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Customizing WordPress: Using Plugins

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

By Miraz Jordan

Plugins extend the capabilities of WordPress enormously. While some start work the moment you activate them, others need to be configured, and some even make you get your hands dirty editing the theme files that control the layout and look of your blog.

The WordPress Plugin Directory lists hundreds of plugins in a dozen categories. You can use a search engine to find even more.

In this article, I'll describe the three types of WordPress plugins and show you some examples of the must-have plugins that no blog should be without.

Install and Activate

After downloading a plugin, use your FTP software to transfer the plugin file(s) to the Plugins directory of your WordPress install on the server. Plugin and Theme folders both reside in the wp-content folder.

Figure 1

Figure 1: In this image, I'm using FTP to transfer files from a downloaded plugin to the Plugins directory on my blog’s server.

Next, go to the Plugins section of the WordPress Dashboard and click the Activate link beside the freshly added plugin.

Figure 2

Figure 2: To activate a plugin, click the Activate button next to the new plugin in the WordPress Dashboard.

After activating the Hello Dolly plugin that's included in a default install, a line from the song Hello Dolly is displayed in the top right corner of the Dashboard.

Figure 3

Figure 3: A line from the song Hello Dolly is displayed in the top right corner of the Dashboard. Before (top) and after (bottom) activating the Hello Dolly plugin.

For some plugins, all you have to do is install and activate, while for others you must also configure settings.

Install, Activate, and Configure

Like many other plugins, both Bad Behavior and Spam Karma require you to configure settings. These two plugins help keep spammers and their unwanted comments at bay. They keep my blog free from thousands of undesirable comments each week.

After activating Bad Behavior, go to the Options section of the Dashboard and click on the Bad Behavior link. This plugin keeps would-be spammers away as soon as it’s been activated, but you'll still want to configure a few settings for displaying statistics, logging, and the degree of strictness.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Optional configuration settings for the Bad Behavior plugin

Spam Karma, on the other hand, requires configuration. Activate the plugin and then try to make a comment on a post. You’ll probably see a bright red warning, letting you know that failing to configure Spam Karma may cause difficulties.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Spam Karma warns you of potential problems if you fail to configure the plugin.

Go to the Options section of your blog’s Dashboard and click on the Spam Karma 2 link. You may see a section of News. Scroll down past that section and confirm the settings you wish to use. You’ll probably find that the default settings work well for you, but check the plugin’s documentation for help and further information.

Figure 6

Figure 6: Spam Karma handles some post-install checks.

Spam Karma offers a dashboard of its own to help you manage both genuine comments and comment spam. I suggest you set it to automatically remove the old logs from time to time. My blogs receive so many thousands of spam comments each week that these logs balloon in size.

While those two plugins need configuring, a third type of plugin may ask you to edit files for the theme you use.

Install, Activate, and Edit Theme Files

The Subscribe to Comments plugin allows blog visitors to keep track of subsequent comments on posts they’ve commented on. This keeps them engaged with a conversation they've already entered. Depending on the theme you’ve chosen for your blog, you may or may not need to edit some files before this plugin will function correctly.

After installing the plugin, go to the Dashboard’s Options section and click on the Subscribe to Comments link. Enter suitable settings, then click the Update Options button.

Figure 7

Figure 7: Enter settings for the Subscribe to Comments plugin.

Now, log out of your blog, or open your blog in another browser where you’re not logged in, and try leaving a couple of comments. Make sure you check the option below the comment area to "Subscribe to comments." When you leave a second comment on the same post you should soon receive an email containing that comment.

Figure 8

Figure 8: If all goes well, the "Subscribe to comments" checkbox appears near the comment form.

The default theme for WordPress 2.2 automatically handles the Subscribe to Comments plugin. If the theme you’re using for your blog doesn’t already include the relevant coding, you may need to edit some of the theme files. The plugin package includes a file called readme.txt that contains basic instructions.

Figure 9

Figure 9: The "Subscribe to comments" checkbox didn’t appear because my theme file didn’t include the required coding.

Edit Theme Files

Use your FTP software to open the Themes folder for your blog. While Themes may all differ, you should be able to see a file called comments.php.

Open comments.php in your text editor and scroll down to the end of the comments form. You’ll see coding similar to this:

<p><input name="submit" type="submit" id="submit" tabindex="5" value="Submit Comment" />

<input type="hidden" name="comment_post_ID" value="<?php echo $id; ?>" /></p>

Now, add this section of coding before the input line to add a subscription checkbox:

<?php show_subscription_checkbox(); ?>

The previous section of coding will now look like this:

<?php show_subscription_checkbox(); ?>
<p><input name="submit" type="submit" id="submit" tabindex="5" value="Submit Comment" />

<input type="hidden" name="comment_post_ID" value="<?php echo $id; ?>" /></p>

Save the modified file and visit your blog. Make sure you're not logged in, then comment on a post. You should now see a checkbox for "Subscribe to comments" above the Submit Comment button.

Read the Instructions

Every plugin is different. Some need only be added to the Plugins folder and activated. Other plugins require you to set preferences, while some also require you to edit theme files. Occasionally, you may need to add files in unexpected places or even install further plugins.

Always read the instructions included with each plugin and make sure that you’re using the latest version of the plugin. Now, go and install the plugins that will make your blog friendlier and easier to use.