There are very few things better on the internet than a well designed website. (Only thing better: videos of kittens falling asleep.) It’s like walking into a well laid out store that has things you want put in just the right places. You feel like you’re in a place you could spend some time.

Now, given that a website doesn’t have the benefit of three dimensional visual merchandising, designers must find other ways to give you that same feeling. In every web designer’s toolbox there are a variety of ways to do this — fonts, colours, layouts, best practices – but one of the very best ways to do this is by using interactive visual elements that draw users in. Frequently this is achieved by the use of a plugin.

A plugin is a series of files and code that can be inserted into a website to add a desired function.

Plugins come in a variety of shapes and sizes, or more specifically, widgets and functions, and they hearken back to a time when HTML (the frame on which every website is built) was very simplistic and couldn’t do fun things like play music or scroll images or stream video.

Plugins are typically created by developers to fill a need. Do you need an interactive timeline on your website? There’s a plugin for that. Want your images to pop-up in a pretty new window when clicked? There’s a plugin for that. Need an auto-updated scrolling widget of your latest tweets? There’s a plugin for that.

The great thing about using a Content Management System like WordPress is that there is a world full of developers creating plugins for use by the community for free.

That means that you, as a novice user, can add functionality to your website without needing to know anything about coding. In fact, all you have to do is click “install.”

Like with themes, not all plugins are created equal. WordPress has figured a way around this, however, with their plugin library. Any developer can add a plugin to the library, but the community is encouraged to rate and comment on plugins to let others know about their own experience with a particular plugin. There’s also a section to let you know if the plugin works with the latest version of WordPress. It’s pretty great.

One of the only few downsides to plugins in that they sometimes do not work well with your theme (depending on how many bells and whistles your theme has), but worse, sometimes they don’t work well with each other. Installing a plugin can occasionally have trickle down effects like navigation dropdown menus acting strangely (or ceasing to work) or causing a Javascript error that invalidates all the interactive elements on your site.

Despite occasional hiccups like these, plugins remain one of the best and most useful features of open-source online development to date. Here are a few of my favourite plugins:

Akismet

This is the best comment spam filter on the internet. It keeps you from having to sort through all the annoying (albeit hilarious) spam comments that come your way just by being online.

WordPress SEO

Joost de Valk (known as Yoast) is a stellar plugin developer, and one of the best minds in WordPress today. His WordPress SEO plugin supercharges your website’s SEO and guides you through how to create a post that search engines will like. You can even submit your sitemap to search engines right from the dashboard. It’s like SEO for Dummies, but that title was already taken.

Fancybox

This is a “lightbox” plugin for your galleries. Basically this means that when someone clicks an image on your website, it opens in a nice window in the centre of their screen. There are a ton of these type of plugins, but Fancybox gives me the least trouble and has lots of features.

 

Now you know what plugins can do, so head on out and grab some to make your website engaging and awesome.