What Is a Plugin?

what is a plugin 3

If you spend enough time around social media and blogs, “plugin” is a term you are sure to run into.

The term plugin or plugins refers to software.  Think of it as a piece of software code that you can “plug in” to another software application — hence the name “plugin.”

It became part of popular vernacular over the past decade as more ordinary citizens flocked online and became Web savvy.

However, if you go way way back, you’ll find the term was used as early as the 1970s on UNIVAC Series 90 mainframe computers.

Usage of the word really took off in 2002 with Mozilla’s then-new browser called Firefox. At the time, Mozilla brought with it an updated concept of plugins to add functionality to the basic browser.  Plugins gave you a way to customize the browser to do all sorts of things you wanted to have it do.  If you wanted the FireFox browser to, say, notify you that you have new mail in your GMail inbox (without having to open up your inbox), it could do that.

To answer the question “what is a plugin,” it is a piece of add-on software that helps make the base software do what it doesn’t normally do by itself.  In fact, sometimes instead of using the word plugin you will see the word “extension” or “add-on.”  We’re not going to get terribly technical here, so for our purposes today consider the three terms to be interchangeable.

Plugin is also a term commonly used in connection with WordPress blogging software.  Plugins add bells and whistles to WordPress.

What Do You Do With a Plugin?

In a nutshell, you download and install plugins to make whatever software you are using more feature-rich.  But, you probably are dying to know, how hard is it to install a plugin?  The answer is: it depends.

First you must find a plugin.  Usually there’s an official directory of plugins for popular base software packages.

You simply search until you find what you’re looking for, or until you find something interesting.  For example, here is a directory for Firefox extensions.

From there you download the plugin or add-on you selected directly to the software concerned, on your computer.

Some plugins can be simple enough for non-technical people to install.  For instance, with a Firefox browser plugin, installation  may involve simply following the on-screen instructions and clicking your mouse a few times, as shown below:

what is a plugin

In other cases, such as with WordPress software, you may have to install the plugin on your server where your WordPress software resides.  Depending on the hosting company you use, this may require technical help.  Some hosting companies make a limited selection of popular WordPress plugins easy to install, even for non-technical people.  With other hosts, you’re completely on your own.

For something like a WordPress plugin, once you install it you may have to configure the plugin and choose various options.  Some configuration options can be as simple as checking a few boxes.  Others can involve extensive options where specialized knowledge and even some coding ability is required.

As I said earlier, whether it is easy or hard to install a plugin … depends.

Examples Of Plugin Sites

Let’s take a look at some well-known plugin sites, to show you more examples:

Add-Ons For Firefox

what is a plugin

Firefox calls them “add-ons” but nevertheless, they are plugins – an add-on that performs an extra feature the software doesn’t do by default.

If you use Firefox, then you have a lot of options to choose from. The left side shows all the categories and they are pretty comprehensive.

Chrome Web Store

what is a plugin

This is the plugin depository for all those who use Google Chrome. Again, you can find a lot of plugin options for different things you want your Chrome browser to do.

Here is the Business Tools section. Chrome feels much nicer and easier to navigate than the Firefox section (in my humble opinion).

Apache Open Office Extensions

what is a plugin

We recently discussed Apache Open Office and how it is a worthy alternative to Microsoft Office. Apache Open Office also has a wide range of extensions – which is another name for a plugin.

This site lists hundreds of extensions for a wide range of tasks, including translations from dictionaries, conversion into PDF, conversion into an eBook and more.

WordPress Plugin Directory

what is a plugin

The WordPress Plugin Directory has over 30,000 plugins covering categories such as spam filters, SEO optimizers, contact forms, newsletters, and optimizing for a mobile screen.

Using some of these plugins, you can turn a basic website or blog into an eCommerce store or something equally advanced.

Pitfalls of Plugins

Are there downsides to using plugins?

Yes. The biggest issues relate to plugins that have security risks.

Many plugins are created by other users in the community.  They allow the public to use their software plugin.  No one is overseeing it to make sure it meets quality standards.

In fact, that plugin may have been created by your 16-year old neighbor!

The creator may or may not have coded the plugin well, and some very popular plugins have turned out to have security risks.  The good news is, these risks are often surfaced and the insecurity of the plugin brought to light.  A Google search will often reveal security issues.

However, it is your obligation to investigate and search around to see what others are saying.  If it’s a well known plugin used by hundreds of thousands of others, none of whom have mentioned security issues, chances are it’s safe.  But a little known plugin may or may not pose a security risk that could put your computers and data at risk.

Another pitfall has to do with plugins that are not updated.  Outdated plugins may suddenly malfunction and stop working or cause wonky behavior.  That’s yet another reason to stick with highly popular plugins, as they tend to be regularly updated.

Benefits of Plugins For Small Businesses

The first thing that immediately springs to mind for small business owners is that plugins can help to power their websites (WordPress) to a whole new level.

This brings a multitude of benefits to you and to your customers. You can get plugins for contact forms, newsletters, photo galleries, search engine optimization, more.

Finally, on WordPress, you can install your own social network (great for customer support), your own Twitter site, and your own online store. In general, plugins will help streamline things and assist you in working smarter – not harder.

If you use Apache Open Office, you can even use plugins to make your editing work easier. If you use a browser, a plugin can (depending on its purpose) make things go faster in some cases.

In a business environment, anything that makes you go faster and makes things easier, can only be a good thing, right?

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Mark O'Neill - Staff Writer


Mark O'Neill Mark O'Neill is a staff writer for Small Business Trends, covering software and social media. He is a freelance journalist who has been writing for over 25 years, and has successfully made the leap from newspapers and radio onto the Internet. From 2007-2013, he was the Managing Editor of MakeUseOf.com.

3 Reactions

  1. I’ll be honest. I never really gotten around to defining it as plugins are something that I have been using ever since I got fascinated with the Internet. But I guess it helps to have a definition for those people who are not familiar with it. But it is still one of those things that you can learn better if used or applied.

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