WordPress is a flexible and feature-rich Content Management System (CMS). However, its core software is relatively limited. This is by design; after all, there is no point bloating WordPress core with features that not all site owners will need. Nonetheless, if you build out anything more than a super-basic WordPress website, you will soon find yourself in need of additional functionality.
The best (and easiest) way to fill in the gaps is with plugins. WordPress offers thousands of free plugins via the WordPress Plugin Directory, and many more premium options are available across the web. There is likely a plugin for any element of functionality you can conceive.
In this post, we will walk you through the process of getting started with plugins by covering their installation and activation. We’ll also explore different methods of updating plugins to ensure that your WordPress installation is always up to date. Let’s get cracking!
How Do I Select Reliable WordPress Plugins?
With tens of thousands of plugins (both free and premium) to choose from, finding a reliable offering can be difficult. After all, not all plugins can be trusted. And if you install one with faulty or even malicious code, you can put your entire WordPress website at risk.
This may all sound rather alarming, but in reality, if you pay attention to some key details, you aren’t likely to run into any troubles. Consider the following metrics that are available on the WordPress Plugin Directory:
- Active installs (or downloads). Plugins with high download figures will have been used and “tested” by many users before you, and are more likely to undergo regular maintenance, typically making them a more reliable option.
- Average rating. A plugin with an average rating of at least four stars is often a safe bet.
- User reviews. Reading the views and experiences of other users can give you an invaluable insight into the quality and suitability of a plugin.
- Last updated. Plugins that have been updated more recently are more likely to be compatible and bug-free with the latest version of WordPress. As a rule of thumb, we wouldn’t recommend installing a plugin that hasn’t been updated within the past few months at most.
- Developer. There are a number of reputable developers within the WordPress ecosphere who can often be identified by the number of high-performing plugins they have.
While the above metrics aren’t always available to you (say, if you’re considering a premium plugin not available on WordPress.org), it’s usually possible to find out information approximating the above if you do a little digging.
One more thing (and this is a biggie): never download free plugins outside of WordPress.org. For the most part, there is no logical reason for developers to not release plugins via WordPress.org, so if they’re not, you should be suitably wary.
How Do I Install WordPress Plugins?
Before you can leverage plugins on your website, you need to install them. In this section, we’ll cover three different ways to install WordPress plugins, covering both free and premium offerings in the process.
Remember to create a backup of your site before you get started. UpdraftPlus (free) and VaultPress (premium) – which are both plugins, naturally! – are our recommended options.
Method #1: Via the WordPress Back End
If you’re installing a free plugin, start off by navigating to your WordPress admin panel. From there, click on the Plugins menu item in the sidebar menu. In the following screen, click on the Add New button in the top-left corner:
You will be redirected to a screen that shows you a collection of free, featured WordPress plugins. You’ll notice a search bar on the right-hand side of the screen:
Enter the name of the plugin you want to install in the search field. For this tutorial, we’ll demonstrate by installing the Yoast SEO plugin:
The plugin we searched for is the first one on the results page. All you need to do now is click the Install Now button in the plugin’s description box. Once you do that, WordPress automatically fetches the plugin from its Plugin Directory and installs it to your website.
Once the plugin is installed, it should appear in the Installed Plugins page (Plugins > Installed Plugins):
If you want to install a premium plugin then the steps involved in installing it to your WordPress site are a bit different, because premium plugins aren’t available in the WordPress Plugin Directory.
First off, you’ll need to obtain a license of the plugin from the developers. You’ll get the plugin in a ZIP file. To upload it to your WordPress site, start out by navigating to Plugins > Add New from the admin panel same as before. In the Add Plugins screen, click the Upload Plugin button in the top-left corner.
On the next screen, you’ll see a file uploader that allows you to install plugins in ZIP format directly to your WordPress site:
Click on the Choose File button to select the ZIP file. Once the plugin has been uploaded, click the Install Now button to install it to your WordPress site. For this tutorial, we’ll demonstrate by installing the premium plugin CSS Hero:
Once the plugin is done installing, it should appear in the Installed Plugins list (Plugins > Installed Plugins).
