How to Find and Vet WordPress Plugins and Themes

When you’re first starting out on WordPress, it can all feel a bit overwhelming. In addition to learning how to use the platform, you’ve also gotta figure out what themes and plugins you’re going to need to power your website. There are thousands of themes and plugins available on the WordPress repository and then there are other paid premium plugins and themes not on the repository. So how do you pick the right one when there are so many to choose from? Through a lot of trial and error, I’ve devised a strategy for vetting themes and plugins that I’ll share with you below. I’ll also share my list of preferred free, freemium, and premium plugins and themes, as well as professional insights for each.

Where Do You Find Plugins and Themes?

When it comes to finding the right plugins and themes, there are two major marketplaces:

The repository is the most popular and reliable place to find today’s most used free and freemium plugins and themes. It’s managed by the WordPress foundation and is by far the most reputable place to find plugins and themes. The WordPress repository, or “repo” for short, only accepts free and freemium plugins – paid plugins are not allowed.

Envato is the world’s leading marketplace for buying and selling creative assets. It consists of several different brands that each sell different types of products. The two that apply most to us are ThemeForest and CodeCanyon. ThemeForest is a place for developers to sell their themes. CodeCanyon is a place for developers sell their plugins.

Changelogs Are Your Friend!

Before deciding on any plugin or theme, you should always take a look at it’s changelog. A changelog is basically a historical record of updates the developer has made to the plugin or theme. Changelogs are publicly available for most software – and WordPress plugins are no exception. Both the repository as well as Themeforest and CodeCanyon require developers to provide development change logs. I’ve attached a few photos of where you can find them below. Changelog

You can find the changelog for any plugin in the repository by clicking the ‘Development’ tab at the top of the plugin page. On the development page, you’ll find the changelog, along with a number of other stats that will be valuable when considering a plugin.


ThemeForest/CodeCanyon Changelog


Things to consider when looking at the changelog…

  1. How long has the plugin or theme been listed in the repository or on ThemeForest/CodeCanyon?
    • The fact that a plugin is brand new does not indicate it’s actual usefulness or the quality of its code. With new plugins you are really taking a gamble though, so do your research and choose wisely. Look for examples of the developers other work and if not listed, ask for examples. Just because it’s a new plugin doesn’t mean that the same developer hasn’t published other popular plugins. The thing to remember when you go with a new or newer plugin is that you’re really taking a risk, so have a backup plan in the event the plugin doesn’t work out.
  2. When was the plugin or theme last updated?
    • If it’s been updated within the last 3 months: You’ve got nothing to worry about, it should be safe!
    • If it’s been updated in the last 3-6 months, take a look at the changelog to see how frequently the plugin or theme has been updated in the past.
    • I wouldn’t install a plugin that hasn’t been updated in the last 6 months. I would consider a plugin neglected if it hasn’t been updated within the last 6 months.
    • Plugins and themes that haven’t been updated in more than 2 years are considered abandoned and I would not install these plugins under any circumstance. Outdated plugins and themes are the #1 reason WordPress websites get hacked. If a plugin you really need has been abandoned, you should first try to find an alternative plugin, and if all else fails, seriously consider working with an experienced developer to check the code for conflict and security flaws and have them make any changes necessary to remediate those issues prior to installing it on your site. Important note: If your developer makes any substantial changes, have them do it using hooks in a ‘must-use’ plugin, or else they’ll need to rename the plugin entirely to avoid their updates being overwritten by future updates from the original developer.
  3. How frequently are the updates released?
    • This should give you a good idea of whether they are actively developing the product to add new functionality or just maintaining the code to avoid conflicts and security flaws. If there’s an update more than once a month, there’s a good chance the developer is still actively developing the plugin. If there’s only one update every 3-6 months, then it’s probably not being actively developed and chances are, the developer is primarily releasing security patches.
  4.  Is there a pattern of publishing updates to patch security issues?
    • If the developer is constantly releasing updates that include security patches, this might be an indication of a larger pattern of security flaws in the developers code.
  5.  How active is the plugin author in support forums/comments section?
    • If you look through the support forum (WordPress Repository) or comments section (ThemeForest/CodeCanyon) for the plugin or theme and see that there are a bunch of unanswered questions, this should be a major red flag. If the developer isn’t responding to others in the support forum or comment section, it’s pretty unlikely they are going to respond to you when you need help. Also check: to see if the developer hosts their own support forum outside of the repository or marketplace.
  6. Has the plugin been tested with the latest version of WordPress?
    • The fact that a plugin isn’t listed as tested with the latest version of WordPress doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t compatible. It simply means that it hasn’t been tested. You can still test it yourself to see if it works, but this should be a red flag as it frequently also means the plugin hasn’t been updated in a while.

