WordPress site owners often ask us for our opinion on how many plugins are too many to have installed on a website.
Unfortunately, there is no strict ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to that question as many factors come into play. However, in this article, we give you a detailed overview of what plugins are, the main issues having too many can cause, and suggest ways to alleviate those issues.
What Are WordPress Plugins?
WordPress started life as a platform purely aimed at bloggers, and it was an instant success. However, people quickly saw the benefits of its customizability and versatility and soon started using it for other website types, not just blogs.
Nowadays, WordPress is the leading content management system globally, accounting for 65.2% of the market and running on 42.4% of all websites globally (source: ‘Usage statistics of content management systems’ by W³Techs.)
(Image source: W³Techs)
As the WordPress platform is open-source, it offers virtually unlimited customization possibilities. However, in the early days, considerable coding knowledge or a sizeable bank balance to pay someone with such knowledge was necessary to undertake that customization. Therefore, creating a website using WordPress was still beyond the reach of many.
However, life for the non-coders started to get much simpler with the appearance of pre-made themes and plugins. These gave people the ability to customize the platform simpler without needing any special coding skills. Plugins are basically ‘bolt-on’ additions to WordPress that can determine the look and feel (in the case of themes) of a website and add bespoke functionality (by way of the plugins). So, it became increasingly possible to get the website you wanted just by adding a suitable theme and some plugins to the base platform with no expensive software nerds needed.
Eighteen years after its first introduction, it is incredible how many WordPress plugins are now available. In fact, according to the WordPress plugin directory, there are currently over 58,000. Moreover, that figure does not even include ones marketed directly by developers or sold exclusively on marketplace sites such as Envato Market (also known as Code Canyon).
(Image source: WordPress.org)
Plugins allow you to add complex functions and features to your site within minutes, often for free or at very little expense. The range of plugins available and what they can do is mind-blowing, ranging from search engine optimization (SEO) through mail integration to particular tasks such as restaurant menus, weather forecasts, or hair salon reservations. If you don’t believe us, just head over to the WordPress plugin directory and play around with some searches – chances are you something within your niche will catch your attention.
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How Do WordPress Plugins Work?
WordPress plugins use what are known as ‘hooks’ to function. In straightforward terms, these hooks allow plugins to tap into the core WordPress source code, and functions of the plugin are activated at predetermined times. This allows the default behavior of the platform to be changed without actually editing any core files.
WordPress provides two types of hooks:
- Actions, which allow the plugin to add data or change how WordPress operates
- Filters allow the plugin to change data during the execution of the WordPress core, plugins, and themes.
It is worth remembering that while plugins can change the data in the database, they do not modify the platform’s core source code – all they do is complement it. So, in theory, you cannot damage the WordPress installation by adding plugins, although the database can be affected, which is why backing up first is strongly recommended.
If you would like to know more about the technical aspects of plugins, the Codex is the holy grail of all things WordPress. There, you can find tons of information on plugins, the WordPress platform, and how it works.
What’s the Issue of Having Too Many WordPress Plugins?
Having such a bewildering choice of plugins available at your fingertips is the proverbial double-edged sword. On the bright side, it makes child’s play of creating a website suited precisely to your needs. The downside is, you might need several plugins to achieve that, plus there is an overwhelming temptation to add loads that you don’t really need.
There are three main issues that having lots of plugins on your website can bring. These are:
Negative Impact on Speed and SEO
The source code of WordPress is optimized to ensure the platform is as ‘lean’ and fast as possible. Adding plugins effectively introduces additional code, and often that can ‘bloat’ your website causing it to run slower. It figures, therefore, that the more plugins you add, the slower things can potentially become.
Thanks to the modern mobile generation we live in, people have less patience than they did just a few years ago. Consequently, page loading speeds are under increased scrutiny. In fact, according to Think With Google, page loading times of between 1 and 3 seconds are likely to scare away a third of visitors to that page. And if the page takes six seconds or more to load, then nobody is going to stick around to see what it has to offer.
(Image source: thinkwithgoogle.com)
Notably, Google and other search engines now factor in page loading speed when determining rank, so if your site falls below their idea of acceptably fast, it risks being penalized and pushed lower down the rankings.
Plugins operate either in your site’s front end (what visitors see), the back end (what admins see), or both. Generally speaking, plugins that work primarily in the back end have the least impact on site speed. The main exception is those that perform continuous external monitoring activities such as broken link checks. Conversely, plugins that continually serve visitors’ needs invariably have a greater negative impact on your site’s performance. That is because those need to make more background processes, HTTP requests, and database queries, meaning a lot more toing and froing is required.
Minimizing the number of plugins can go a long way to ensuring your site speed is not unnecessarily impacted. Also, be sure to check different plugins that give the same functionality you need, as they can vary considerably in ‘weight,’ especially if they have many other functions which you won’t be using. You could also try looking at replacing several plugins with just a single multifunction one.