Method #2: Via an FTP Client
An alternate method of installing WordPress plugins is through an FTP client. For this tutorial, we’ll be using FileZilla.
To kick things off, download (or purchase) the latest version of the plugin you wish to install.
Once you have the plugin’s ZIP file on your desktop, login to FileZilla using your FTP credentials, then navigate to wp-content > plugins from your remote site’s root directory.
Next, drag and drop the plugin’s ZIP file from the Local site section over to the Remote site section and place it in the plugins directory.
Once the ZIP file is done transferring, the plugin should be installed to your WordPress website.
Method #3: Via the cPanel
To install a plugin through your hosting provider’s cPanel, you’ll first need to download (or purchase) a copy of it. Once you’ve got the ZIP file of the plugin on your desktop, login to your cPanel account. For this tutorial, we’ll demonstrate with Bluehost’s cPanel.
Navigate to Files > File Manager from the dashboard:
On the next page, navigate to wp-content > plugins from your website’s root directory:
Now, click the Upload button in the menu bar:
In the following screen, click the Choose File button to select the plugin’s ZIP file. The file will automatically begin uploading once you select it. You’ll see that the plugin has successfully been added to your WordPress site:
Now, click the Extract button in the menu bar to extract the plugin’s directory from the ZIP file. Once you do that, a popup will appear on your screen which looks something like this:
Once the directory is done extracting, the plugin will be installed to your WordPress site.
How Do I Activate WordPress Plugins?
An installed plugin means that its files are available for use on your server. Once you activate the plugin, it means that the plugin’s files are in use on the site. Simply put, you can’t start using an installed plugin unless you’ve activated it first.
To activate your WordPress plugins, login to your site’s admin panel, then navigate to Plugins > Installed Plugins:
Click the Activate link under the title of the plugin you wish to activate. You’ll receive a notification once the plugin has been activated.
How Do I Update WordPress Plugins?
When developers roll out a new version of a plugin that you have installed on your WordPress website, you’ll receive a notification on your dashboard:
Updating to the latest version of any plugin is crucial – especially if you want to avoid malware and/or bugs.
Method #1: Via One-Click Updates
WordPress makes it easy for users to update plugins that were installed from its Plugin Directory.
When you see the plugin update notification in your site’s sidebar menu, navigate to Dashboard > Updates. Select the plugin(s) you want to update and click the Update Plugins button under the Plugins section.
Method #2: Via Automatic Updates
WordPress lets you configure your site’s settings so that each time a new update for an installed plugin rolls out, the plugin will automatically be updated. In order to enable automatic updates on your site, add the following line of code to your theme’s functions.php file:
add_filter( ‘auto_update_plugin’, ‘__return_true’ );
Adding this line of code tell WordPress to automatically install plugin updates whenever they’re available. The above may sound intimidating, but if you’ve access your site via FTP (as above), you’ll find it no challenge at all. Here’s an expanded guide if you’re running into trouble.
Method #3: Via Manual Updates
You can manually update a plugin by simply overwriting the existing plugin files with the latest version, using either of the relevant methods as outlined under the plugin installation section above. That said, this isn’t an approach we would typically endorse, unless say a premium plugin developer explicitly advises you to do so. Consider it a last resort.
Plugins are invaluable solutions that make WordPress what it is. Without them, you’d be limited to the most basic of functionality; with them, you can achieve just about anything conceivable.
Let’s quickly recap the main points we’ve covered in this article:
- Install the plugin via the WordPress admin panel, an FTP client, or your host’s built-in cPanel.
- Activate the plugin from your site’s admin panel.
- Update your plugins whenever new versions roll out via one-click updates, automatic updates, or manual updates.
Were you able to install, activate, and update your WordPress plugins successfully, or do you have any questions? Let us know in the comments section below!