibility, of course) is to determine if you need to use a plugin before installing and activating one.

Due to WordPress being an open source platform, themes and plugins can be developed by anyone. While this provides a wide variety of tools and options to customize your site, you also have to be mindful that each plugin you install and activate on your site are compatible and work together.

When we’re learning how to design or develop our own websites, we often watch tutorial videos or read a walk through like this one I wrote for setting up Google Analytics and Google Search Console

WordPress tutorials tend to feature the plugins and components that the author uses for their website but doesn’t take into consideration what you may have already installed on yours. 

Be aware that each WordPress website can be built differently, depending on the theme and other plugins used.

Check if your theme offers a plugin’s functionality already

If you’re using a popular theme framework like X Theme, Astra or OceanWP there are often built-in elements that you can use to gain more functionality, layout, or interactive options.

Often the “Pro” or licensed versions of theme frameworks give you more add-ons. By using elements that are built directly into your theme, you are less likely to need to test for compatibility than if you install a secondary plugin to get the same functionality.

For example, a theme may already have a basic built-in contact form, or a configuration page to link to your social media profiles and auto-generate icons.

The best way to see what your theme can do is review all of your settings, but you can also revisit a demo site (if available), read supplied documentation, or watch tutorial videos online. You can also reach out to the theme developer and ask via email or ticket, or post in a member support forum. They may be able to refer you to a known and tested third-party application to use.

Screenshot of Rank Math SEO WordPress plugin
In this screenshot of Rank Math SEO plugin, we can see settings for additional features that are available, and may not require the installation of a secondary plugin. Source: rankmath.com

Check if other plugins you have installed have similar functionality

Similarly to themes, you should review all of the features that your current plugins have to see if you need to install a secondary option.

For example, many people use Elementor’s plugin as a page builder on top of their installed theme. The free version of Elementor comes with basic features and the option to purchase a license to gain access to more advanced features. Then, there are third-party plugins that developers have created that build upon Elementor further. These plugins introduce even more options.

Often though, if you have multiple plugins installed and activated in WordPress that have similar functionality it can cause compatibility issues. 

After you install a new WordPress plugin

You need to consider that when activating a new component on your website you ensure that it is compatible with each and every other existing component. This means testing with your current theme and each individual plugin you have installed.

When something goes wrong with your theme or plugin, every developer will usually ask you to test for compatibility before providing additional support.

For example, if you install a new plugin and you notice something on your website breaks, such as…

  • An error code message shows up
  • Broken layout or formatting on your pages
  • An interactive function no longer works
  • Your WordPress admin area disappears

… then you need to figure out why! The theme or plugin developer will typically ask you to change your activated theme to the default WordPress theme – this lets you know if the problem is theme-related if everything works fine on the default WP theme.

When troubleshooting multiple plugins, the rule of thumb is usually to turn off each plugin and turn them on one by one to determine where the disconnect is.

💡 Tip: You might be sitting there thinking, “if I am doing all of this – what about the front-end of my website and what my customers see?!” This is why you should not only have a backup tool in place so that you can restore to previous versions of your site, but also have a staging site where you can run updates and troubleshoot changes before launching them live.

How to choose what WordPress plugins to use and their benefits

With all that being said, not all themes offer the functionality or options that you need to design or develop your website the way you want, so this is where plugins come into play.

The WordPress Plugins library has tens of thousands free plugins available to install on your website, but this doesn’t mean that all plugins are created equal.

A note about block-enabled WordPress plugins

In 2018, in the 5.0 update WordPress introduced the Block Editor, which replaced the old one by separating on-page content into a block system, which could then be easily moved around within the content hierarchy, allowing you to apply different styling options to each block, and save as templates or global blocks.

Typically, you use the block system when creating blog posts in WordPress, unless you’ve opted to apply a third-party visual editor to your post types. For example, I use Cornerstone as my page editor, but I rely on the built-in block system for my blog articles. Why? Because if I decide to rebuild my site using a different theme, I’ll only have to worry about remaking my pages – leaving my far more numerous blog articles intact and operating on the default WordPress framework regardless of the theme I have installed.

