WordPress plugins can customize your WordPress site in nearly any way. But there are some mistakes non-developers make when using WordPress plugins and hiring developers to make them. This article explains five such mistakes to avoid, and how to benefit the most from WordPress plugins.
The most expensive part of making a website is having experienced developers do custom work on it. Where possible, it’s much cheaper to use pre-built WordPress plugins and themes, even ones that aren’t free. If you can make due without custom development, your website will be much cheaper.
Let’s talk specifics: how much might you spend on a WordPress website in the first year? Here are some ballpark, theoretical figures.
Getting a developer to do custom work (eg write custom code) is easily 10x the cost of using a pre-made WordPress plugin or theme.
Better yet, before you even look for a WordPress plugin to do something, make sure WordPress core doesn’t already have an option for it. Maybe it can be done using one of the dashboard’s settings pages or the Customizer. Not only is making use of the tools WordPress already provides free, but it also requires no extra maintenance down the road. Only after verifying WordPress core doesn’t provide the customization you need, it’s time to search for WordPress plugins.
WordPress plugins are files that can be added to your WordPress website that allow it to do extra stuff. A bit like apps on your phone, or programs on your personal computer.
There are thousands of WordPress plugins, and most likely there is one that will meet your needs. While many are free, even the paid ones are still a fraction of the cost of custom development.
There is a good example from my day job at the WordPress plugin shop, Event Espresso. Downloading pre-made payment gateway integrations from us (WordPress plugins for accepting payments using a particular payment gateway, like PayPal or Stripe) can be downloaded for about $80 each. In comparison, a custom-built payment gateway integration (one that works with a new payment gateway) will cost at least $1000. So if potential clients have a limited budget, and they don’t mind using a payment gateway with which we’ve already built integration, we really discourage custom-built payment gateway integrations. We want to avoid having our users be disatisfied having spent about $100 for our main plugin, Event Espresso, which provides almost all their event registration needs, but then spend a whopping $1000 on the relatively minor payment gateway integration.
(By the way, $1000 is actually cheap for that custom development. We offset our expenses by making the plugin available to others for purchase for $80 by others afterwards. If we didn’t do that, we’ve had discussion about increasing the cost to $5000, depending on the payment gateway.)
So when it comes to costs of pre-made WordPress plugins vs custom-made ones, the rule of thumb is:
90% of functionality is done by a pre-made plugin and will cost 10% of the total; the last 10% of the functionality is done by custom development and will cost 90% of the total.
So if you’re on a tight budget, and can make due without that last 10% of functionality which costs 90% of your total expenditure, stick to using pre-made WordPress plugins. If not, the cost goes up unnecessarily, and significantly.
Another main feature of WordPress is it’s mobility: the ease with which you can change your website’s theme if you want a fresh look. But this mobility is endangered when themes add functionality, instead of just style.
For example, let’s say 5 years ago you found a great premium theme that adds a page-builder, which makes creating and editing pages easier than using WordPress’ built-in editor. You were happy with it for a few years, then mobile-first themes started becoming popular, and you realized your theme isn’t that mobile friendly, so you want to switch themes. When you switch themes, suddenly all your pages become a mess of indicipherable code, because they need your old theme’s page-builder to be displayed correctly. So, in order to fix your site, you switch back to your old theme.
This is called “theme lock-in“: where you’re unable to change themes without totally breaking your website. If a theme offers functionality (eg add a drag-and-drop page-builder) it sounds simpler than finding a plugin to do it, but it’s a bit of a trap.
It’s best for:
- WordPress plugins to add functionality (control what your site does)
- themes to add style (control how your site looks)
If you instead use WordPress plugins for adding functionality, you’re free to switch themes at any time.
Question to Consider: what features do themes sometimes add that create theme-lock-in. Are they ever justified?
There are lots of places you can get WordPress plugins. Paid ones are not necessarily going to be better than free ones (despite the fact paid ones are often called “premium WordPress plugins”). The one thing money will get you is better support, and ideally, with WordPress plugins, that’s what you should be willing to pay for. If you expect high quality support for free, you may be dissapointed.
A quick review, where can you get plugins from and how are they different?
