Jess’s Quick Guide to Plugins, Widgets, and Themes

There are thousands and thousands of plugins and themes in the WordPress repository. It can be kind of overwhelming…. Sure, you can filter each of theme by tags or features, but even then the results list can be large. I’ve written down some of the best practices that I follow and have found that work when looking for plugins and themes. But first, what are plugins, widgets and themes?

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What’s the difference?

Themes — Changing the look of your site

What can themes change? Colors, layouts, backgrounds, header image, footers, etc.

Plugins — Changing the functionality of your site

What can plugins do? Almost anything! Add a new widget, syndicate posts, prevent spam, create photo galleries, etc.

Widgets — An area that displays a specific function

What can widgets do? All kinds of things! Display recent posts, a twitter feed, a sign-up form, a weather app, etc. WordPress comes with several default widgets, but by installing plugins and themes, you can get new ones.

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Plugins and Themes Best Practices

  • When browsing for plugins or themes in the WordPress repository (where WordPress takes you when you click on Add New) there are two criteria to look for before installing and activating them:
    • The plugin or theme is rated four stars and up. There are many plugins and themes with lower star ratings that may work, but they may have lower ratings because they stop working, are too complicated for their own good, or have vulnerabilities. If a lower rated plugin is the only plugin out there that is going to do what you need, then try it out! Just be skeptical.
    • The plugin or theme has a significant amount of active installs. The more active installs, the more people using theme or plugin. A good start is to try to find plugins or themes with a minimum of several thousand active installs. However, newer plugins and themes may only have a few hundred installs. When the number of active installs is low, cross reference it with the star rating, and then decide from there. Again, you can try out any plugin or theme, but getting one that works the first time is awesome!
  • When browsing for plugins in the WordPress repository look to see if the plugin has been updated in the last two years. This ensures that the developer(s) of the plugin are fixing bugs, keeping their plugin compatible with the current versions of WordPress, and potentially adding features requested by users.
  • When browsing for themes in the WordPress repository try using the Feature Filter to narrow down your results. Know that the thumbnail picture of the theme is not always accurate. Many times developers will submit the theme with a picture of the site all built our and customized. These thumbnails can be misleading since more often than not, when you first activate a theme your site is not going to look like the thumbnail. It usually takes a fair amount of customization to get your site to looking like the repository thumbnail.
  • When browsing for plugins and themes outside of the WordPress repository, see if there are any reviews on them. There are some really great themes and plugins out there that have not (yet) been submitted to the WordPress repository. Go ahead and try them, and just know you can’t really ever break your site! (Well maybe there’s like a 3% chance.)

TL;DR Go forth and play around with plugins and themes! (Just don’t be surprised when one-star rated plugins and themes don’t work.)

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Photo by Malcolm Browne (CC BY-NC 2.0)