What Are WordPress Plugins & What Do They Do?

The WordPress CMS is designed very carefully to keep it’s core software as powerful and useful as possible without making it too “heavy” and cluttering it up with options that only a few people (comparatively) will want to use.

WordPress Plugins provide those specific options or functions. You can install as few or as many plugins as you wish, although too many complex plugins may increase your website load time and increase the risk of conflicts between plugins trying to share the WordPress architecture.

The Main WordPress Modules are listed below

  • WordPress CMS – Website Frame & Navigation Index
  • WordPress Theme – Website Layout & Decor in Content Directory
  • WordPress Plugins – Website Functions in Content Directory
  • WordPress Uploads – Image, video & audio files in Uploads Directory
  • WordPress Posts, Pages & Configurations – In MySQL Database on Server
  • WordPress Files – eg .htaccess, php ini etc – In wp-root folder of public_html

A WordPress plugin is a function that is kept completely separate from your WordPress software and your Theme and your Content, so that when one of these different modules needs updating, it does not erase any changes you have made to another.

What Can WordPress Plugins Do?

  • Improve Navigation: A WordPress plugin can be used for simple functions to display WordPress arrays of data in a different way, such as menus or listings of articles.
  • Enable Rich Media: WordPress plugins can supply the means to make your media available to visitors, such as a plugin that contains an audio player.
  • Better Widgets: WordPress plugins can insert more complex widgets in your widget area, for use in your sidebar.
  • Connect With Social Media: WordPress plugins can make it possible to “pull” or “send” data to or from other sites, such as Twitter or Facebook, using an API or application that is configured to contact the external site via an automated login.
  • Custom Posts: WordPress plugins can add custom posts or fields to your WordPress CMS so that event listings or maps can be displayed separately from normal posts,
  • E-commerce Shops: WordPress plugins can add in a shopping cart function with built in product posts if you wish to have an e-commerce site.

In short, WordPress plugins can create new generic documents, display and auto update a site map, extend your navigation options, extend your search options, display content in different ways and automate multiple tasks. There are hundreds of plugins available and I haven’t even scratched the surface of what they can do. The only real limit is knowing exactly what you want to achieve. If you do know, either someone has created a plugin to achieve it already, or a programmer can be employed to create this plugin for you.

How do I use a WordPress Plugin?

In it’s most simple way, all you normally need to do is to download the plugin from the website and upload the unzipped plugin file into the plugin folder, either by using FTP to upload it, or by using the Plugin > Add New interface in your WordPress Dashboad. If you use FTP, check that the plugin is not double wrapped in a folder. If it is, remove the outer folder or the plugin may not work.

Visit Plugin > Plugins on your dashboard menu, find and hover your mouse over the uploaded plugin on the list and click on the link to Activate it. Then you may need to check your Dashboard menu again for the plugin configuration page (see below) and choose some options to complete your plugin configuration.

Some plugins have no configuration needed. If they do need it, on activation, they will install a link on the left menu in your admin area. If the plugin adds functionality to a Page such as My Page Order, the link may appear under Pages. Most plugin links will either appear under Tools, Settings (most common) or in a new menu, just under Settings. The plugin configuration page is usually pre-populated with default settings that are the best for most general usage.

The plugin may include a widget. If so check Appearance > Widgets. Find the plugin widget and drop it in a sidebar. Click on the small arrow to open the widget and you may see a range of confiuration options to choose. Some plugin configuration is only within this widget, so if you have activated a plugin and cannot see a link on the left menu, check under widgets as well.

Generally, Under Plugins (dashboard menu), where the installed plugins are listed, and often on the plugin configuration page, there is a link to either the WordPress Plugin Repository (where the newest version of the plugin can be downloaded) or to a personal Website, where the Plugin designer offers documentation about their Plugin. Documentation usually has details about any changes the programmer¬† has made to their Plugin since it’s first release version and often the Plugin configuration options are explained in more detail here. Sometimes there may be a video tutorial.

This plugin documentation is always worth checking when you activate a new Plugin, as you may need to do something else (other than activation) to make it work. Perhaps you’ll need to¬† create a folder or change a file’s permissions, perhaps to upload a single file into a theme, perhaps to use a shortcode on a page, or add a line of code into your theme functions file or on a theme page template.

What to do if a Plugin throws an Error Message

If you install a plugin and an error message appears, make a copy of the full error message and then go back to your plugin listing where you activated it and disable the plugin until you can figure out what to do. In some rare cases, you may be locked out of your WordPress admin area. If so fire up FTP and delete the plugin this way, (it will be in the wp-content folder under plugins) and this should solve the problem.

Visit the website or Plugin repository and search for solutions. Maybe you had an old version that has since been updated. You can search the error message in Google. Delete any site specific url data from the error message and paste what remains into the Google search box. You’ll probably find a forum thread from another user who has asked about a similar problem and find the fix for it there.

Find the Plugin in the repository and look for links on the right side to report an issue. Post in the WordPress Plugin forum or comment at a plugin author site and let them know you are having a problem. Include information about what version of WordPress you are using, the plugin version and your Theme. Many plugin authors will try and help, and they are grateful for feedback that helps them to fix bugs. Some just don’t have the time and will not answer at all.

If you cannot find a fix, or get an answer, maybe all you can do is look for a different plugin.

What to do if a favourite Plugin stops working

Keeping the WordPress CMS frame and the WordPress Plugins functionality separate is the best way to serve the majority of users, but that doesn’t mean it is without it’s fair share of problems. If WordPress updates, a plugin may stop working. If the plugin is well supported, the designer will have already started work with the beta releases of WordPress to ensure they have an update ready for the plugin to fix it.

The problem lies in the different versions. This situation is constantly improving as WordPress designers set in place systems to communicate with Plugin designers so that their specific versions are compatible. However as the community is so huge and wide spread and the level of competence and communication so varied, you will encounter problems and sometimes a plugin that stops working or throws error messages may never be fixed.

The Plugin designer is too busy, or disheartened to keep updating their free plugin and it’s once happy users are left looking for a new solution. That’s life. Deal with it! If we all made a small donation for every plugin we use for free, perhaps this might not happen. If the plugin is essential for you, contact the Plugin designer and offer to pay them to fix it. If they cannot or don’t wish to, ask if you can employ another designer to work on their plugins code to fix it for you.

There are ways to deal with plugin problems but we often take for granted the services of people who provide free plugins. If you have the get up and go attitude and a little money to spare, find and employ a WordPress programmer to work on a new and better plugin solution for you. I’m sure there are hundreds of highly competent WordPress experts that will be willing to solve your problem for the right fee. Check out Freelancer or Elance or post a job in a WordPress forum and see what happens. Maybe you could even fix it yourself.

You can then choose what to do with this custom made plugin. You can just keep it for personal use. You could add it to the WordPress plugin repository or allow the programmer to. If it’s really useful, you could employ the programmer to support it and sell it as a premium plugin. Out of every tricky problem is born a golden opportunity!

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