WordPress Plugins: When to Buy, When to Download Free

WordPress Plugins: When to Buy, When to Download Free

When I was just starting out with WordPress I remember working on a client site which needed a slider. Rather than use the javascript slider I’d previously been using on static sites I decided to look for a plugin. But being new to WordPress I didn’t really know what I was looking for, so I spent the best part of half a day trawling the WordPress Plugin Repository and googling, all the time testing out ones that looked like they might do the job.

Bear in mind that this was nearly five years ago and WordPress was nothing like it is now: the plugin repository had a fraction of the plugins it now has and there weren’t as many high quality developers coding free or premium plugins. In the end I chose a $20 plugin, which I still had to hack a bit to get it to do exactly what I wanted. But my pleasure at finding a solution was marred when a friend and colleague did that teeth-sucking thing when I told him: he was shocked that I’d forked out cash for a WordPress plugin when there were so many free ones available.

Things have changed since then. The quality and range of free plugins increases continuously, while at the same time there are some fantastic premium plugins available (many of them here at WPMU DEV), which can save a developer many hours of work and be extremely cost effective in the long run.

So if you haven’t spent years downloading, buying, developing and testing WordPress plugins, how do you know when you should get one for free and when you should hand over your hard earned dough?

In this guide I’ll explain the difference between free and premium plugins, as well as the variations in between, and give you some tips on making that decision. I’ll also warn you about the plugins you should avoid, be those free or at a price.

I’m going to look at two main areas:

  • Sources of free and premium plugins, what they offer and how to use them.
  • Deciding whether to buy or download free, based on specific criteria.

Sources of Free and Premium Plugins

But first, let’s see exactly what’s meant by free and premium plugins, and the options for buying them.

Free Plugins

A free plugin may be entirely free or it may be a (permanently) free version of a premium plugin. This doesn’t include a free trial that you’ll need to pay for if you want to keep it.

In most professional spheres, there is a mistrust of anything that you can get for free. After all, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, right? Well, with WordPress there is. Not only a free lunch, but in some cases a free six course banquet.

The Good

The WordPress plugin repository gives access to thousands of free plugins
The WordPress plugin repository gives access to thousands of free plugins

The WordPress Plugin Repository is far and away the best place to get free plugins. If you find a free plugin elsewhere, I would always recommend checking if it’s in the plugin repo. Installing it will be easier and you’ll know that the version you’re downloading has been tested and should be stable and bug-free.

Plugins you’ll find here range from small plugins uploaded by developers doing this in their spare time to complex plugins that can completely transform your site’s functionality or performance. Some plugins with premium features but not the premium price tag are:

This is just a small selection of the many free plugins which will give you comparable features to any premium plugin available and have been downloaded millions of times. You may be wondering how the developers manage to make a living if they’re making quality code available for free. The answer to this will vary between developers, but in some cases (e.g. WooCommerce), there are additional premium add-ons, which you can buy, while in others (e.g. JetPack) the developer makes money elsewhere, either via a service like wordpress.com, or through consultancy. Releasing free plugins is a great way to raise your profile and give something back to the WordPress community at the same time, which is why some of the best developers do it.

The Bad

However, not all in the plugin repository is a bed of roses. At this moment there are 34,623 plugins for download and in all they’ve been downloaded 787,677,233 times. A sizeable minority of those plugins haven’t been updated for over two years, or haven’t been confirmed as compatible with the latest versions of WordPress.

When a new version of WordPress is released, the more diligent plugin developers will test their plugin to ensure it’s compatible and if it’s not, they’ll fix it. They’ll quickly upload the new version or confirm that the current version is compatible. How quickly this happens will be more of an issue with larger WordPress releases. If a plugin is compatible with WordPress 4.0 for example, but not 4.01, it’s unlikely you need to worry. But if you’re running the latest version and you’ve found a plugin which is only compatible up to version 2.8, then there’s a decent chance it won’t work as it should or it may conflict with other plugins you’ve installed or with WordPress itself.

The Ugly

There are plenty of alternative sources of free WordPress plugins (just try a Google search), but I would advise extreme caution before using them.

