There are currently over 58,000 listings in the WordPress Plugin Repository. Beyond that, there are likely thousands of free and commercial offerings available elsewhere on the web. Together, they cover a staggering number of functionalities and use cases.
But not all plugins are created equally. Only a relative few are labeled as “great” by their users. And that title doesn’t necessarily last a lifetime. One false move by a developer and those 5-star reviews can quickly turn into something significantly lower.
That got me thinking about the ingredients behind a great WordPress plugin. How do you quantify something so subjective?
Each person will judge a plugin based on their own needs and experiences. However, I do think that there are some guiding principles that go into building something great. An approach that, if closely followed, can bring lots of love from the WordPress community – whether a plugin has 10 users or 10 million.
The following is not an exhaustive list of attributes, but hopefully enough to get the ball rolling!
Perhaps the two most important questions a plugin developer should ask themselves are:
The answers should act as a sort of mission statement. A plugin needs to have a defined purpose and solve a specific issue.
The purpose can be defined in any number of ways. Perhaps it adds completely new functionality or compliments an existing plugin – such as a WooCommerce extension. It can also range in scope from niche to all-encompassing.
As a plugin’s user base grows, it’s also important to adhere to this mission. While it may evolve, it shouldn’t radically change for its own sake.
For example, a plugin that focuses on SEO functionality shouldn’t start adding unrelated features – like a shopping cart – to the mix. That’s more likely to frustrate users and lead to abandonment.
The great plugins tend to stick to their core principles and organically expand from there.
There has been no shortage of complaints with regard to plugin authors who implemented some dubious policies. By doing so, it’s often at the expense of users. We’ve seen several situations where questionable decisions have been made.
Some insist on littering the WordPress dashboard with all sorts of upsells and nagging messages. In other cases, developers have turned on automatic updates without bothering to tell users. And that’s only scratching the surface.
Even if well-intentioned, these tactics only serve to cause friction. Users generally don’t appreciate an invasion of their space nor having crucial functionality turned on without their consent.
A great plugin will put users first and take care to implement features respectfully. Mind you, this doesn’t mean a lack of upsells. It’s just that users can dismiss them, and they don’t pop up every time you log in.
And, most importantly, users will be informed of any functionality changes and allowed to choose what’s best for them. Everything should be out in the open.
Building plugins the “WordPress way” requires a focus on coding standards and accessibility. This helps to ensure that the underlying code is efficient, secure, and stable. In addition, the plugin’s UI can be utilized by everyone.
This is easy to say but difficult to put into practice. WordPress is an open-source platform. Therefore, any developer who wants to write a plugin can do so. That means people of all different skill levels and specialties are putting things out there for users to download.
Not everyone is going to adhere to best practices in these areas. Plus, the bigger and more ambitious the plugin, the harder it can be to manage. A little bit of sloppy code can make for a big mess in no time.
To achieve greatness, measures have to be put in place to ensure adherence to standards and accessibility. Consistency in this area is crucial. Somehow, the best plugins seem to pull it off.
It’s hard enough to develop a great WordPress plugin, let alone maintain one. While it may be a big responsibility, maintenance is a key factor for long-lasting success.
Even with the greatest of care, bugs will always be a part of the equation. But an effort should be made to fix them regularly.
What about implementing new features? They’re nice but not always necessary. A plugin that does the same thing in the same way over a long period can certainly be great – even without adding a bunch of bells and whistles.
Finally, when things do go wrong, some level of support should be offered. User expectations should vary based on the type and cost of the plugin. Thus, a free option shouldn’t have as high of a bar as a commercial product.
Yes, the term “great” is a subjective one. And, when it comes to WordPress plugins, it’s also not immediately apparent.
That’s because it takes some time to see how a plugin will work for you. Does it serve your needs? Is it well-maintained? Do you run into problems after every update? How good is the support?
It’s not until you’ve experienced these different aspects that you’ll get the full picture. If you’re fortunate, you may well have found yourself a great plugin. But don’t worry if that’s not the case. There is a whole world of options out there to explore.