10 Ways to Determine the Quality of a Free WordPress Plugin

10 Ways to Determine the Quality of a Free WordPress Plugin

Whether you’re a developer who loves to code or you’re an implementer looking to design high-quality sites without breaking too much of a sweat, at some point you’ll want to turn to WordPress plugins for help.

Sometimes, it’s not worth it to try and figure out the manual way of adding popup messages to your site or animating your new landing page. With so many awesome plugins out there, why spend your time coding that functionality from scratch when someone else has already done it for you?

Granted, there’s always the cost issue to worry about. Well, not all high-quality and useful plugins cost money to use. In fact, many of the top-rated and most commonly used plugins are free (think of ones like Jetpack, Akismet, and W3 Total Cache.

The only problem with saying that free WordPress plugins are just as good as premium plugins is… well, that’s not always the case.

So, how do you know when a free plugin can be trusted? Are free plugins better than freemium? And which free plugins do you actually need to use without going overboard on your WordPress site? I’ll cover all of these points as we review what to look out for when choosing free WordPress plugins.

A Guide to Choosing Free WordPress Plugins

In this guide, we’re taking a look at free WordPress plugins. This means that both free plugins and freemium plugins are fair game.

Now, a “free” plugin means exactly what you think it would mean: the plugin does not cost any money to use. Period. “Freemium” plugins, on the other hand, are still technically free to use; however, they also come with a paid version that you can upgrade to. In other words, freemium plugins are the option between free and paid.

Why do I bother mentioning this if free and freemium are basically one in the same for the purposes of this argument? Well, there are some who may wonder if freemium plugins are better than free ones.

In all honesty, that’s not necessarily the case. There are some really awesome and totally free plugins out there. But a freemium plugin usually means there’s more support, documentation, and updates available since there’s a developer maintaining a paid version of it. They’re also a great option if you’re hoping to scale your website as traffic grows, giving you more room to grow with your plugin.

Having established the two types of free plugins available for WordPress, let’s now get into what the pros and cons are in using free plugins on your website.

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Free WordPress Plugins

While I’d love to say that the pros outweigh the cons, this is sort of like a buyer beware situation. Typically, when someone gives you something for free, there’s a caveat. That’s not to say that you should avoid free plugins. I’d argue the opposite. It really just means that you need to be extra careful when choosing them.

Here is a quick rundown of the good and the bad:

The Pros

  • There’s no charge to use them.
  • They’re easy to find as they’re all located in the WordPress Plugin Directory. That is, unless a developer is feeling generous and giving their plugin away for free on their site.
  • Unless you’re trying to do something highly specific to your industry or your client’s business needs, you can almost always find a free plugin to help.
  • They’re usually very easy to activate and set up.
  • They’re great for novice WordPress users or developers as they take much of the thought work out of adding that functionality or element to your site.

The Cons

  • Free plugins aren’t always reliable. They may claim to do something, but, once downloaded, you find that the description was misleading.
  • There may be limited functionality. This is especially the case with freemium plugins as developers need an incentive to get you to make the jump to the paid version.
  • With a lot of free plugins, there isn’t always a lot you can do in the way of customization. This means that if there’s a heavy design element to what you’re using the plugin for, you may just have to stick with whatever the developer included for options (if any). In other words, making it align with your brand’s design and style won’t always be possible.
  • If the plugin is helping you introduce a design element to your site (like a popup, widget, call-to-action, and so on), it might not be fully responsive.
  • You might experience a slowdown on your site if they’re not properly coded and lightweight.
    Some plugins conflict with other plugins. While there are some developers who will notify you of this, and WordPress may even send you a note after activation, that’s not always the case.
  • There isn’t much support aside from what you can find in the WordPress.org forum for the plugin.
  • Aside from whatever screenshots the developer provides of the plugin, you usually can’t demo it before downloading like you can with a premium plugin.
  • Some present security threats, especially if they’re not coded well or not maintained by the developer.

Again, while I have outlined all the potential cons associated with using free WordPress plugins, I want to stress that not every free plugin is poorly made or will compromise your site’s safety or credibility. It’s like with everything else in WordPress really. You simply need to know how to do your research to determine where the good eggs are.