A reputable developer knows that the plugin repository is the trusted source so will distribute their plugins there. This means you’re unlikely to find anything good elsewhere which isn’t in the official repository. In addition to this, there’s a chance the plugin could contain malicious code or spammy content such as backlinks. Most users looking for plugins don’t want to or can’t delve into the plugin’s code, and so won’t be able to spot any problems.

Some “freemium” vendors will make their free plugins available on their own site as well as in the plugin repository. Again, I would still advise downloading from the repository to be sure the code is stable.

Premium Plugins

The number of premium plugins available and the range of tasks they’ll help you accomplish continues to grow. At WPMU DEV alone we have around 150 plugins which you can buy individually or access as a subscriber. Between them, other vendors sell thousands more. One of the main decisions you’ll need to make when buying premium plugins is whether to buy or subscribe to them and sometimes which level of purchase to opt for, so let’s take a look at these options.

One-off Purchase

If you’re working on a quick project with a tight budget and don’t envisage using the plugin again, a one-off purchase may be the best option. This can be a lot cheaper than subscription, but does have some risks.

With many plugin vendors, a one-off purchase means you won’t have access to updates after a set time (normally one year), or that you won’t have access to support after a set time, or even at all. So if you want to install updates to the plugin – including security updates – in the future, you might be better off going for a license or subscription.

Having said that, there will be times when you need a plugin for a project with limited duration, or a site which won’t be in existence in a year. In these cases it makes sense to save some cash and go for the single plugin subscription.

On some rare occasions you may find a plugin that you only have to pay for once and still get access to updates and sometimes support for the lifetime of the plugin. Chances are the fee will be larger than for plugins with one year of updates and support included, but it may prove to be better value over the long run. Although be aware that if the deal seems too good to be true, that may be for a reason!

Single Plugin License

The next step up from one-off purchase of a single plugin is to buy a license for that plugin. This generally gives you access to updates and support for a year. Depending on the way the vendor’s purchasing system works, you may be automatically signed up for renewals each year or you may be prompted to renew when your year is close to expiring.

This gives you the flexibility of buying the plugin for your first year and then updating it if you need to; if the site you bought it for isn’t in use anymore, then you won’t need to renew.

Purchase Options

The Gravity Forms plugin has three purchase options
The Gravity Forms plugin has three purchase options

Some plugins give you a few purchase options to choose from. Gravity Forms, for example, has three levels of subscription, with the lowest being for one site with no add-ons/extensions included, and the highest for unlimited sites with access to all of their add-ons. Which options you choose will depend on how you’ll be using the plugin and whether you need extensions, but all vendors will let you upgrade if you need to, so it’s worth going for the lowest option you need right now and then upgrading later on.

Subscription to a Library or Club

The most comprehensive way to purchase plugins is to subscribe to a vendor’s club or library, giving you access to all of their plugins for an annual fee.

Again, if you choose not to renew after a year you’ll still have the plugins on your site, but you won’t have access to any updates or support. If you anticipate using more than two or three of a vendor’s plugins this can be the best value way to buy plugins.

Subscribing to WPMU DEV gives you access to hundreds of premium plugins and themes

WMPU DEV is a great example of this model: you can pay from as little as $19 for a one-off purchase of one plugin, or you can subscribe to the full library of themes and plugins for an annual fee.

Freemium Plugins

An increasing number of WordPress plugins are now “freemium,” which means there’s an element of free to them and an element of payment. There’s more than one model for freemium plugins:

Free Basic Version, Premium Upgrade

This is probably the most common type of freemium plugin. A large number of plugins in the WordPress plugin repository are free with big siblings that you can upgrade to for a price.

The Coming Soon plugin has a free and premium version
The Coming Soon plugin has a free and premium version

The Coming Soon plugin, for example, creates teaser pages and maintenance mode pages and is free from the plugin repository. If you want advanced features you’ll have to pay for the premium version, which you buy direct from the vendor. Many users will find that the free version meets their needs just fine, while others who need more advanced functionality or access to support, will upgrade.

Beware plugins whose free version is so lacking in features that you have to upgrade to get anything decent. You may be happy to do this if the pro version is good enough, but it’s not a model many developers and users are comfortable with.

Free Core Plugin, Premium Add-ons

Sometimes you’ll find that the core plugin you need is completely free, but you can add more modules to it in the form of add-ons or extensions: plugins you pay for which work with the core plugin.

