Recently I wrote an article about Accessibility For Everyone. I mentioned that one important step is to listen to your site and strongly consider removing plugins that make your site inaccessible. This is one of many reasons you don’t need that plugin.
I was raised in the military so we moved every 2-4 years. Part of moving in the military is a weight limit on the items you bring. Depending on where you are moving, it can be prohibitively expensive to go over the weight limit you’re given. I remember every move doing a huge clean out of all the stuff in storage and the yard sales that came with it.
When you’re maintaining a WordPress site you also need to regularly evaluate and limit the number of plugins you add to your site. Over time you’re likely to try a plugin and leave it active, or a simple plugin that used to do just what you needed gets bloated with extra features. You may find that you have a ton of useless baggage on your site if you don’t regularly clean out the junk. How many are too many plugins? Use these points to figure that out.
Every plugin adds overhead.
This is true of 100% of plugins. Even the “hello dolly” plugin that has a single file with 83 lines will make your page load slightly slower. If you are trying to make your site as light and fast as possible then turn off plugins.
This doesn’t mean you can’t use a plugin but the truth is, you can reach your audience without that plugin. Maybe the feature you need requires something custom that does the same thing with less code, or maybe it means not having the feature at all.
This is the time to ask if the cost of the plugin is worth it. No, I don’t mean what you paid. The plugin was probably free. I mean the cost in page load time.
Remember each plugin will slow the page load at least a little bit. Some will slow the page load a lot. That will cost you. Kissmetrics reports that 40% of users will leave a page that takes more than 3 seconds to load. Google puts the number at 53%. If a plugin is costing you 40-53% of your audience, then no matter how good it is, the plugin has to go.
Test how your plugins affect site performance
This is a simple test. Turn off your plugins one at a time and clear any caching you might be using, then run a page speed tool like Pingdom or Google Page Speed to see how that affected your page load. You should run the tool more than once because of variables that can cause a page to load more quickly or slowly on a single page load but the point is to get an idea of how much each plugin is costing you.
You should make a point to do something similar for any new plugin you are adding so you know how much it costs (before you lose 40-53% of your audience).
Automate your tests
After you spend all of your time evaluating your plugins you don’t want to do this with each WordPress, theme, and plugin update. Changes to the server, WordPress, and themes can cause a plugin that was working well to start performing slowly.
To ensure the best experience for your users, consider a service like New Relic APM. This tool, or something similar may even be available through your managed WordPress hosting.
This is an advanced tool that loads on the server and measures several key metrics. It can be configured with an app index and send alerts when that falls below a certain value. Then you can understand how traffic affects your site, not just single page tests. It also adds a lot of detail about where the bottlenecks are in the code so you can identify plugins that are costing you too much.
Plugins can be written by anyone. A lot of people do things they don’t know are dangerous and even years later those popular plugins can lead to security vulnerabilities.
The real problem is, even a well maintained plugin can increase security vulnerabilities and decrease site speed.
The process looks something like:
- Plugin vulnerability found
- Developer creates a patch that adds more code to fix the vulnerability
- The new code slows the site
- Developer modifies the code to speed it up
- A new vulnerability is added
- Return to start
Over time plugins can go through cycles of vulnerable, slow, perfect, and back to vulnerable. Each plugin used on the site is a potential vector for attack and you have zero control over that.
The more plugins you have the greater the odds are that one or more are security risks.
Fortunately there are tools and services that can help mitigate those risks. They can identify known problem plugins and add additional security to the WordPress site, but the truth is, they all add at least a little overhead.
The best approach is to decide you don’t need that plugin.
To avoid the potential performance and security issues in using plugins, you need to evaluate every single plugin on your site. Ask yourself these questions:
- What does this plugin do?
- What does this plugin cost?
- Why do I have this plugin?
- Will the site work without this plugin?
What does this plugin do?
I’ve been on sites that have well over 100 plugins. I found that many were added as an experiment to see if it would solve a specific problem but then never removed. Years later the owners didn’t know what most of the plugins actually did.
If you don’t know what a plugin does, get rid of it. You don’t need to know the security or page speed cost.
Each plugin should serve a purpose, and you have to know what the plugin does to solve for that purpose. More importantly, you need to know what a plugin does to know if you have multiple plugins doing the same thing.
For example, let’s say you’re running Jetpack on a site that needs a simple contact form, but you’re also running Ninja Forms on the site (for that one, simple contact form). Jetpack has a contact form solution baked in so you can use that and disable Ninja Forms. This doesn’t mean that on any site with Jetpack and Ninja Forms that you should use Jetpack over Ninja Forms, but in this example the simple contact form could be accomplished with Jetpack.
Then again, after completing the evaluation it may turn out that Jetpack should be removed. The important thing is to find the optimal mix of plugins to fulfill the needs of your site and get rid of any plugin that does not fit into that mix.
What does this plugin cost?
There are several costs to a plugin
If a free plugin slows your site to a page load time of 3+ seconds while a paid plugin does not then which one is more expensive? Remember 3+ second load times means a cost of 40-53% of your audience.
Plugins that are seldom maintained are likely to have a higher security cost because they open you up to potential vulnerabilities.
Plugins that require complicated setup and prevent you from doing regular updates of WordPress have a high cost in setup and maintenance time and an even higher cost in security.
Once you know how much a plugin is actually costing you and what it does, then you can evaluate if it is worth the cost. You might have to make trade-offs between different types of costs as you seek to find the right plugins for your site.
Why do I have this plugin?
This is similar to “what does it do?” The difference is not just knowing what it does, but why you have it on your site.
You may have a plugin that allows users to subscribe to your comments via email. You know what it does but do you know why you have it? Is that a feature that is important to your users? Are they actually using it? Is it helping you achieve your goals?
If you can’t answer why you have a plugin, you probably don’t need it.
By knowing the goal for a plugin you’re also able to decide if that plugin is really the best means of reaching your goal.
Will the site work without this plugin?
Once you know what the plugin does, how much it costs, and why you are using that plugin, you have to ask if the site will work without the plugin.
This is not just about whether or not the site will load, but will it do the job you need it to do? Will you achieve your goals without that plugin?
The reality is that 100% of the time the answer to this question is yes. You can always achieve your goals without a specific plugin. There are alternative solutions for anything you wish to do each with their own set of potential costs.
Is this the right plugin for you?
When you can honestly answer “yes” to that question for every plugin on your site, then you’ll know that you have the optimal combination of plugins to fulfill the requirements of your site. Just remember that this is not a one time process but something you should be doing on a regular basis. The internet is not static, so don’t assume your site should be. Too many plugins just isn’t worth it.