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Oh, the World of Custom WordPress Plugins

By Erin  |   Business Website Tips | Website Improvement

Business Women Raise a Question Mark

No surprise here. As a nationally-recognized WordPress agency, we talk about WordPress websites a lot.

In today’s blog post I share my interview with our lead programmer, Jason, about a very special topic within the world of WordPress websites: the (sometimes mysterious) custom WordPress plugin.

If you’ve ever been curious about WordPress plugin, or if you’ve ever wondered whether your business should consider having a custom WordPress plugin built, read on.

(And if you have a WordPress plugin question, drop us a line or leave a comment at the bottom and we’ll happily reply.)

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Erin: Let's make sure everyone is on the same page here, Jason. When we're talking about WordPress websites, let's start with the most basic of basic questions.

What exactly is a WordPress plugin?

Jason: So I'll try to put this as simple as possible. A WordPress plugin is typically a little component that you add to your WordPress website that gives it a little extra capability. So plugins essentially just add additional bite-sized functionality to your existing website.

For example, many of us have seen a blog that has a couple different social media sharing options for Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, etc. Well, if a WordPress theme doesn't come with that capability built-in, you can go search for a plugin that will add that social media sharing functionality to your website

There is a whole world of plugins out there, where you can go search for the right one that offers the right functionality that fits your needs.

Once you've found a WordPress plugin that offers the functionality you want, it’s usually a simple click to install and add it to your site. There are so many free, stock plugins you can grab right off the web, and drop them into your site.  Some plugins you do have to pay for.

Some WordPress website have plugins that allow their sites to have full e-commerce capabilities, like a whole storefront. In other words, WordPress plugins don’t only provide simple or small capabilities, like the addition of a few social media buttons. They can provide larger scale functionality like a full e-commerce platform.

Erin: Is it obvious when a business should search for an existing plugin on the web to add to their site vs. talking with their web agency about having a custom one built?

Jason: I don't think it’s necessarily obvious.

In sum, for simple needs, pre-existing plugins are fine.  When a business plans to grow a website substantially or wants complicated or custom functionality, it’s usually important to talk to their web agency about the possibility of a custom plugin, so as not to risk the future functionality of their website.

Yes, my opinion may be a little biased, but as a developer, when our existing clients ask us this question, I tend to lean towards recommending the custom-built WordPress plugin solution when budget allows because we know we’ll be creating something stable and long-lasting, instead of crossing our fingers and hoping that the people who built an existing plugin did a good job.

A lot of times, I think using existing, non-custom plugins are very good for small businesses with minimal budgets or who are building their own sites—but those types of businesses are usually not the best match for us.

These are the types of businesses that don’t necessarily have a web development company backing them that has resources to create custom componentry for their needs. So for that situation, kind of like prepaid WordPress themes, really, if you are at that stage in your business's evolution, then using non-custom, pre-existing plugins that are out there might be a really great fit for you.

Really, it all comes down to that big picture, future question of, what does this look like long-term for our company’s website? How will this affect my performance, stability, feature updates?

We’ve seen situations where clients have actually put a pre-existing, non-custom plugin into their website that had to store a good chunk of data behind it. And when that large amount of data was not handled correctly, data was corrupted and large portions of their websites were adversely affected because that plugin's data was no longer compatible with later versions of the plugin.

Erin: So could you provide me an example or two that our audience could relate to, of when a custom WordPress plugin would be a smart option to consider—instead of using a free or paid plugin?

Jason: Yeah, absolutely.

So a good example is when we had a client come to us with an existing website that was doing these complex property real estate listings. That would probably have been a great scenario for the client to have thought about a custom WordPress plugin from the beginning, because the raw amount of data and functionality and complexity was kind of pushing the envelope in terms of what a WordPress plugin should even do.

I think in this client’s case, the hybrid their previous web agency had put together of a prepaid WordPress theme and a prepaid WordPress plugin created a complicated situation where the theme and the plugin needed this very close pairing. I think they would have been much better-suited having a custom theme with that capability built-in. It would have given them a lot more performance, stability, and definitely peace of mind which they did not have! Also, instead of trying to “trick” an existing WordPress theme into doing things out of its comfort zone, we could have simply built the system with their specific needs in mind.

There are also good examples like e-commerce, where I've seen a lot of people do free or paid donation or e-commerce-based plugins and they try to drop those into their websites. And then those can have potential problems. The biggest one of those I think that can work against you when you think about anything e-commerce, is that you're handling money and credit card information. Anytime you handle financial transactions online, there's a lot of potential complications and risks and things that you should be thinking about.

When people just add WordPress plugins like, "Oh, cool, I can just add this little button and it allows me to take donations and do all these things," a lot of questions should be coming to mind. Like do you trust that the plugin's handling that information properly? And is it storing information? And if so, is it storing it securely?