Unfortunately, we live in an age when crime is rapidly increasing in the cyber world, with hackers always managing to stay one step ahead of developers. Even if a site uses the latest, most advanced security techniques, it is only a matter of time before a hacker can penetrate the defenses and potentially cause irreparable damage to your site and reputation.
Statistics produced by open-source WordPress security scanner WPScan are scary reading. According to them, plugins account for 89% of WordPress vulnerabilities, and the number of those registered has increased steadily over the years.
(Image source: wpscan.com)
The vast majority of plugin vulnerabilities stem from Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) attacks. These are where the attacker injects safe code with malicious code via a weakness in the plugin. In the worst-case scenario, an attacker may be able to gain complete control of your website — scary stuff.
Therefore, it figures that the more plugins you have installed, the more potential weak points you introduce into your website, swinging the door open wider to hackers. Our advice is to keep the number of plugins to the bare minimum and ensure that everything – plugins, themes, and the WordPress installation – is kept fully up-to-date, as updates often include security enhancements. Additionally, several plugins (ironically) such as Patchstack are available to detect vulnerabilities.
One big problem with plugins is that different developers usually create them, so the coding might not be fully compatible between them. As such, while a plugin might work fine initially, problems may start to arise after installing others from different sources. It’s also worth remembering that conflicts can also occur between plugins and your chosen theme for the same reason.
To minimize the risk of such conflicts occurring, we suggest the following:
- Avoid adding plugins unnecessarily, as that will reduce the probability of conflicts arising.
- Thoroughly check the plugin’s documentation to see if it identifies any known issues.
- Don’t be shy to reach out to developers directly and ask if they know of any possible conflicts with other plugins or your theme.
- Ask in the support forums in the WordPress plugin directory if other users have experienced any issues.
- Make use of free versions or free trials of plugins before committing to the premium versions. That way, you can test them out and hopefully identify any issues with your installation before they become a real headache.
- Ensure that all your plugins, theme, and WordPress installation are updated regularly. Updates often include bug fixes for known conflicts.
Be aware that conflicts may not be immediately apparent, and it might only be when certain events occur within the system that will cause them to manifest. When they do, you could find your site slowing down, running erratically, or even crashing. That is frustrating for both you and your site visitors.
As with poor page loading speeds, be aware that Google and other search engines also take a dim view of unreliable sites and can penalize the ranking of those that suffer excessive downtime.
How Many Plugins Are Too Many?
You may have heard the expression, “how long is a piece of string?” Unfortunately, that applies here, as there are no hard and fast rules regarding the maximum number of plugins a website should have.
How your site is hosted can play a significant part in this. If you use a budget or shared host, you want to keep the number of plugins to the bare minimum, say less than five. You can usually safely run many more plugins without issues on sites using VPS, cloud, or dedicated server hosting. That said, much depends on the actual plugins and the combination thereof, as a site with fifty plugins might run perfectly, while one with only five could be super-slow.
It’s all kind of balancing act, and nobody expects you to get it right the first time. The safest policy is to use the minimum you can get away with and avoid adding too many unnecessary frills, and you can’t really go wrong. As you become more experienced with WordPress and your site, you will be able to make tweaks here and there until you reach the optimal number and combination of plugins.
Install Only the Plugins Your Website Needs
The WordPress directory is the biggest candy store for website owners and developers. The choice available is mind-boggling, and once the bare essentials are covered, there is always the temptation to add other functions just because you can. So, the very first question you need to ask yourself is, do you really need the extra functionality offered by a plugin? Sometimes, having too many fancy features can be off-putting for visitors, but you still want enough for your website to stand out from the masses.
As we mentioned earlier, check to see if combining some plugins is possible – why use several when one will do? Remember also that many have add-ons and extensions to increase the functionality, so you may find that one or more plugins can be replaced by adding extensions to another.
We also mentioned earlier that it is always a good idea to compare plugins that offer the same features that you are looking for and opt for the ‘lightest’ ones. This is because plugins invariably have lots of features you don’t need, so it makes sense to select ones that will be fully utilized over ones that won’t.
Over to You
We have shown you that there is no right or wrong answer to the question of how many WordPress plugins are too many. We have also pointed out that it is safer to be cautious than to pile on plugins just to dazzle your site users with tons of features. Think along the same lines as when buying a car. Do you really need that upgraded sound system when the stock one will do? And what’s the point of having the optional extra row of seats in the back of an SUV if they will only get used once a year? You get the picture, right?
What are your opinions on this matter? Do you have many plugins on your site? Have you noticed any significant reduction in performance because of them? And do you plan on optimizing to make sure you only have the ones you need and that they are the lightest available? Finally, do you have any tips for your fellow readers on optimizing the number of plugins? Please do tell all in the comments below.