How Many WordPress Plugins Is Too Many Plugins…?

How Many WordPress Plugins Is Too Many Plugins…?

The record for the most number of plugins installed on a WPMU DEV member’s WordPress site is 637. I kid you not. And the guy’s site seemed to work just fine, strangely enough.

Are you addicted to plugins? Do you enjoy the thrill of the hunt, finding the right plugin to solve a particular problem on your site, and then setting it up? With more than 40,000 free plugins to choose from in the WordPress Plugin Directory alone, it’s easy to feel like a kid in a candy store.

Or are you the complete opposite and enjoy paring your site right down to the absolute bare minimum of plugins needed?

The question is: Is it possible to install too many plugins? And if so, how many is too many? What kind of harm, if any, can an excessive plugin addiction cause to your website? How should you go about choosing the right types of plugins for your site?

In this post, I’m going to answer those pressing questions.

Plugins: A Necessary Evil?

WordPress works just fine on its own, but you need plugins if you want to add extra features and functionality. Without plugins, WordPress would be a limited platform in terms of what you can do with it. So choosing the right plugins can play a large role in its success.

Fortunately, thanks to an ever-growing army of developers, there are plenty of free and commercial plugins to choose from. By creating these plugins, developers have been able to give WordPress users more control over how their websites perform and what they can do – all without them ever having to understand a single line of code.

The WordPress Plugin Directory hosts more than 40,000 plugins.
The WordPress Plugin Directory hosts more than 40,000 plugins.

It has become as simple as searching for the most popular plugins and then installing and activating them on your website. The result: an instant functionality upgrade on your website, without needing the technical knowledge of an experienced developer.

However, as is true with most good things in life, plugins do not come without their own set of problems.

Anybody who has looked after a WordPress website for a significant amount of time will inevitably experience plugin issues that cause their site to malfunction in some way, i.e. pages load slowly, menu items disappear or images don’t load.

But to what extent are these issues the fault of the plugins you’ve installed? And are these problems down to the sheer number of plugins you’ve installed, or is it something else?

How Plugins Work

Plugins either affect the backend of your site of the front-end. This means they can either provide a function that the admin of a site can take advantage of (such as analytics, backups, or SEO optimization) of on the backend or they can add a feature to the front-end of your site for the benefit of visitors (such as sliders, widgets, or font customization).

Plugins impact site performance in two distinct ways: additional HTTP requests and additional database queries.

Getting Bogged Down in HTTP Requests…

Some plugins, mostly front-end ones, need custom styling or scripts to work properly and may add extra JavaScript or CSS files to your website. These file elements are fundamental to changing the visual appearance of your website, which is essentially what front-end plugins do. But every file you add to your site, including images, requires an HTTP request. So this means extra HTTP requests must be sent out as your plugins provide new features on your site.

HTTP works as a request-response protocol between a client and server. When a visitor reaches your website and accesses a specific web page, the computer sends out an HTTP request for the files related to that web page to the server. The server then retrieves that file and sends it back to the visitor in the form of a web page.

When the requested information is returned via the web server, it is returned in the formatted HTML form, which is a put together web page that visitors can read and understand. The problem with this process is that it can potentially take a long time to retrieve the reader’s request from the main database, thus slowing down the speed of your website.

Unless you have a very large website or lightning fast speed is a top priority for you, there is usually no real cause for concern when it comes to any additional HTTP requests that your plugins add. Though you have the option to disable these additional scripts and CSS files or even hire a professional to clean up your site, the result may save only milliseconds as far as page speed is concerned.

…And Don’t Forget Extra Database Queries

Also, some plugins may increase the number of database queries being sent out. All of your website’s information is stored in the main database and if you are using a plugin that stores database information, such as a page/post view tracker, additional database queries will be sent out to retrieve and store that information.

These queries will increase the load of your database server and ultimately put a strain on the performance of your website in the process. Though most well-coded plugins will have little impact on your database server load, it is important to decide how critical any plugins are to your website if they are making many database calls, especially if you do not have good server resources. Investing in a good hosting service, however, can eliminate most issues that can arise.

The Debate: Will Too Many Plugins Break My Site?

The question of whether having too many plugins installed and activated on your site contributes to making your site unstable and potentially unusable is not a new one. For every anecdote explaining that excessive plugin use is dangerous, there will be an equally convincing one telling you that this is not the case.

The best answer is: yes and no.

While most sources aren’t willing to go out on a limb and say how many plugins they consider to be too many, Dan Norris, co-founder of WordPress website support service WP Curve, recommends 20 to be a good number. However, while pointing out that less is best, he’s also keen to explain there are no hard and fast rules.

Too Many Plugins: Potential Problems

Depending on which plugins you have installed, how many are active, how they are coded, and what their purpose is, a number of potential issues can arise.

