As we discussed in our WordPress vs Magento post, one of the great things about WordPress.org is the staggering number of add-ons available. Whatever features you’re looking to build into your site, you can almost certainly expect to find them in WP’s library of more than 40,000 plugins.
And that’s just the free options – there are thousands more paid plugins available on the internet, offering powerful tools to help you differentiate yourself from your competition. Here’s a quick guide to finding, installing and using plugins and widgets with your own WordPress website.
What’s the difference between widgets and plugins?
If you’re a newcomer to WordPress, you might be wondering what exactly widgets and plugins are, and what separates the two.
Plugins are software scripts which extend the functionality of your WordPress site. They can provide front-end features for your site visitors in the form of a widget, or provide you with a richer toolset in your site’s backend (and sometimes both). Popular plugins include:
- Yoast SEO, which lets you easily add page metadata and analyse your pages for search optimisation
- Google Analytics, which helps you gather user behaviour and site performance data
- Sucuri, which provides firewall protection for your website
- MailChimp, which lets you build mailing lists and send out marketing emails.
Widgets are user-facing front-end features which require a plugin or some other infrastructure to work. They usually take the form of content blocks, which you can drag and drop into predefined slots in your WordPress theme (usually your sidebar, but sometimes your header, footer and other areas of your layout).
Though you can install your own custom widgets (which we’ll come to in a moment), WordPress offers a handful of defaults out of the box; many of which hark back to WordPress’s origins as a blogging platform. Default widgets include:
- a site search form
- a categories list (allowing users to see posts tagged with a certain category)
- a post calendar (allowing users to see content posted within a particular month)
- an RSS feed
- a recent comments box.
Why should you use plugins and widgets?
There’s no requirement to use plugins or widgets – but the beauty of them is that they let site owners of all skill levels add new features to their site. They simply ‘bolt onto’ your site’s code, giving you access to more site functions quickly and easily. Widgets, in particular, help you create a professional-looking website without extensive coding knowledge.
They’re a bit like apps on a phone – without them, WordPress is a little limited in what you can do with it, but if they were all included as standard, you’d probably be paying quite a lot for the WordPress platform!
This way, site owners can customise their site functionality to suit their needs and the needs of their customers. The WP development community has created plugins for pretty much every web function you can think of; so whatever you’re looking to achieve with your own site, WordPress’s directory provides endless possibilities.
How do you install plugins and widgets?
First, log into your WordPress site’s admin area and click Plugins on the left-hand menu. From the Plugins page, you can either click the blue ‘Add new’ button at the top, or the ‘Add new’ option on the left-hand menu to be taken to the Add Plugins page.
From here, you can explore the plugins in the WordPress directory. Suggestions are featured on the front page, but you can also search for a particular plugin using the search bar on the right.
Each plugin listing has a ‘More details’ link, which you can click to see which features are included. You’ll also see an ‘Install Now’ button – simply click it to install it, then click ‘Activate Plugin’ to switch it on. It’ll then appear on your Installed Plugins page, where you can activate it and deactivate it as necessary.
There are pros and cons to this approach. On the plus side, everything featured in the library has been vetted by WordPress, so you can be sure they don’t contain any malicious code. Unfortunately, you’ll only find free plugins here – so if you only use this method, you’re missing out on thousands of high-quality paid options from third-party vendors.
To install a plugin you’ve downloaded, click the ‘Upload Plugin’ button at the top of the Add Plugins page. From here, you just need to locate the zip file in the dialog box to upload it. (Don’t forget to activate it!)
Occasionally, your hosting setup will prevent you from using either of these methods, in which case you can instead upload the plugin via an FTP client. Again, you’ll need to go into your WP admin section and activate it manually, which is a little clunky but necessary.
As we’ve already mentioned, WordPress comes with quite a few widgets already available to use; but if you want to add custom widgets, you can install them exactly as you would for a regular plugin through the Add Plugins page.
Once they’re installed and activated, you then need to click ‘Appearance’ and then ‘Widgets’ in the left-hand menu to customise their placement – more on this in a moment.
Be sure to research plugins and widgets before you install them – particularly if you’re downloading them straight from the developers. A bad plugin can create performance issues when used in conjunction with other features, or even leave your site open to security threats. Check out online reviews and take a look at the WordPress Vulnerability Database to see if your plugin is a known risk before you install it.
If you’re using the free WordPress.com hosting, installations are disabled – however, you are provided with a default set of first-party plugins including Akismet spam filtering, Google Webmaster Tools, social media integration, media content players and more. If you want the option to install your own custom plugins, you can either upgrade to WordPress.com’s rather pricey VIP program or switch your site over to a self-hosted WordPress.org site.
How do you use plugins and widgets?
Plugins differ in terms of how they operate. Some will simply putter away in the background, with no need to configure them, while others will require a bit more setup to get the most out of them.
Take a look at the left sidebar of your WordPress admin area and check beneath the default options. Certain plugins will show up here; click on them to customise their particular settings. Alternatively, you may have to access a particular plugin’s settings by clicking ‘Settings’ on the plugin’s listing on the ‘Installed Plugins’ page. If you get stuck, be sure to check out the documentation available for your particular plugin.
As for widgets, you’ll see on the Appearance > Widgets page that each one is listed as a drop-down. Click one and then click the ‘Visibility’ button to control what pages that widget will appear on and which users can see it. You can also drag each widget into a location slot on the right of the page – these slots will vary depending on the theme you’re using.
Every now and then, your plugins will need to be updated to ensure they remain secure and compatible with the rest of your site features. If updates are available, you’ll see a notification balloon on the Plugins tab on the left-hand menu, with a number inside to show how many of your plugins have updates pending.
Installing an update is easy, as long as you downloaded the plugin from the WP.org directory – you just click ‘update now’ on the listing to begin the upgrade.
If it’s a plugin you installed manually, you’ll need to upload the updated version yourself; thankfully, if you have Easy Themes and Plugin Upgrades installed, you won’t have to go through the fiddly steps of deactivating and deleting the previous version. Bear in mind, you still won’t get any notification from WordPress if your plugin isn’t from their directory, so you’ll need to stay aware of new updates.