Learning to work with WordPress plugins & add-ons

Due consideration must be given when applying plugins to WordPress software, especially when a plugin is an “add-on” to a core plugin for a page builder. Incompatibility after an update may render elements of an “add-on” not functioning & thus losing your content.

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When this blog was hosted under WordPress.com with a domain name registration using the “free hosting” package (which is no longer available to new registrants), the decision to update plugins was not provided to subscribers. WordPress.com takes the responsibility to update/upgrade plugins and solves any technical issues that might appear. All themes and plugins offered under WordPress.com are “tried and tested”.

This makes life relatively easy for the subscribers, with one big major drawback. The themes and plugins available under the “free hosting” being pathetically few in numbers and provide only a plain, “vanilla” version of WordPress.

[In fact, the “free hosting”  is not really free if you want to use your own domain e.g. theplantcloner.com as you have to pay for the registration of the domain as well as the “redirection” of the “free hosted” site to your domain name. This came to US$18 for my package, unfortunately, this package is no longer available.]

If you want features, you got to pay a lot more!

Only if you pay for the “Business” package (at US$25 per month) then you can install any plugin (I think these have to be pre-verified by WordPress.com as well). The other “cheaper” packages; “Premium” at US$8 per month and “Personal” at US$4 per month only give you a better selection of themes.

Image Source: https://https://wordpress.com/pricing/

Thus it was not surprising that when I gained more confidence in working with the WordPress software I found the limitations of my “free hosting” package not something I could live with. Hence the consolidation and relocation of this blog to a “self-hosted” WordPress site in Mar 2018. WordPress (under WordPress.org) is offered as an open source software.

Plugins galore but which are the most suitable?

I installed a lot of plugins and test-run many more before settling with a core number of around 30 plus plugins. The most useful, as far as the design and customization of the look-and-feel of my site was concern were the page builder plugins. There are many different “brands” of page builders. After trying and testing a few major page builders (you can identify these as “major” plugins by the number of downloads and reviews shown), I had settled down for the free version of Elementor. The reason was clear, other page builders (the free versions) might have more features and had downloaded more often, with better reviews, Elementor was the easiest to use.

“Add-on” plugins are specially designed to expand the functionalities of the core features of page builders, some are specific for a brand of page builder, such as Elementor while some may be meant for another page builder brand, but some of its features may be compatible with Elementor.  I applied a few features, called “elements” from these “add-ons” to make my website and blog look more aesthetically pleasant. Page builders like Elementor also add a lot more functionalities at my disposal.

Should I update the plugins?

When you self-host your website using WordPress, you will have to decide if you need to update your plugins and themes (as well as the core WordPress software) when these are available. Generally, the WordPress software itself will highlight which plugins need to be updated. You can also check the relevant plugin page under WordPress.org (right inside your WordPress software) for compatibility.

Thus for “standalone” plugins, I think if you go by the compatibility indicator, you are pretty safe in installing the update in most cases. However, if you have “add-ons” to a key plugin such as Elementor, the end result may be very troubling, as I found out.

Where is my Post Carousel? Where is my Modal Box?

I had installed three “add-ons” for page builder, two of which were specifically meant for Elementor while the third, “Widgets Bundle for Siteorigin” was meant for another page builder named Siteorigin. Somehow the widgets from “Widget Bundle“ worked well with Elementor as well as the native WordPress editor.

The attractiveness of “Widget Bundle” was that many of its elements were installed as widgets. Widgets are small additional features that you can apply to almost anywhere in your website whereas most of the page builder’s add-on features are only available within the confine of the plugin. Thus if you are not editing a post or a page using the page builder’s interface, these additional features are not available.

One particular widget, “Post Carousel” from “Widget Bundle” was very useful. It allowed me to put a random selection of my blog posts in a carousel at the front page of my website. However, one day, after doing the routine updating of plugins, I discovered to my horror that “Post Carousel” was missing from my front page. Mysteriously, “Widget Bundle for Siteorigin” too was missing from my list of plugins! I tried to re-install “Widget Bundle” but was informed that the folder for it was already in the system! I had to search, test and re-configure another, standalone plugin to return Post Carousel to my front page. But this plugin was not as features-rich as the one from “Widget Bundle”.

Then the next shock came just a day before this piece was written. The Modal Box which came via “Premium Addons for Elementor” went missing from my front page! A Modal Box is a box (text & image) that pops up when a page is loaded. I used it to welcome and inform my readers redirected from theplantcloner.com of how to find old articles. I resorted to using the “Alert” element, native to Elementor to replace the Modal Box. But “Alert” does not pop up when visitors come to the front page. “Alert” also does not come as a widget which would have allowed me to insert it near the top of the front page. Instead, I had to contend with putting the “Alert” box right at the bottom of the page (due to the design of my theme). Hardly an ideal location to carry a welcome message!

Lessons learned    

  1. Not all updates bring better utility and functionality to your WordPress software.
  2. If you install “add-ons” to a popular plugin, you will need to be aware of incompatibility of these add-ons upon an update of the core plugin.
  3. It is better to look for a standalone plugin (e.g. Post Carousel) to do what you want than to use a widget from one of the “add-ons”.
  4. Elements from add-ons that are compatible with the core page builder such as Elementor at installation may be rendered useless upon upgrading (e.g “Widget Bundles for Siteorigin” was fully compatible with Elementor but when the latter was updated, problems arose!).
  5. It is better to live with the native elements from a page builder.
  6. You must check your website regularly to spot missing content due to plugin issues.

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