How to evaluate a plugin for your WooCommerce store

Written by Nicole Kohler on August 21, 2015 Blog, Technical WordPress.

Plugins are awesome — that’s a fact. They make incredible things possible with WordPress, and can take your website or WooCommerce-powered store to new heights.

But plugins can also be problematic. A rogue update, an untested bit of code, an incompatibility between two extensions… in the blink of an eye, you can go from fully functional to completely inoperable. And let’s not even talk about how easy it is to get caught up in the desire to install more plugins, which has its own drawbacks.

Before installing any plugin, you should evaluate it against a list of pre-established criteria. This evaluation doesn’t have to take long, and your can set your own criteria, because what matters to you might not be important to someone else. But doing a few minutes of due diligence could prevent hours of headaches, not to mention customer complaints and lost sales.

Today, we’re going to share a few of the things you should do when evaluating a WordPress plugin for possible use with your WooCommerce store. Keep reading to learn more about this process and the steps you should take.

Why evaluation matters

At last count, there were over 39,000 free plugins available on wordpress.org, and plenty of other premium extensions available on sites just like ours. While plugin authors, volunteers, and users just like you evaluate these products for quality every single day, it’s impossible to catch every error prior to release or an update.

Plugin conflicts are especially difficult to catch. While common environments can be tested — for example, WooCommerce with the latest version of WordPress and a popular caching plugin, or with our own extensions and themes — it’s impossible to predict the needs and behaviors of everyone. That’s why you might run into unique issues that no one has seen before, or encounter problems caused specifically by an out-of-date extension occupying the same space as a freshly updated one.

This is what makes evaluating and testing new plugins so crucial. Sure, it’s easiest to install a plugin and assume it will work and everything will be fine. But if it doesn’t — if it’s not something that’s been tested, or if it’s something that’s even caused known issues before — you might notice errors or sluggishness on your store. Or worse, a plugin conflict might take down your entire site, causing you to waste valuable time trying to bring it back.

Let’s go over some of the steps you should take to properly evaluate a plugin you want to use with WooCommerce.

First, verify its legitimacy

As WordPress has grown, so has the popularity of plugins. The nature of open source development allows just about anyone to create an extension and publish it online. Free plugins hosted on wordpress.org have to be reviewed, tested, and approved prior to their addition to the site, but this rigorous standard isn’t necessarily upheld by some independent developers.

If you find a plugin that sounds like the bee’s knees, first check to see if it’s available on wordpress.org. A simple search should do it. If it’s not — or if it’s a premium plugin, i.e. paid — you’ll need to do a little more fact-checking.

Can you find your plugin in a search?
Can you find your intended plugin in a search?

You can find reviews of individual plugins, or their creators, by doing a Google search. Major WordPress news and opinion blogs sometimes review new or creative plugins, so you can often find valuable information or feedback in their posts or even in the comments.

Aside from these blogs, keep an eye out for roundup or recommendation posts where a plugin you’re considering might be mentioned as a viable solution. For example, if you’re considering a specific SEO plugin, it might be recommended as a well-known tool in a list of SEO tools. That can help establish legitimacy, although firsthand experiences are always better.

If you can’t find any kind of review of the plugin, its developer, or recommendation, you’re right to be cautious. The plugin could be brand new, in which case you can always give it a chance on a staging site (see the final section for some more info). But if you get a strange feeling, or the site looks odd, there’s no harm at all in backing out and looking for a better-vetted solution.

Read what is being said about the plugin

When you find some feedback, read it carefully. Keep an eye out for the following:

  • General positive or negative trends — if fifty people say “works great” and one person says “terrible,” you can probably trust the fifty positive reviews
  • Any specific conflicts or issues named with themes, other plugins, or versions of WordPress/WooCommerce
  • Specific, substantiated ways that the plugin helped others improve their site or solve a problem
  • Any encounters with support/the developer and how (or if) their problem was resolved

If the feedback you’re seeing isn’t positive, you might want to look for another solution.