Determining the Quality of a Free WordPress Plugin

If you’re still with me and you want to know the secret to determining the quality of a free WordPress plugin… It’s not really a secret. Most of the information you’d need to determine the quality of a plugin can be found in one place. Let me show you:

Go to the Plugins directory in WordPress. Then pull up the Akismet plugin.

#1. Last Updated

Last Updated

This is one of the more helpful bits of data that WordPress includes in their plugin repository as it lets you know how diligent a developer is about keeping their plugin up to date. Realistically, this number should be no more than a few months old, though you could probably give them some leeway up to a year if the plugin isn’t complex in nature and doesn’t need much work.

#2. Tested Up To

Tested up to

The number here refers to the version of WordPress that the plugin has been tested against. So, this is another reason why the Last Updated information is important. Basically, you want to know that the developer is keeping the plugin updated as they spot issues within it as well as keeping it in sync with any patches or updates released to the WordPress core.

#3. Active Installs

Active Installs

While there will be some new plugins that are just as reliable as older ones, it’s always good to have social proof that the plugin does indeed work before using it (unless you know the developer or have heard good things otherwise about the plugin). My general rule here is that there should be a couple thousand installs with at least 100 reviews under its belt before downloading.

#4. Ratings

Ratings

If you scroll down just a tad bit on the plugin page, you’ll run into the Ratings widget. You can see the average star rating as well as the number of users who voted for each score. Ideally, you should pass on anything that has less than a 4.5 average star rating. Also, take into account how many people have rated it. If you’re looking at less than 100 users, it might be hard to tell what people honestly thought about it.

#5. Reviews

Reviews

Click on the “See all” link in the Ratings widget and you’ll be able to open different user reviews of the plugin. (You can also click on the Reviews tab at the top of the plugin page.) The first page will show you a running list of the star ratings and the name of the review, but if you click on any one of them, you can see the full note as well. This is good for checking on issues with reliability, security breaches, and anything else that may worry you about using the plugin.

#6. Developer

Developer Profile

At the bottom of each plugin page, you can find a link to the developer’s profile on WordPress. Click through to see what you can find out about them in terms of their experience, how to contact them, their involvement in the WordPress community, and their activity within WordPress.org. You can also get a list of their other plugins which you can use to assess what their overall track record is in creating high-quality and reliable plugins.

#7. Responsive

Responsive Check

Now, if you’re looking to use a plugin that will enable you to add a design element to your site, you should check to see if it is responsive before using. However, without a way to actually test it out, all you can really do is check what the reviews say (see above) and trust that if the developer says it’s responsive, then it is.

#8. Support

Support

While there’s nothing that says a developer needs to support their WordPress plugin, it’s really something we’ve all come to expect at this point. So, whether users have experienced serious issues with a plugin breaking their site or something more harmless like they don’t know how to change one of the settings, the WordPress.org support forum is a good place to find out what’s going on with the plugin as well as how good of a job the developer does in answering questions and resolving issues.

#9. Documentation

Documentation

Although there isn’t a specifically designated spot on a plugin’s page called “Documentation”, you can still find more details about the plugin before committing to a download. Look for screenshots under the Details tab, setup instructions under Installation, as well as a changelog of maintenance and other updates under Development. If these are sparse, the plugin either isn’t comprehensive enough to do what is needed or the developer is hiding something.

#10. Google

Akismet

The WordPress community is generally very good about putting all the information about plugins on the wordpress.org site. Every now and again, though you may find something online that you can’t find there. That’s why, just to be on the safe side (especially if you’re taking a risk and trying a brand new plugin), it’s always good just to double check with Google. A quick scan of the first page of search results is all you need.

Wrapping Up

Free WordPress plugins aren’t all that scary, right? And now that you know where to look to check on the overall quality of them, you shouldn’t have any issues using them on your website in the future.

If this article piqued your interest and you’re looking to take the plunge, be sure to check out Jenni McKinnon’s roundup from last year that does a great job of covering the top 25 WordPress plugins you need for your site and the 25 Essential (and Free!) Plugins for Every WordPress Freelancer and Business. Both posts include plugins for all your needs—SEO, speed optimization, contact forms, e-commerce, and more!

Brenda Barron
Over to you: What is your favorite free WordPress plugin and one that you think every website would benefit from using?