Screenshot of a list of WordPress Block Editor Theme Blocks.
A screenshot of a list of Theme Blocks in the WordPress Block Editor. Source: wordpress.org

Over the years both WordPress and developers have released themes and templates that enable you to build out your entire website using blocks – becoming its own version of a visual page editor.

This is a fantastic way to utilize WordPress and when searching for plugins to use, you can filter for block-enabled plugins in the directory. This will give you plugin options that provide blocks that you can implement in your build.

Research available plugins before you install and activate them

While it’s wonderful having so many plugins to choose from, you have to be careful about what you install on your WordPress site. You want to look out for:

  • Compatibility with your theme and other installed plugins
  • Resource usage
  • Security
  • Support options
The WordPress plugin description page outlines features, developer, and reviews.
A screenshot of a WordPress plugin description page, with dots denoting where you can find information about the developer, user reviews, changelog updates, and installation instructions. Source: wordpress.org

Need to know how to choose what WordPress plugins to use? Here are some of the things I review before I select one:

  1. Who is the developer of the plugin?
    1. Are they a company or an individual?
    2. Do they maintain multiple plugins?
    3. How well known are they?
  2. What do customer reviews say?
  3. How many active installations are there?
  4. When was the plugin last updated?
    1. Are there changelogs provided that outline what is released or fixed within each update?
  5. Has it been tested with the most recent version of WordPress?
  6. Is the server the website is hosted on running an up-to-date version of PHP and does the plugin require this version to run?
  7. Does the developer actively offer support?
    1. Do you need a license to gain access to support?
    2. What do recent support comments or forums look like?
      1. How often or quickly does the developer respond?
      2. What complaints or issues are stated?
      3. Have any customers reported compatibility issues with certain theme or plugins?
  8. Does the plugin have documentation?
    1. Look for installation and configuration instructions
    2. Look for known issues or fixes when running third-party connections
    3. Is there a email list you can be on to get updates about the plugin?

I gather this information from the WordPress Plugin Directory listing, user reviews, online comments, support forums, developer website, changelog, and comparison reviews.

Learning how to choose what WordPress plugins to use is expert knowledge to apply while you’re building or maintaining your website. But where should you start?

I’ve put together a brief list of some of the most popular and recommended WordPress plugins to get a new WordPress user started.

Please note that two referral links are included in this list and I may earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. I’ve denoted these ones with an * symbol.

WordPress plugin directory banner for Elementor
WordPress Page Builder plugins, such as Elementor (featured here), apply a visual layout option to help you create your website. Source: wordpress.org

WordPress Page Builders

If you aren’t using the WordPress block system to build your website and you aren’t experienced with coding or programming your own theme from scratch, you may want to utilize a visual page builder.

A visual page builder works like a drag and drop system where you can choose from a library of elements to build out and style your webpages.

I’ve selected three popular page builder plugins to feature below. I have personally used all of them and while I have my favorite, they have all been well documented and supported by their developers.

Cornerstone

I started using Cornerstone almost a decade ago when I purchased my first X Theme license. While building websites from scratch is great, as a web designer and developer it was important to be able to give my clients options for tools that they can learn to use without knowing how to code themselves.

Cornerstone can be installed on its own as a plugin but it also comes packaged with Themeco’s X and Pro themes.

Demo Site: Cornerstone Playground | Developed by Themeco

Divi

Divi is a popular visual editor that is available as both a theme or a builder plugin. If you opt to use the theme, you do not need to use the builder plugin, as they come packaged together. However, you can use Divi Builder on its own if you already have a theme in place that you require its specific functionality for.

Demo Site: Divi Demo Builder | Developed by Elegant Themes

Elementor

Elementor is another popular plugin used as a page or site builder. While it comes with a free version (Elementor Core) you’ll find most advanced functionality in the Pro version, which is available in various annual plans.

Product Site: Elementor Page Builder Plugin | Developed by Elementor

WordPress plugin directory banner for W3 Total Cache
WordPress Caching plugins, such as W3 Total Cache (featured here), apply settings to help optimize your website. Source: wordpress.org

WordPress Caching Plugins

Website speeds are important for user experience, search engine optimization, and accessibility. Depending on your host or set-up, you may need to install an additional caching plugin to help optimize your website.

Below, I’ve included three of the most commonly used caching plugins. Because settings found in these plugins have the power to control scripts and functionality behind-the-scenes of your website, it’s important to read documentation thoroughly and understand what you’re doing.

