How Plugins Work

Since its launch in 2003, WordPress has evolved from a modest blogging platform into the world’s leading content management system. Today, this famous CMS powers a quarter of all live websites, with endlessly customizable templates and skins. However, the core program code doesn’t always meet the needs of more specialized clients. This is where plugins come in…

What are plugins?

These individual pieces of code are the WordPress equivalent of apps being downloaded onto a smartphone. Complementing the basic WordPress framework, they deliver additional functionality by performing specific tasks. Written in PHP and containing anything from image files to cascading style sheets, plugins are easily integrated through the WordPress API. Over 52,000 plugins have been launched to date via the official WordPress directory, with thousands of others hosted on third-party platforms like Github. And since the code is relatively straightforward to develop, many people have created exclusive plugins specifically for their own websites.

What’s in a plugin?

Each uniquely named plugin contains a header, which normally details its version and author alongside a basic description of its functionality. Below this, code snippets perform specific tasks, such as image rescaling or activating Google Fonts. Some plugins have a single job to do, whereas others deliver comprehensive and complementary solutions. For instance, the WooCommerce plugin is an incredibly powerful ecommerce tool handling a spectrum of payment and shipping options, including discounts and memberships. We consider some of the other leading WordPress plugins below, demonstrating their relationship to the standard framework.
Once they’ve been installed, WordPress plugins are stored in a dedicated directory on the host website server. As each page loads, the platform investigates and determines whether any plugins are present. Known as hooks, these placeholders activate plugins that perform an action or filter a result. For instance, a filter hook for contact forms could weed out spam messages. From an administrator’s perspective, each installed plugin will automatically activate; the only limitation involves when it can be called into action. It’s also important not to cause conflicts by asking two plugins to perform the same job, or to complete mutually exclusive outcomes. If this happens, a plugin can be deactivated or deleted through the WordPress user dashboard.

These are ten WordPress plugins that have significantly improved the platform – sometimes in ways the original developers might never have thought of:

  1. Yoast SEO. Perhaps the greatest plugin of all time, Yoast’s SEO improvement guides can be used by complete beginners to improve their site’s search engine performance.
  2. Jetpack. An in-house creation by WordPress, Jetpack’s features range from content backups and brute force protection to traffic analysis and image optimization.
  3. Building on Google’s impressive high resolution satellite mapping, adds features ranging from mouseover actions to pop-up image galleries.
  4. Akismet. Akismet is a leading tool for identifying and deleting spam/junk comments received through contact forms, keeping a detailed record of everything it does.
  5. BackupBuddy. Data loss is a risk for any business, so BackupBuddy simplifies the duplication of online content with a few mouse clicks.
  6. Google XML Sitemaps. Telling Google’s web crawlers which pages can be viewed and how they all interconnect has a markedly positive effect on SEO performance.
  7. Floating Social. Being able to re-post online content is crucial, and Floating Social offers one-click sharing through customizable buttons that scroll with each page.
  8. Wordfence Security. Available in free or paid-for premium versions, Wordfence filters live traffic while providing malware scanning and 2FA login security.
  9. Envira Gallery. Envira creates dynamic image galleries that display well on smaller screens. It can also watermark every image, preventing copyright infringement.
  10. Query Monitor. Perhaps ironically, Query Monitor identifies plugins that are slowing page loading times, enabling administrators to patch or delete them.

It’s worth noting that free WordPress plugins sometimes become obsolete, or suddenly disappear without warning. Their absence may instantly compromise site functionality or security. While high-profile or paid-for plugins are unlikely to vanish without warning, the developers behind home-made code snippets may be unable or unwilling to maintain their creations long term. As a result, webmasters need to undertake regular inspections, to ensure everything is working properly.