Here are some problems you could encounter from poor plugin choices:

Problem #1: Website Crash

Not even the most respected developers can avoid having some issues with their WordPress plugins. Take for instance the story of how WP Super Cache and W3 Total Cache, two of the most popular and successful caching plugins for WordPress, had what was deemed as “a very serious vulnerability – remote code execution (RCE)”. Furthermore, don’t forget the problems many website owners experienced when using a free WordPress plugin that had over 20 million downloads.

The fact is, this is the nature of the WordPress community and its desire to remain an open source project. People from all around the world are free to create, use, change, and share (in modified or unmodified form) all software related to WordPress. That means that every now and then, a poorly coded “something”, even a possible plugin or two, is going to sneak into the wild. That is the price we pay for such a community-based project.

Unfortunately, because of instances such as the ones mentioned above, and the seemingly endless supply of free plugins, not to mention all of the commercial options available, people tend to worry about the performance, security, and reliability of their website when it comes to plugin use.

Problem #2: Site Performance and Page Speed

When it comes to performance, website owners are mainly concerned about page loading speed. Realistically, the more plugins you have installed on your website, the slower it will potentially run. Remember, for every plugin you use, a server request must be sent when each of your readers loads a portion of your website. This adds more code to the browser each time it loads and can affect the page loading speed.

Another performance concern is the compatibility amongst installed plugins. It is not uncommon for two or more plugins to not get along well with each other while interacting on the same website. This can cause problems ranging from page speed slowdowns to an all-out website failure.

Problem #3: Website Security Breaches

The security of your WordPress website should always be a major concern. No one wants to have all of their hard work destroyed by a hacker. Whenever this happens, hard-earned reputations can be lost overnight and businesses can be severely impacted, not to mention the effort and time involved in recovering from such an attack.

The problem is that there will be some element of risk with whatever software you decide to install and WordPress and its ecosystem aren’t without their own history of security exploits and vulnerabilities.

Problem #4: Reliability Issues

Another chief concern of WordPress users and their desire for multiple plugins is their reliability. Potential issues include poor code quality, products being discontinued, slow update release schedules, poor levels of support, and ease of use.

These issues can all combine to make what seemed like a great plugin at the time, devolve something unreliable that has the potential to do more harm than good.

How to Avoid Problems with Plugins

It may seem like there are endless problems associated with installing too many plugins on your site. However, with a little bit of careful planning, and by following the advice from experts who look after websites like yours for a living, these issues can be easily avoided and resolved.

So here are some tips to help you avoid and overcome the problems that are associated with excessive or ill-informed plugin use.

Fix #1: Check for Functionality Duplication

The first thing to do when thinking about installing a new plugin on your website is to double-check your existing plugins. Are the features you need already included in one of your existing plugins?

Being aware of the full feature set of your existing plugins, before installing a seemingly duplicate plugin with the same functionality can easily prevent you from installing duplicate plugins.

Fix #2: Dealing with Site Slowdown

Some say that too many active plugins can slow your site down to a virtual crawl. This is why installing a caching plugin such as W3 Total Cache or WP Super Cache is often recommended.

When your page speed slows down, possibly due to excessive plugin installations, what happens when you throw another plugin into the mix? Well, it turns out that caching plugins turn the files that are requested from servers and delivered to users into static stored files closer than your server, reducing the processing load on your server. This can significantly improve performance, making your site speed even faster.

Fix #3: Test Plugin Performance on Your Site

Another quick and easy solution is to test your page loading times before and after installing a plugin you are interested in. A good tool to use is Google PageSpeed Insights. Just enter your URL into the PageSpeed site and you’ll get a list of suggestions covering how you can improve your site speed. Gauging a before and after speed will give you insight into how a plugin will affect your website’s overall performance.

Another great option for testing the performance of plugins you are either interested in installing or already use on your site is WP Speedster. Using an automated system to rank both plugins and themes based on their performance on WordPress websites, this handy resource will give you lots of information regarding functionality and performance. It really is a must see, and the best part is it’s free to use.

To illustrate how plugins can affect the performance of a website, Oliver Dale, founder of WP Lift Support says, “I’m currently optimizing a site for a client running over 50 different plugins, loading 33 CSS files plus inline styles from the theme options and 42 separate JavaScript files! As you can imagine this client is proving to be quite the challenge.”

As for compatibility issues amongst the plugins installed on your website, it’s unrealistic to expect every combination to work well together. Conflicts will occur and not always because of faulty plugins. With all the available plugins out there, it is expected that some will conflict with the functionality of another at some point.

To minimize this problem, try using P3 (Plugin Performance Profiler). This plugin creates a profile of the performance of your plugins and measures their impact on the loading times of your website. It can also help you narrow down which plugins are causing any issues on your website.

Fix #4: Security, Security, Security

As previously mentioned, security issues are something to be aware of whenever you use any type of software regardless of whether it’s on your WordPress website or not. While the WordPress core software is extremely secure, all it takes is one bad plugin to open your website up to hackers for exploitation. Just because a plugin is functioning correctly, it doesn’t mean your site hasn’t been exposed.