WP Rocket

Out of the box, WP Rocket has default features to help improve your site speed via tools like page caching, browser caching, cache preloading, and GZIP compression.

I use WP Rocket in tandem with my CDN (content delivery network) to improve my website loading time.

Developed by WPRocket*

WP Total Cache

With over 1 million active installations, WP Total Cache remains one of the most popular caching plugins. It boasts that it is WordPress’ only web host agnostic Web Performance Optimization (WPO) framework, fitting in seamlessly to most hosting servers.

Developed by BoldGrid

Cloudflare APO

Many website owners use Cloudflare as a free CDN, but there are also paid add-ons available to apply advanced functionality to your website. Automatic Platform Optimization for WordPress is one of those features.

If you use the free version of Cloudflare CDN, APO is $5/month but is included as a feature on premium plans.

Developed by Cloudflare

💡 Tip: When you’re looking at numerous plugins to select from, check their developer websites to see if they include any compatibility reviews by your theme developer. For example, on WP Rocket’s website they feature a review from the creator of Divi that outlines how well it performs with their builder and theme.

WordPress plugin directory banner for WP Code Snippets
WordPress Code Snippets & Scripts plugins, such as WPCode (featured here), allow you to copy and paste tracking codes or conversion pixels to your website. Source: wordpress.org

WordPress Code Snippets & Scripts

If your theme doesn’t provide you a field to input your tracking scripts, like Analytics or Pixels, and you aren’t comfortable editing code, you’ll want to install a plugin that gives you access to inject these snippets in an easy way.

What are tracking scripts?

In order to relay data from your website to a service like Google Analytics, Meta, or Pinterest you need to create a connection between the two. When you create a website property in Google Analytics to track your website traffic, you will be supplied with a script – a block of code that contains an ID attributing to your custom property. This script then needs to be added to your website so that it can relay information. Then, you can view traffic data about your website within Google Analytics!

WPCode Lite

The WPCode Lite plugin used to be known as Insert Headers and Footers, a tool that enables you to copy and paste your scripts in a simple window and applies that code to your website – all without you needing to edit your theme’s functions.php file yourself.

Now, WPCode Lite continues to provide the same functionality with additional features such as being able to choose from pre-written scripts that you can apply to WordPress.

For example, you can have a script running to completely disable comments throughout your entire site. Or, to display a message after the first paragraph of text in posts.

Developed by WPCode

💡 Tip: Before installing a secondary plugin for the purpose of adding code snippets, tracking scripts, ad pixels, or other custom content check to see if the theme you’re using already has options in the settings to apply these. For example, in Elementor there is an existing code area to copy and paste snippets like these.

WordPress plugin directory banner for WP Mail SMTP
WordPress SMTP plugins, such as WP Mail SMTP (featured here), change your default PHP mail function into an authenticated SMTP. Source: wordpress.org

WordPress Contact Forms, Emails, & SMTP

Out of the box, WordPress uses a default PHP Mail function to deliver mail from your website. Sticking with this set-up, you’ll likely find form emails ending up in spam or undelivered. This can be due to a hosting server not being configured to use the function, or due to email service providers having advanced spam and security protocols in place.

SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) helps remedy this situation by administering proper authentication.

A WordPress SMTP plugin won’t provide SMTP as a service but it will help you configure a connection to a SMTP service like: Gmail (Google Workspace), Microsoft 365/Outlook, Mailgun, Postmark, SendGrid, or Brevo.

WP Mail SMTP

Arguably the most popular SMTP and PHP mailer plugin for WordPress, WP Mail SMTP has both a free or paid option. It supports many SMTP services and includes detailed documentation.

Developed by WP Mail SMTP

SMTP2GO

SMTP2Go has its own user interface to help track activity, email testing, and more. Users of SMTP2Go who run WordPress sites can also download the SMTP2Go for WordPress plugin to integrate the service without customizing the API.

You can sign up for free with 1,000 emails/mo and 5 days of email reporting, or upgrade to receive more reporting, support, or management features.