Another thing to keep an eye out for is feedback that hints at a plugin that solves another problem, but not necessarily the one you’re having. If your store is slow, a caching plugin might help, but it won’t necessarily help the root cause of your sluggishness. So be mindful of what a plugin really does before you move forward, because otherwise you might have to try multiple solutions before you get it right.

Check for vulnerabilities

This step will only take you a few seconds, promise.

Search the WordPress Plugin Vulnerabilities database for your plugin. This will tell you if your chosen plugin is, or has even been, vulnerable to any known issue like a SQL injection or the zero day XSS vulnerability from this past April.

An example of a vulnerability from the database.
An example of a vulnerability from the database.

Vulnerabilities happen, and most developers will quickly patch them and release an update (as well as a notification to their customers about the situation). So if you find your plugin here with something that’s been fixed, that’s normal. But if you find something that’s not been fixed, steer clear.

These known vulnerabilities can put your store at risk, so even if a plugin looks like it’ll make you thousands of dollars, don’t risk it. However, it might be worth letting the developer know that they’re named on this list — since it’s maintained by volunteers, it’s always possible that the information is incorrect and that they simply need to update it.

Track down support options

Is your plugin looking good so far? Does it sound like it might make your store even more successful than it already is? Great — but who will you turn to if you have a problem with it?

Take a moment to look for support or contact information for the plugin in question. If the plugin is hosted on wordpress.org, you can check out the support forum there (for example, here’s the WooCommerce forum). If it’s not, you should be able to find information on either free or paid support options, or at least contact information for the developer who made the plugin.

If you can’t find any formally stated support plans or options, it might be worth sending an email to the developer with a test question just to see how quickly they respond. You can also search online to see if there are any other informal support locations — for example, a WordPress forum where the plugin is regularly discussed. Or you can run it by your own developer, if you have one, to see if they would be able to help you with it.

Gut check: do you really need a plugin?

You’re almost ready to install your plugin. But at this stage, you should ask yourself if it’s really necessary.

For WordPress users, it’s so easy to search for a plugin that sounds like it will solve our problem or improve our site, install it, and fiddle with the settings until it does what we want. But sometimes it doesn’t work the way we want it to, and so we never use it again. Or we use it regularly, never realizing it’s a solution that could have been accomplished another way — an easier way, one that didn’t require any code.

That’s actually what happened while this post was being put together. There’s a plugin that will automatically check your installed plugins for vulnerabilities and flag any known issues. But instead of installing a plugin to monitor your plugins (yikes), you can just search the vulnerability database and be on your way.

No, it’s not automatic. But it reduces the strain on your server, and it’s one less plugin you have to maintain. So that’s why we didn’t recommend it.

Or in this case, "think outside of the installation."
Or in this case, “think outside of the installation.”

While having too many plugins isn’t necessarily as harmful to a WooCommerce store as you might expect, it can still result in strain on your server, sluggish behavior, and potential conflicts down the road when update time rolls around. So before installing, ask yourself: “is there another way I could do this?”

Start by searching for the thing you want to do plus “WordPress.” So if you’re planning to install a plugin to make your site faster, do a Google search for something like “speed up site WordPress” or “improve site speed WordPress.” Then read through the results to see if there are any non-plugin solutions you can try first.

Note that if your alternate method involves editing theme files, you should be creating a child theme; if it involves editing core WordPress files, you should actually stick with a plugin in this case. But it doesn’t hurt to consider different options — it might save you a lot of time, and even some money.

Final step: testing

If after all this, you’ve got a plugin that has a good reputation, is reported to work well with WooCommerce, and you can’t find any other way to accomplish what you want to do, go ahead and install it.

If you have a large, popular, or highly-trafficked store, you should consider creating a staging site where you can install, deploy, and test the new plugin before adding it to your live store. This can help you both learn how the plugin works and work out any potential bugs or hiccups ahead of time.

If you don’t have a staging site, or you don’t think your store merits one, it’s still a good idea to test the plugin out on a few lesser-trafficked pages (or even hidden ones) prior to using it sitewide, if you can. Depending on how the plugin is used, this might not be possible, but try to limit its reach until you’re sure there are no big conflicts. You might even try to install and activate it during a slow period (like early in the morning on a weekday) so you minimize any customer exposure or potential frustration.

