Developing peace of mind with WordPress plugins

Compatibility unknown

Whenever a new release of the WordPress content management system comes out, I’m usually on it immediately, updating all my sites running WordPress to that latest version.

But not this time. Not yet. Version 4.4 of WordPress was released on December 8, but I’m still on WordPress 4.3.1, the immediately preceding version.

The reason? It’s about plugins, the eminently useful add-on software you install that adds additional or improved functionality in many different ways to the core of WordPress itself. The screenshot above shows the problem for me – eight already-installed plugins that have updated versions available but cannot show whether they’re compatible with the new version of WordPress: all I see is ‘Unknown.’

I’d usually go ahead and update the plugins to their new versions but not in this case, where I’d also usually have updated WordPress itself.

WordPress today is a pretty sophisticated technology development. It is used by over 25 percent  of all websites worldwide according to W3 Techs. In the old days, an incompatible plugin wouldn’t do much damage, it just wouldn’t work. Today, though, plugins themselves can be pretty sophisticated, and the potential for calamity due to code or other collisions between a plugin  and WordPress itself (and even versions of PHP or other software running on your server) has increased significantly.

And one thing I don’t do at all is take up WordPress on its offer to automatically update plugins.

Automated plugin updates

So before you hit that ‘update’ button for your plugins, you’ll want to be reasonably sure that such an action isn’t going to cause some major damage, eg, taking your entire site down (it happens).

My recipe for peace of mind is simple:

  1. Only install plugins from the WordPress Plugin Directory. Plugin authors have to meet minimum requirements before they can make their work publicly available there. It’s basic reassurance for everyone.
  2. Whether installing plugins from scratch or updating, check compatibility with your installed version of WordPress beforehand. And here’s an issue – there is no central place you can go to to do that. What you can do is check each plugin on its individual listing page in the WordPress Plugin Directory no matter what your own WordPress dashboard might say about a plugin (the screenshot above is from the admin dashboard in one of my blogs). Far from ideal but just add it to your task list, don’t skip this step.
  3. Pay attention to plugin ratings and reviews. Look at the star ratings in plugin page listings. Check the support tabs in the page listings to see what issues others have reported and how responsive the plugin authors are in addressing those issues. Ask your friends about plugins, see if anyone you know has experience.

Luckily I have only eight plugins this time to check compatibility. Of the eight shown, there are just two that I regard as essential to my sites – Jetpack and Yoast SEO. So what I’m likely to do is a) upgrade WordPress to 4.4 and b) update those two plugins, see what happens. Then I’ll add my compatibility result to each plugin’s page in the WordPress Plugin Directory to shown whether it’s compatible or not. That’s how this all works – crowd-sourced testing and experience-sharing for the benefit of the community.

And then I’ll go through the above process with each of the other plugins one by one (assuming none has already caused any issues with my sites after updating to WordPress 4.4).

Having confidence in the software you use – whether it’s your office productivity suite or the content management system you use like WordPress – along with confidence in the publisher of your software including plugins is paramount today.

Until everything becomes an auto-process that’s trusted and close to seamless, as well as pretty quick to do, you have to execute a manual one if you want peace of mind.