Developed by SMTP2GO

💡 Tip: SMTP plugins do not provide contact forms; they simply change how emails are delivered, so by using one of these, it’s expected that you are already using a form tool. Themes like Elementor or Divi have built-in form elements. If you use these built-in forms, you will just need a SMTP plugin.

However, if you don’t have built-in form functionality, or require more than what your built-in option can provide, you may also need a plugin that allows you to build custom email forms.

Gravity Forms and Gravity SMTP

Gravity Forms is a well known advanced contact form plugin that allows you to create custom forms, capture leads, collect payments, or automate your workflows – built with integrations to other top performing applications like: HubSpot, Dropbox, PayPal, Stripe, Zapier, Mailchimp, or Campaign Monitor.

A new release has included Gravity SMTP with their Elite license, granting a SMTP tool on top of their form functionality.

Developed by Gravity Forms

WPForms

The Lite version of WPForms is available in the WordPress Plugin Directory, or you can upgrade to the Pro version to get access to email subscription forms, multi-page contact forms, file uploads, conditional logic and extra payment integrations.

Developed by WPForms

💡 Tip: Contact form plugins usually have a method of spam protection available to set-up to help reduce the amount of emails you receive. To use these, you will have to set up a Google reCAPTCHA, hCaptcha, Cloudflare Turnstile, or alternative supported property.

WordPress plugin directory banner for The Events Calendar
WordPress Event Calendar plugins, such as The Events Calendar (featured here), create a calendar, ticket, and payment system on your events website. Source: wordpress.org

WordPress Event Calendars & Directories

If your website requires an additional database to store event or business-related directories, you’ll want to select a well-developed plugin that will give you access to both documentation and support tickets or forums.

The Events Calendar

I’ve used various iterations of The Events Calendar including the free and pro versions, with both ticketing and sales add-ons over the years. You can get a lot out of the free version, while the pro version will include things like additional viewing layouts, recurring events, filters, or location search.

Developed by The Events Calendar

💡 Tip: If you’re using a popular page builder extension like Elementor, you may find add-ons to these plugins listed, such as The Events Calendar’s Elementor compatible widget.

Connections Business Directory

I found Steven’s Connections plugin early in my professional career and have come back to it multiple times when one of my clients requires a directory on their website. As a plugin that is maintained mostly by an individual it has remained updated and supported since 2009!

You can download Connections for free and only upgrade if you require alternative template layouts or extensions.

Developed by Steven A. Zahm

WordPress plugin directory banner for Rank Math SEO
WordPress SEO plugins, such as Rank Math (featured here), apply site tools to help you optimize your on-page content. Source: wordpress.org

WordPress SEO Plugins

Installing a SEO plugin on your site isn’t what optimization is, that is all up to you. These tools act as a guidance or recommendation system – or give your framework options to use functionality that may not have existed without the plugin. You still need to do your keyword research.

I’ve personally used both options I’ve included below, recently changing over to Rank Math as of this year to test how it compares to Yoast, which is what I’ve been running on most client sites up until now.

Both Rank Math and Yoast SEO come in free or pro versions and for the most part, you’ll find what you need to start with the free, basic versions as they have comparative tools.

Rank Math

Rank Math was released in 2018, so is newer to the playground than most, but has been quickly adopted. At the time of writing this article, Rank Math’s free version has a few more built-in features and a lower annual cost for their pro version.

Developed by Rank Math*

Yoast SEO

Yoast has been released for longer than Rank Math and has more active installations as a result.

Developed by Yoast

In conclusion on how to choose what WordPress plugins to use

The biggest takeaway I hope you walk away with is the knowledge of why you should never install and activate a new plugin on your website without spending some time reviewing more about the tool.

Remember, you want to focus on:

  • Compatibility with your WordPress theme and other installed WordPress plugins
  • Resource usage
  • Security
  • Support options

WordPress is a wonderful framework and while there may be a learning curve involved, it offers immense customization and integration capabilities.

I have been professionally designing and developing with WordPress for almost fifteen years and am available for 1:1 coaching, maintenance, and website management. Contact me to book a quick 15 minute call or send me an email – I’d love to help support you with your website!

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Are you interested in starting or refreshing your website to reach and grow your audience? My name is Bree and I’m a website designer and developer who helps with the before, during, and after processes of launching and managing a website. If you’d like support with your website or business, reach out and let's chat!

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