Plugin evaluation in a nutshell

Let’s go over the steps one more time. To evaluate a plugin that you want to use with your WooCommerce store, you should follow these steps:

  1. Verify legitimacy — make sure the developer and plugin check out
  2. Read reviews — look for largely positive feedback
  3. Check for vulnerabilities — avoid any plugins with unaddressed security issues
  4. Track down support — can someone help you if you need them?
  5. Gut check — do you really need a plugin, or can you do this another way?
  6. Testing — deploy on your staging site or during a quiet period to review the implementation and address any issues

By following these steps, you’ll be able to thoroughly review each new plugin you come across and decide if it’s appropriate for your store. You might end up writing off some extensions that sounded good at first… but saving yourself a headache or two in the long run!

If it's still looking good after you follow these six steps, plug it in! (Image credit: Pulpolux !!!)
If it’s still looking good after you follow these six steps, plug it in! (Image credit: Pulpolux !!!)

We hope this helps you pick better plugins for your WooCommerce site, or even for your WordPress site in general. Have any questions about evaluating plugins? Or any suggestions for additional ways you can check out plugins? Let us know in the comments below, we always love hearing from you!

7 Responses

  1. Ciprian
    August 24, 2015 at 10:05 am #

    If I really need a plugin for a client or a specific purpose, I first check the support section, then the last updated date. These are the most important factors in deciding upon a plugin.

    I could also code it myself, but I’m replying from a client point of view, not a dev’s.

    • Nicole Kohler
      August 24, 2015 at 3:20 pm #

      Hey Ciprian, updates (and WordPress/WooCommerce version compatibility) are also pretty important — glad you mentioned that!

      Ever since wordpress.org added the compatibility details and the “x people say it’s broken/x people say it works” information, I find I check that right away before downloading a new plugin. However, most of the time it’s incomplete, especially if WordPress has recently been updated, and I find that a major update is usually around the time that I am back in my Dashboard and looking for plugins to use. If there were a way to motivate more folks to fill in that info, I think that would be amazing.

  2. Michael Cauley
    August 25, 2015 at 6:05 pm #

    Nice article Nicole!

    In the context of reviews, I’ll add this: take reviews with the grain of salt and try to understand the core point of the input that was provided. People are more likely to publicize negative experiences with a product/service/company versus writing a testimonial (something positive). Don’t let negative reviews dissuade you; instead, focus on the core problem/issue and how it was addressed by the person/entity.

    Additionally – and this is my personal stance on positive reviews, be leery. Because input is most likely negative versus positive, if something has numerous raving reviews and few negative, there’s room for concern because you don’t know if those reviews are authentic.

    To Nicole’s point: do your homework.

    • Nicole Kohler
      August 25, 2015 at 7:49 pm #

      Thanks Michael! All good points 🙂

      Because input is most likely negative versus positive, if something has numerous raving reviews and few negative, there’s room for concern because you don’t know if those reviews are authentic.

      It’s definitely easy to question the authenticity of reviews if they are strongly or overwhelmingly positive, or even overwhelmingly negative. I’ve personally seen some reviews for software, plugins, etc. that I immediately discredited because they were so negative without the right context that it was obvious the user hadn’t actually used them. So it’s definitely important to read multiple pieces of feedback, maybe visit a few sites, etc. rather than go on just one opinion.

      Of course, another option is to talk to someone you trust and get their feedback, or even see how they’ve used the plugin in question, because their thoughts can be incredibly valuable.

  3. Edie Etoile
    August 27, 2015 at 2:09 am #

    Nicole Kohler,
    Right on! These are truly the kinds of real factors to evaluate. I really liked how you broke it down and missed nothing!
    Thanks!

  4. Sharon
    September 5, 2015 at 2:26 pm #

    Hi Nicole,
    You have listed down very valid points here. Support plays a huge role in evaluating a plugin, even if the plugin has few shortcomings and may not be the best plugin in the world a good support can overshadow those shortcomings.The onus is also on the plugin owner to provide timely and regular support.

    In addition, reviews do influence people’s objective towards a plugin. When I look into a plugin positive feedback do matter to me.

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