The wrong answers to these kinds of questions can become very dangerous to you as a business, possibly even from a legal standpoint if you are audited for how you're storing and handling transactional information for anything finance-related. So those kinds of e-commerce plugins can potentially be dangerous.  They’re just very enticing because it’s like, "Oh, cool, I can just add this simple little plugin. Wham bam, there we go. Now my site can accept donations."

A big problem is that extensive, detailed functionality isn’t always considered by plugin authors. Not all of them but many of them are pretty much looking for a really short, lightweight plugin that allows people to quickly add a thing to their site and then it does the bare minimums that are needed. Thing is, as a business you're potentially going to want to expand upon and customize it to fit your business's needs down the road. This isn’t the plugin author’s fault. One size never fits all. They try and be useful to a certain population of users with specific needs. However if it is going to be something core to your business, you might want to think about the ramifications and give serious consideration to discussing the possibility of having a custom WordPress plugin built for you.

Erin: It sounds like when functionality's a bit more complex...such as when there was the complex real estate listings geo-targeting Google Maps integration, you mentioned financial transactions, donations...when there's more complexity to functionality, a custom WordPress plugin is probably something that you should really seriously consider. Is that correct?

Jason: Yeah. There are some situations where...ok, let's say contact forms as an easy example.

What website doesn't have a contact form—even if it's just a simple, "Hey, do you have a question you want to ask us?" So the contact form asks for your name, email, potentially phone. You put in a brief message. Even for something as simple as this simple contact form, there are a ton of plugins out there which make it very easy to just drop in these contact forms on your website.

Oftentimes, a free WordPress plugin is more than fine for these types of situations. From a business strategy and logistics standpoint though, you need to be thinking about, well, what is happening with that data? Hopefully that plugin is trusted and isn't someone actually also gleaning information from the form. That'd be an awful situation for you as a business.

But there are so many other factors to consider as well, even though these factors are typically not things very small businesses with small websites need to consider. For example, does the contact form tie into your CRM? Does it store those leads that you capture into a database? If it's support-based in nature, like customer support-based activities, does it hook into your support software if you have one?

Honestly, there are plenty of times that we use stock plugins for our clients, for things like contact forms. Because the client’s needs are very lightweight. It’s usually plenty for them to just receive an email when a new lead comes in to a single person or a single email address.

But if the feature set starts stepping above and beyond that from a data-handling standpoint...do I put it in a database? Does it interact with NetSuite or Salesforce, or etc....then it starts becoming apparent that a stock plugin may not be the best option and in fact could work against you.

Erin: And we actually had a very recent example that we dealt with here at Followbright in the last couple weeks. We're working with a Colorado company in the sports industry and they were looking to have a huge banner slideshow, slider on their homepage fixed. It wasn't working the way they wanted it to. And after some conversations, you actually suggested that they consider a custom plugin for something as simple and ubiquitous as a slideshow, as a slider. So can you share why in the world you would suggest a custom plugin for something so simple when there's a million and one plugins out there that are free already for a slider?

Jason: So that is a good question. That's a perfect scenario where the reasoning seems maybe a little strange from an outside perspective as to why we’d recommend a custom WordPress plugin instead of having the client go with a stock slider plugin. In this situation, the client had a prepaid, non-custom theme.

And just to make it clear, we did not recommend that they go with this prepaid theme. They came to us after they had launched this site because they were struggling with this prepaid theme and needed help. But if they had worked with us from the beginning, we would have created a from-scratch WordPress theme. Just want to make that clear.

So anyhow in that situation where there is a pre-paid theme and stock plugins are not playing well with it and are creating all sorts of problems, a custom WordPress plugin would be a great, bolt-on solution. It's something that would be created from scratch and could be added on to the site and gives you the EXACT functionality you want, no more and no less.

A slider may seem like a very trivial piece of technology in a website that isn’t worth investing in. But the slider had a huge impact on the effectiveness of this particular client’s website. And the look and feel and capability that this client was looking for in their slideshow was different enough that they basically wanted the capabilities of 5 different sliders put together. But no stable, stock slider out there had all the combination of the features they needed. So in this particular situation, where the slider was so important to their site (which is not the case for every website, of course) it just made sense to recommend to them, "Why don't you just tell us exactly what you'd like the slider to look like instead of taking compromises with the next best match that's out there already? And then we'll just make the slider look and work exactly like that."

Erin: Thanks Jason, appreciate your time today.

And to our blog readers: if you are wondering whether a custom WordPress plugin is something that could benefit your company’s website, don't hesitate to give us a ring at (970) 668-0709. We'll be happy to have a helpful, insightful conversation with you to explore whether or not a custom WordPress plugin might be a powerful solution for your company site.

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