How Many Active Installs?

The number of active installs is a direct indication of the value, functionality, and usability others have found in that plugin. The repository identifies how many sites have each plugin installed and activated. ThemeForest and CodeCanyon on the other hand list the number of times a plugin or theme has been bought.

Plugin reviews?

Just like anything else you buy online, the number and quality of reviews a plugin has is an easy identifier of how happy other users are with you. Pay attention to the reviews!

Free, Freemium, or Premium?

  1. Free – While there are still a number of plugins offered completely free on the WordPress repository, most developers have begun moving in the direction of freemium or premium.
  2. Freemium – this is when plugins are offered for free with a selection of basic features, but you have to pay to get the premium features.
  3. Premium – some plugins are not offered for free at all. These developers have chosen to instead pursue a premium licensing model where you have to purchase a paid license to use the plugin.

My Preferred Plugins


SEO Framework (Free)

Yoast SEO (Freemium)

SEOPress (Freemium)


W3 Total Cache – More advanced settings

WP SuperCache – Fewer advanced settings – easier for newbies

Photo Compression



Learning Management





Site Migration

All-In-One Migration


WP Time Capsule






My Preferred Themes


Beaver Builder

Branding, why hiring a professional makes sense

Starting a new business is daunting! There are a lot of considerations, many of which are likely foreign to you and not in your wheelhouse. But, you know to start strong and be successful, you’ve got to tackle all of them in some manner. 

Just as an attorney guides you through your business formation, a branding professional guides you through the creation, implementation, and maintenance strategies of your new business. The most successful young businesses are those that included a branding professional at the very beginning–not just to design a logo but for all the strategies that can help influence your customers’ experiences, like in-store flow and mood. Your branding professional can also help you identify service providers for all the messaging and visual materials. Often, getting a branding pro on-board early can save money in the long run. 

If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.

—Red Adair

Branding your business means it’s not about you

Branding is a very broad term. When businesses without a branding professional DIY their branding, they focus on only a small segments of the term and miss out on the most important aspects. Typically, DIYers assume branding means their logo, so they focus on that one piece and on themselves. 

Yes, it’s indeed your business. However, without clients, your business is broke or just a hobby. You’re going down the wrong path if the most important things to you are that:

  • You use your favorite color(s) in the logo.
  • The logo includes an image of your favorite place, thing, or person.
  • It reflects your personality.

While those things might be important to you, are they important to your ideal clients? Will they resonate with them?

Let’s step back for a moment. 

You ideal client, do you know who s/he is? Maybe you have a few ideal clients, do you know what motivates each one? 

For a lot of new business owners, identifying an ideal client is foreign. “I sell to everyone. Everyone can by my products!” The problem is that when you “sell to everyone” no one buys. Why? It’s because you aren’t speaking clearly enough to identify who needs your product or what problem your product solves for them. For example, I design websites. That’s pretty clear on what I do. But, not everyone needs a website. If you’re not in business, you don’t need my services. That’s one, still too broad, way to narrow my focus. 

Old-school sales and brochures were simply statements like, “Here’s our product. It does X, Y, Z, and XY and XZ! When you use our product, you get ABC.” 

That’s nothing more than a product description. Today’s consumers are more sophisticated. Therefore, we need to know more intimately who truly needs our products or services. Who needs them the most? That doesn’t mean that you’re rejecting all others; although, it very well could mean that if your niche puts you in high demand! It simply means that you’re speaking directly to your ideal client. Others will listen in and maybe even join in on the conversation when part of the conversation turns to resonate with them.