First off, it’s often possible to buy a premium plugin from a “plugin reseller”, that is someone who isn’t the plugin’s author: they’ve just bought it and are reselling it for a major discount. It’s cheap. Sometimes you’ll even find the plugin for free. But that reseller also won’t provide you with support, help fix any bugs or make improvements you suggest. Additionally, they may add malware to it. In summary, they:
- are cheap or free
- aren’t reviewed by anyone, and may have malware added
- provide no support
Stay away from shady plugin reseller websites!
The best known source for WordPress plugins is the wordpress.org plugin repository. This is also what you see when you search for plugins within your WordPress website’s “Add New Plugin” page. These plugins:
- are free to download
- are reviewed by the WordPress Plugin Review Team
- have free support
Support is free, but it’s also voluntary. Plugins are usually put here in order to create more awareness about the authors, or to serve as demos for “premium” versions you can purchase elsewhere.
These are sites likes codecanyon.net. These plugins:
- require payment to download
- undergo a code review, but its criteria is harder to find
- usually have paid support and updates for 6 months, which can be renewed
Given that you’ve paid for support for these plugins, the plugin authors are more incentivized to be responsive. However, because you need to pay to download these plugins, other developers can’t easily access them to review the code and check for compatibility bugs. The result being these often have more bugs than you would expect.
Many plugin authors have their own websites, where you can pay to download their plugins. A noteable example of this is Gravity Forms. These plugins:
- require payment to download
- don’t necessarily have a code review
- usually have paid support and updates for a year, which can be renewed
These plugins generally have a better reputation than those found on premium plugin repositories. A possible reason is simply that the plugin author’s need to have put more effort into making their own website than those who rely on the premium plugin repository’s site. However, they still suffer from the same problem as other premium WordPress plugins: it’s hard for other developers to review them and check for compatibility bugs.
- are free
- have no formal code review, but the purpose of code-sharing sites is to facilitate peer review and feedback
- have free support, but it’s geared towards developers
These websites are excellent for finding free, useful plugins, and they specialize in allowing other developers to review, check for compatibility bugs, and contribute to improve them. The only downside is the support is usually reserved for other developers who will be contributing to the WordPress plugins. Everyone else should not expect free support.
So there are lots of free and paid options for downloading WordPress plugins. Free plugins also offer free support, but it will be limited because it’s offered by volunteers. Paid plugins usually have better, more incentivized support, but their code is kept hidden away which leads to more bugs. So they both have issues- is there a better solution?
Ideally, you should be able to download plugins for free, and only need to pay when you need support. This way the plugin gets used lots and other developers can easily review it and improve it, so there should be fewer bugs; but users who need premium support have that available to them, which helps the developers earn a living too. This is our approach at Event Espresso:
- our main plugin and most of its add-ons are available for free from GitHub, but support there is limited only to developers; this way other developers can try it, review it, and contribute easily
- we offer paid support for our main WordPress plugins and all its add-ons from our website, for regular users who need timely support
Also, don’t begrudge paying for support and maintenance of a plugin. It’s still cheaper to pay $80 a year for a plugin than hiring most developers to maintain a custom one (which could likely be about 10 hours at $50/hour, so $500). Paid support for a plugin gets you:
- Help using the plugin
- New features
- Updates so the code continues to work as WordPress and other software continually changes
- Bug fixes
If your business depends on your website, and your website depends on a plugin, make sure you’re not relying on the plugin authors goodwill to maintain and support it.
If you download a premium plugin from someone other than its author, it’s legal to use it and share it (there’s a lot more to be said on that). But realize that you will not be getting any support from the plugin’s author.
Question to Consider: if you could download a plugin for free, would you still pay for support? How would you decide?
Another differentiating feature of WordPress is its helpful community. If you don’t get help and involved in that community, even when choosing and using WordPress plugins, you’re going to miss lots of time-and-money-saving opportunities.
So if you’re wondering which WordPress plugins will best meet your needs, it’s ok to ask around for tips. The WordPress Support Forums are a great, free resource. Ask a question, and a few people will chime in with some advice. Although respondents aren’t making any money directly, by helping they’re getting experience, exposure to potential clients, and an improved reputation.
Going to a WordPress Meetup is also a great place to get answers to your questions. Although the help you get there will be limited to probably a monthly meeting, the whole point of those is to discuss WordPress and related stuff, so discussing what you’re having trouble with is a perfect fit. I wrote a whole other post about what you get from a meetup.