A good example is the WooCommerce e-commerce plugin. For a sizeable proportion of stores, the core plugin will give you everything you need to sell online, but for stores needing extra features, those extensions will be necessary and worth the cost if they help you sell more.

Free Plugin, Premium Themes

As well as offering premium add-ons for WooCommerce, WooThemes also sell premium themes designed to work with WooCommerce.

The Jigoshop plugin is free but you can buy premium themes to use with it
The Jigoshop plugin is free but you can buy premium themes to use with it.

Jigoshop is another e-commerce plugin with a similar model: the core Jigoshop plugin is free with premium extensions available as well as premium shop themes.

Free Plugin, Premium Support

Sometimes as well as, or instead of, offering premium extensions for a free plugin, a vendor will offer premium support and advice to users of the plugin.

The WordPress SEO by Yoast plugin is free, but you can buy premium extensions for it and you can also pay for support services such as SEO reviews. You don’t need these to be able to use the plugin but if you’re an advanced user wanting to get the most from it, they will help.

Deciding Whether to Go Free or Premium

Once you know the different options available to you, you need to decide what’s most appropriate for your site. This may be your personal website or it may be one of a number of projects you’re working on for yourself or clients: this will impact on your decision, but more of that shortly.

I’m going to examine five criteria and identify what impact they might have on your decision to spend money or not:

  • Quality
  • Budget
  • Skill level
  • Future-proofing
  • Time

Quality

The quality of a plugin will always be the most important criteria when it comes to choosing it. No one wants to install crappy plugins on their site.

By quality I’m referring not only to how well a plugin is coded, but what its features are. A good plugin will include just the features it needs to do its intended job, achieved with as little code as possible, with well-written code that’s compliant with the WordPress coding standards. A great plugin will also have documentation that helps you install and use it, and maybe support, too.

In some cases you’ll find that you can get excellent quality without paying a dime, in which case I say go for it. I’ve given some examples of great free plugins above, and would estimate that 95 percent of projects needing that functionality will get everything they need from these high quality free plugins.

But if you can’t get the features you need for free, or you need better documentation or support, then consider paying extra for the quality. If you have to spend hours getting to grips with or hacking a plugin that isn’t right for you, the money invested in a premium plugin could well be worth it. Especially if you’re being paid for your time. Which brings me to…

Budget

Budget is a no-brainer – after all, if you haven’t got the cash to spend on a plugin, you have no choice but to find a free one. If you’re being paid for your work and you can charge your client or boss for the cost of a premium plugin that meets the project’s needs better than any free ones, then it makes sense to pay up.

But there will be times when paying for a premium plugin (or buying a subscription to a suite of plugins), will be a cost-effective solution even if you can’t pass on the cost. For example:

  • You’re working on a client project with a fixed budget, and buying a premium plugin will save you development time. This is time you can use to earn money on another project.
  • You’re working on your own site, and a premium plugin will reduce your development time and/or help you to get more users or customers. You’re already investing your time in this site and for business sites in particular, the cost of a premium plugin isn’t a big investment when offset against the extra money you could make by using it.
  • You can use the premium plugin again and again on other projects, while the free alternatives don’t quite meet the needs of other projects or will need different hacks. The more you use a premium plugin, the better value it is. I’ll cover this in more detail shortly.
  • You might not use this plugin again, but you’re likely to have a use for other plugins, which come in the same suite. You’ll need to weight up the costs against the number of plugins you’ll use and on how many sites, but this often turns out to be a better investment than you expect.

Skill Level

An experienced, highly skilled developer will be able to take a plugin that doesn’t quite do what he or she wants, and use it as the basis of a new plugin that does. This is how a lot of plugins in the plugin repository started out – as variations on existing plugins, which either didn’t quite have a certain feature set or weren’t being developed or updated anymore.

But if you’ve never written a plugin in your life and aren’t comfortable with code, or you’re just starting out with WordPress development, you’re unlikely to be successful if you try this. In which case, if a free plugin doing the job you need doesn’t exist, then you might need to find a premium alternative.