This is what a branding professional can help you understand and learn to do well–speak to your ideal client. Your branding professional can also help you understand that you may be marketing to people who are very different from you. 

Your ideal client matters most. Now, you probably see why when it comes to branding, you ideal client matters far more than you do. This is the most important step in the branding process that is typically overlooked by new business owners. 

Understanding psychological and physiological associations and responses

There’s a lot here to discuss and understand. Ultimately, you need to know that these things matter more than most are conscious of:

  • Color meanings and cultural associations
  • Shape meanings and context with other shapes and color
  • Typographic styles and historical associations

Design considers far more than “pretty” when it comes to communicating. These are all considerations of your branding professional, who can move through these interactions thoughtfully but more quickly than the lay person. For example, a service solving sleep problems for children would not be served well with color combinations that are hard to process and create tension. Magenta and green appear to vibrate when touching. This creates a sense of tension, stress. 

phenomenon called simultaneous contrast with magenta and green

This phenomenon is called simultaneous contrast. When two colors influence each other, changing our perception of these colors (more or less saturated, more or less bright). It can be observed both with different hues, or luminosities.

The fact that the after-image or simultaneous contrast is a psycho-physiological phenomenon should prove that no normal eye, not even the most trained one, is foolproof against color deception. He who claims to see color independent of their illusionary changes fools only himself, and no one else.

—Interaction of Color, Josef Albers 1963

Color choices, proximity of those colors to others (spatial relationships), and intensity of contrast affect us whether we are aware of them or not. Colors have meanings. Adding a color element that touches or overlaps the first changes the overall meaning of the design. Adding space between the color elements changes the meaning yet again. Proximity affect the context of colors in a design. 

The elements that contain colors are shapes. Those shapes might be geometric, in the form of letters, realistic depiction, or abstract image. Just like colors, every shape in design has meaning, and the shapes next to them alter that meaning.


Typography is the study of letter forms. Letters are shapes. Each shape affects the other just like color. Also, like color, typefaces have cultural and era-specific associations. For example, Art Deco typography is associated with a specific time period. 

“Art Deco developed into a major style in western Europe and the United States during the 1930s…. Art Deco design represented modernism turned into fashion. Its products included both individually crafted luxury items and mass-produced wares, but, in either case, the intention was to create a sleek and anti-traditional elegance that symbolized wealth and sophistication.”

Encyclopedia Britannica

Choosing this style for a Western Wear retailer might provide some confusion for passersby on the street or in cyberspace. While this is an extreme and the most recognizable typeface and era, all typography has a place in history and meaning. Your conscious awareness of it doesn’t matter; it’s part of your subconscious historical association. While you likely don’t know these associations, your branding professional designer does and uses these associations to subconsciously influence your ideal clients and set the mood. 


This one is the easiest to explain but the hardest for many to do. Why? It should be easy, right? 

When you go through the branding process, you get all the color, typography, photographic, voice and tonal style information for your brand known as your brand standards. Implementing your brand standards and monitoring all communications for adherence to them are time-consuming. Many businesses hire full-time or contract “brand managers” that do just that; it’s their sole responsibility.  

Of course, much of it could be remedied with some technical training. However, many new, small businesses don’t have the bandwidth to do so. They “guess” or get “close” to what was set forth in the brand standards. Just like the childhood game “Rumor” or “Grapevine”, what comes out down the line is much different from the original. That begins the muddy waters of confusion for your would-be clients. 

You don’t know what you don’t know

This information is meant to expose what you may not have considered. It’s also to answer the question I hear often, “What’s the difference between my sandwich shop and the really busy one down the street? My sandwiches are better.” It’s not about the sandwich; it’s what you’re saying, what you’re not saying, and the messages you’re sending in between. This information is to help you know the other ways you’re sending messages and how those can influence your ideal clients and your bottom line.

Hiring a brand professional, even just as a consultant, can help you grow more quickly and save you from the expensive mistakes and pitfalls of not hiring a branding professional. A confusing brand message can be clarified, but at what cost?

Now that you’re aware of some of the elements that affect your brand, you have a basic understanding of the depth of knowledge your brand strategist and designer should have.