Lastly, it’s not a bad idea to get free advice from premium WordPress plugin and theme authors. Of course they’re biased towards their products, but they’ll also realize when their product isn’t a good match. At Event Espresso, when potential clients are inquiring about how well our plugins will meet their needs, if we see we’re not a good match, we’ll tell them so. I think most developers will do the same. We’d rather you have a positive experience with us, and possibly come back later, than struggle forcing our plugin to do something for which it’s ill-suited.
I’ve found that when I work in isolation, being unaware of what others are doing around me, I make weird decisions (like thinking it’s ok to hack WordPress plugins or core files and other faux-pas). Getting community feedback is a sanity check, and is what WordPress veterans recommend.
When you must hire a developer to help customize your website or write custom WordPress plugins, there are thousands of WordPress developers available for hire. Choosing ones with an open source track record will lead to better results.
An “open source track record” includes:
- Contributing code, documentation, translations, etc to WordPress core
- Maintaining a WordPress plugin or theme, preferably one on wordpress.org
- Teaching at WordCamps and Meetups (yes, that’s a plug for getting presenters at my local meetup!)
- Helping others use WordPress, like in the WordPress support forums
Doing those things show the developer:
- Is familiar with WordPress code
- Their code or knowledge has been reviewed by peers and approved
- Plays nicely with others (open source takes a lot of collaboration and communication skills)
- Is aware of the WordPress ecosystem (and how to have their code play nicely in it)
- Is probably not just motivated by money (as their contributions were probably free)
Who are the developers who know WordPress best? Probably the ones who built it. They’re the ones who will probably know the easiest way to customize WordPress in ways that won’t conflict with other plugins or themes. And they’ll probably even know about undocumented, unpublished plans, that those who are only observers of WordPress’ development don’t.
You can ask a potential developer if they’ve contributed code to WordPress core or what WordPress plugins or themes they’ve authored.
I think seeing open source contributions is possibly more valuable than seeing specific sites in a developer’s portfolio. The main reason is that other developers review open source and it gets held to a higher standard, whereas that’s not possible with code that’s kept secret. That type of code can hide all sorts of nightmarish problems that users don’t care about… until it causes bugs, or a new developer tries to modify it.
So, if I were looking for developer to help with a particular customization, I would:
- Look for a WordPress plugin that did 90% of what I needed, then I’d ask if its author could do the work. Nobody else in the world knows that plugin better. If they’re not available, they’ll probably have a good recommendation
- If I were looking for just any WordPress developer, I’d look for one who has contributed to WordPress core. Each version of WordPress mentions who contributed to it at the bottom of the release notes. I’d peruse that list for one that sounds good. Alternatively, I’d peruse WordPress.tv presenters
- Next, I’d look for a developer who maintains a plugin or theme on wordpress.org (this is part of why developers give away WordPress plugins and themes there- it boosts their reputation which can help them get future jobs)
- Next, I’d at least look for someone who has their own website. It always seems strange hiring someone to help you with your website when they don’t appear to have their own.
- Next, I’d look on codeable.io, it specializes in WordPress developers. Some of its developers are WordPress core contributors (it’s a category).
If you prefer to keep it local, you can google “your area + WordPress”. You may find other sites from your area made by a particular developer. There may be someone who has presented at a local meetup or a nearby WordCamp. But regardless of location, prefer to work with someone who has contributed to WordPress in some way. If someone claims to be a WordPress professional, but hasn’t contributed to WordPress in any way, that claim is harder to verify.
And if you’re a WordPres developer who has yet to take the plunge into contributing to open source, like we all were at some point, I have a post with some tips for you, too.
- Where possible, use WordPress plugins instead of doing custom development, they’re much cheaper.
- Don’t rely on themes to do the job of WordPress plugins because that locks you into always using the same theme.
- If your business relies on certain WordPress plugins, pay for support and maintenance, even if you could download them for free elsewhere.
- Make use of the WordPress community, and all the free help available there.
- And lastly, if you absolutely must hire a developer, try to find one who has contributed to WordPress.
Suggested follow-up activities:
- Play around with the customizer to change background color (use a temporary site from poopy.life, not your live site!)
- Find a good, style-only theme
- Find a WordPress plugin that will add a Facebook like button
- Sign up forWordPress support forum account, then answer, or ask, a question
- Find a WordPress developer specializing in membership sites, preferably one who has contributed to a membership plugin or WordPress core
Let me know how it goes, and what you think, in the comments!