This is why backing up your WordPress website is so critical.

It’s also vital that you keep your chosen plugins up-to-date. Using the most recently released versions will reduce script conflicts (which will affect your website’s performance) and decrease the chances of your website becoming vulnerable to spammers and hackers.

In addition to updating to the latest versions, consider only using plugins that are compatible with your version of WordPress. Note, however, that some plugins (such as Digg Digg) remain very popular, with new users on a regular basis, despite not having been updated in two years. This is one reason why it’s essential to conduct thorough research on any plugin you want to install on your site before making a final decision.

Fix #5: Reliability Solutions

Good code is crucial to the reliability of any WordPress theme or plugin, according to Andy Stratton, founder of WordPress maintenance and support service WP Maintainer.

“Respecting the WordPress coding standards, including valid usage of actions and filters,” is what people should look for in a good quality plugin – Andy Stratton, WP Maintainer.

He adds that anyone who attempts to change those standards is making a poor choice when it comes to plugin development and it is better to use plugins developed with “WordPress UI and design patterns.”

During his day job overseeing the support of hundreds or WordPress websites, Ryan Sullivan from WP Site Care recommends that it’s even worth “asking a proven WordPress developer their thoughts on a plugin before adding it to your site.” If your site is a valuable asset then it’s worth going that extra mile to do all you can to ensure you’re not putting it at risk.

“Every new plugin is a block of code that carries with it the potential of adding bloat to your website. But if that block of code is well-written, you have nothing to worry about. Seek out plugins that are created by well-known plugin authors.” – Ryan Sullivan, WP Site Care.

Ultimately, although code quality is monitored within the WordPress ecosystem, it cannot possibly be applied everywhere, especially when it comes to plugins outside of the WordPress Plugin Directory.

Discontinued plugins have the potential to be an issue at one point or another. However, if you are using a high quality, popular plugin, chances are it won’t be discontinued any time soon, nor will it lack updates.

When evaluating a potential free or commercial plugin for your site, you should check out the level of support currently being offered for it. Even with free plugins that don’t offer guaranteed support agreements, user feedback has many times help the developer work out any issues that arise so that the best possible version of the plugin is available.

Lastly, ease of use is an important feature when it comes to your plugin choices. While you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, oftentimes a quality interface that is easy to interact with is a sign of a well-developed plugin.

Choose Your Plugins Wisely

It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of installing a shiny new plugin. Here is a list of tips you should consider when trying to decide whether to install and activate a new plugin. Following these guidelines will help you determine whether the plugin in question is a good fit for your website:

  • Remember, it’s usually NOT too many plugins that cause problems on your website, but instead poorly coded ones.
  • Check out who the developer of the plugin is – Andy from WP Maintainer recommends seeking out plugins developed by respected authors in the WordPress community to avoid problems.
  • Star ratings, user reviews, and the support forums are all good places to get an insight into how the plugin is working for others – Ryan from WP Site Care suggests looking for plugins with an abundance of five-star reviews.
  • Consider the experience of your visitors when interacting with your site – is it free of clutter, functioning correctly and quickly, and appealing to the eye? Will the new plugin help or hinder the user experience.
  • Keep an eye on which plugins you are using or no longer using on your site – Dan from WP Curve recommends removing any plugins from your site that you don’t need, including any inactive items.
  • Check the documentation – look for a thorough description, tutorials, and screenshots of the plugin in use.
  • Look at the updated version date stamp and the number of downloads or active installations – a credible and well-established plugin will be regularly updated and have high download statistics.

By following this checklist, you should be able to reduce the risk of negatively affecting your site through your plugin choices.

It All Comes Down to Making Informed Plugin Choices

In the end, adding new features and functionality to your website is bound to have some sort of effect over time on the performance, usability, security, and reliability of your site. While most users may not run into any problems, issues do arise from time to time. It’s important to remember that your website is only as efficient and secure as the code that makes it up, and this includes plugin code.

As Andy suggests, use as many plugins as you feel necessary: “if they all serve a strong purpose and you’re using 80%+ of the functionality, I’d say go for it.” Adding to that, “you can have the wrong plugins running (or plugins that are built wrong), or the wrong combination of plugins running” on your website and wreak all kinds of havoc, so be aware of that. Further, “plugins that are overkill for their task are just unnecessary.” It’s hard to disagree with that sentiment.

So, how many plugins is too many? It’s more about quality than quantity. Provided you do your due diligence and keep a close eye on your site, especially when updating plugins, the WordPress core, and even themes, you shouldn’t run into any problems you can’t resolve quickly in one way or another – whether that’s removing the plugin, contacting a WordPress support service, or restoring a backup. When it comes to the maximum number of plugins you can install on a WordPress website, all that really matters is that your site is able to attract and retain visitors while still actually working.

How many plugins do you have installed and activated on your site? Can you beat 637? Do you agree that it comes down to plugin quality? Let us know in the comments below.