Another scenario is when you need detailed documentation or support to help you work with your plugin. You’re much more likely to get these from a premium plugin developer. While each plugin in the repository does have its own support page and some developers are very good at answering questions, you can’t rely on this if you need answers fast. With a premium plugin you’ll be paying for support as well as code, and with the best plugins and vendors you’ll find that you have access to one-to-one support where somebody will do everything bar actually holding your hand as you install and configure the plugin, should you need it.

Future-proofing

There are three important considerations when identifying how you will use the plugin in the future:

  • Is the plugin likely to be updated regularly?
  • Do you anticipate using it on a number of projects in the future?
  • Does it give you access to a library of other plugins you can use on this and future projects?

If the site you’re building will be managed well in the future (which it really should be, or why build it?), it needs to be kept up-to-date as new versions of WordPress are released. This means that plugins will also need to be kept up-to-date, tested and updated if necessary to ensure they’re compatible. Good plugins will also be developed to expand their feature set and reliability and respond to changes in users’ requirements. There are free plugins that meet all these criteria just as there are some premium plugins that don’t, but it will be a consideration when you’re choosing the best plugin for you.

If you plan on using a plugin time and time again, then paying for it makes more sense than if you’re only going to use it once, as the cost is spread out. This will also influence whether you pass the cost on to a client. For example, I pay for the premium Gravity Forms plugin, which I use on the majority of client sites I build. I don’t pass the cost directly on to clients as I use it so often. However when I developed an e-commerce site for a client last year using WooCommerce, I had to buy two premium add-ons with features that were very specific to that project. I passed the cost on to the client, invoicing them for the cost of the plugins. This saved them money as my development time to build this functionality from scratch would have cost them much more.

Even if you don’t anticipate using this plugin frequently, it may give you access to other plugins which you will use. You can buy WPMU DEV plugins as one-offs or you can subscribe to the library of plugins and themes, which costs more than buying just one plugin, but gives you access to hundreds of plugins and themes. Last year I needed the Support System plugin for a site I manage, and decided to subscribe to the full WMPU DEV suite instead of buying just the one plugin. I’ve since used other plugins on a number of client sites, saving me time and money in the long run.

Time

I’ve already mentioned the time involved in developing your own plugin or hacking one that doesn’t do quite what you need. Installing and configuring a plugin with poor documentation or support also costs you time, as does installing a plugin only to find that it’s not right and having to find another one instead.

At the very beginning of this post, I described a situation I was in some years ago when I had to find a slider plugin for a client job. It was the first WordPress build I’d done for a client so I had no idea where to look for plugins. I also didn’t have a network of people I could ask for ideas. So I spent half a day trawling through the plugins repository and Google, and testing plugin after plugin, until eventually I found what I needed.

If time is tight and you need a solution that can be quickly and easily installed and configured, perhaps using settings screens rather than functions or hooks to activate and configure the plugin, then it makes sense to go for a high quality plugin that’s as quick and easy as possible to set up, even if you have the skills to work with another plugin that requires you to write some extra code.

However this doesn’t always mean you have to spend money. This summer I worked on an intranet build for a client with some tight timescales because a team was about to start work adding content to the site. The build needed some custom work with post metadata. Normally I would have coded this myself but in the time given this just wasn’t possible, so I used the Advanced Custom Fields plugin and made some quick customizations to my theme to make it work in the way I needed it to. In this case, it didn’t cost me any money as that plugin is free, but in some cases you may have to pay for a plugin if time is tight and you don’t have the flexibility to code your own or adapt an existing free plugin.

Summary

There isn’t one hard and fast rule when it comes to deciding whether a free or premium plugin is right for you and your project, but there are some things to consider:

  • The quality of free vs premium plugins available
  • Whether you have the budget for a premium plugin or can pass the cost on to your client or boss
  • Whether you have the skills to install and configure a free plugin with poor documentation and no support, or to hack a free plugin to get it to do what you need.
  • Whether you will use this plugin, or other plugins in the same suite, time and time again on future projects.
  • How much time you have to develop your own plugin or test free plugins in the search for the best one.

In many cases you’ll be able to find a free plugin that is of just as high quality as any premium one, but there will be times when there just isn’t one available. On those occasions this guide should help you decide which approach to take.

What are you experiences with free vs premium plugins? Let us know in the comments below.