Beginners often ask us what WordPress plugins are and how they work.
Plugins are an important part of the WordPress ecosystem and are essential for building great websites using WordPress.
In this beginner’s guide, we will explain what are WordPress plugins and how they work.
What Are WordPress Plugins?
WordPress plugins are apps that allow you to add new features and functionality to your WordPress website.
In other words, they work the same way as apps for your smartphone.
Around 60,000 free plugins are available right now in the WordPress.org plugin directory. Thousands more are available from third-party websites like Github.
On top of that, there are also thousands of premium WordPress plugins that individual developers and companies like ourselves sell.
In 2003, WordPress started as a simple tool to help you start a blog. Over the years, it has evolved into a powerful content management system and application framework, thanks primarily to plugins.
What Can WordPress Plugins Do?
WordPress plugins are small software apps that integrate and run on top of WordPress software. This allows you to create almost any website with WordPress, not just blogs.
For example, you can:
- Start an online store with WordPress using the WooCommerce plugin.
- Make a membership website using a WordPress membership plugin.
- Sell online courses using the MemberPress plugin.
- Sell digital downloads like ebooks, music, software, and more.
- Create a job board with WordPress using the Job Manager plugin.
- Build a business directory with the best directory plugins for WordPress.
- Start a coupon website like RetainMeNot
- Build your photography website using the Envira Gallery Plugin.
- Create a wiki website using the Heroic Knowledge Base plugin
- Start your own podcast website using WordPress
- … and tons more.
There is a famous saying in the WordPress community, “There’s a plugin for that.”
No matter what you are trying to do on your WordPress site, it’s possible. If the feature is not available in the default WordPress, then a plugin is certainly available for that.
Plugins can be small and offer just one tiny feature, like adding an image to the sidebar.
Or they can also be quite large and act as their own platforms, such as WordPress eCommerce plugins.
Many feature-rich plugins have their addon plugins to extend them, just like you would extend WordPress.
How Do WordPress Plugins Work?
WordPress is written in a way so that other developers can add their own code to it.
The WordPress plugin API offers a robust set of hooks and filters, allowing developers to modify existing WordPress functionality or add new functionality.
WordPress also allows developers to store data in the WordPress database. Plugins can utilize WordPress content types, taxonomies, and custom fields, allowing users to store different types of content, not just posts and pages.
Each WordPress plugin installed on your site is registered in your WordPress database. You can activate and deactivate it at any time you want.
Upon each visit, WordPress connects to the database, loads the core software, and loads your active plugins.
All this code is processed on your WordPress hosting server and then sent to the user’s browser.
How Do I Find and Install WordPress Plugins?
Simply head over to Plugins » Add New and search by typing the plugin name or functionality you want to add.
WordPress will search the plugin directory and display the available plugins in a list.
You need to review the results and click the ‘Install Now’ button next to the plugin you want to install.
You can learn more in our step-by-step beginner’s guide on how to install a WordPress plugin.
However, search results inside the WordPress admin area are not always helpful because they are limited to free plugins only. Also, the number of plugins can be overwhelming. Many beginners struggle to decide which plugin is best for the job.
Another approach is to look for plugin recommendations and tutorials on sites like WPBeginner.com. We have a WordPress plugins section where you can find the best WordPress plugins that we have thoroughly tested and reviewed.
You can also find out which plugins we use on our own website in the WPBeginner’s Blueprint, and check out these must-have plugins for business websites:
- Must-Have WordPress Plugins for Business Websites
- Best WooCommerce Plugins for Your Store (Most are FREE)
- Best Drag and Drop WordPress Page Builders Compared
- Best WordPress SEO Plugins and Tools That You Should Use
- Best Analytics Solutions for WordPress Users
More FAQs About WordPress Plugins
Why can’t I see or install plugins on my WordPress blog?
Most probably, you are using WordPress.com. You can only install WordPress plugins on self-hosted WordPress.org websites.
See our guide on the difference between self-hosted WordPress.org vs free WordPress.com.
Is it possible to have too many plugins?
A common misconception among users is that too many plugins can slow down their website.
However, the number of plugins you have installed is never slowing down your site. It is always poorly coded plugins that degrade performance.
For details, see our guide on how many WordPress plugins you should install.
Should I install plugins that haven’t been tested with my WordPress version?
The short answer is it depends on the plugin.
Just because a plugin author didn’t update their readme file doesn’t mean the plugin hasn’t been tested and won’t work with the latest version of WordPress.
Sometimes authors of free plugins do not update their plugin files for each new WordPress release. They simply feel that if the plugin still works, then they don’t need to update it.
We offer guidelines on whether to install these plugins in our guide on installing plugins not tested with your WordPress version.
What’s the best way to choose between free and paid plugins?
There are thousands of free plugins, and there is a good chance that you can find a free plugin offering the same functionality as a paid plugin. If it works well for you, then use it.
You can learn more about choosing a free plugin in our guide on how to choose the best WordPress plugin.
Please remember that free plugins are offered as they are, with no warranties and no promise of support. Plugin authors can stop working on a plugin at any time they want.
If you feel you will need lots of support and you want regular updates, then a paid plugin will be a better choice.
For more details, see our guide on when it is worth buying premium WordPress plugins. We use a combination of both free and paid plugins on all our websites.
How do I get support for free WordPress plugins?
Free WordPress plugins are offered without the promise of support. However, most good plugins offer limited free support through the official WordPress support forums.
Simply visit the plugin page and click on the Support tab to post your question.
For more on this topic, we recommend you look at our guide on asking for WordPress support properly.
We hope this article helped you understand WordPress plugins and how they work. You may also want to learn how to increase your blog traffic and see our list of the most common WordPress errors and how to fix them.