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Why can’t I install a plugin on my WordPress site?

From time to time, I dive in and help those who may be struggling with WordPress and post their questions to the New York Tech Meetup list, a popular email list-serve of technology industry workers in the NYC area, which I’ve been an active member of since 2008.

The question was, “I need a developer to help me with WordPress plugins.” Installing WordPress plugins isn’t that difficult when you’re working with a self-hosted version of WordPress. It’s similar to the Apple App marketplace. You search for what you want and it’s a one-click install. Simple. Here’s what this looks like.

From your installed WordPress, go to Plugins, then click “Add New.”

Plugin Screen WordPress
Plugin Screen


Next, type in some words to search for the plugin that you’re looking for.

Note: If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you may want to go to WordPress.org Plugins repository to search and review the plugin first. Then, go back to your admin, navigate to the Plugins > Add New, search for it again. Once you return the results, click the “Install” text link. Or, you can download the .zip file from the online repository. Navigate to Plugins > Add New. Then click the “Upload” text link. Once it uploads and unpacks on your server, click the “Install” text link to complete the installation.

Search WordPress Plugins Repository Screenshot
Search for WordPress Plugins

After clicking “Install,” your plugin will have installed itself. Again, very similar to installing apps on your iPhone or Android device. If the plugin you are looking for is already installed, the text link will indicate this. Once installed, click “Activate” (not shown) and it will make the plugin active and ready to use. On WordPress Network installs, you can click “Network Activate” and that will make your plugin available to every site in your network. There are times when you want to only make it available to a single site in a multi-site, so do not click “Network Activate.” Simply navigate to that specific site’s Plugins area and activate it only for that site in your network.

Search results for WordPress plugin screenshot
Search results for WordPress plugin

I installed a plugin, but I’m having a problem!

The problem many face when they can’t seem to install a plugin is when attempting to install a plugin to their WordPress.com hosted blog. WordPress.com is a closed, proprietary system.  You cannot install external plugins from 3rd party developers. You can only use the tools the system provides. Yes, we do hear from others how easy WordPress is to use. It’s true. It is easy in many respects, but the subtle nuances are, at times, unclear. If you someone tells says, “sure, you can install any plugin you want.” That doesn’t mean you can install a plugin on WordPress.com. It generally means your hosted version of WordPress.

While it’s relatively easy to install a plugin, it’s important to assess what that plugin actually does. Issues that might arise. For example, does the plugin make constant requests to the database of my site, which can result in slowing my site down? Or, is the plugin sufficiently being supported by its developer? It’s hard to know the answers to these questions, but fortunately there are forums where you can ask questions before you decide to freely install a plugin.

There are times when, if a plugin is not developed correctly, it can conflict with another plugin other or  your installed version of WordPress itself.  In the past, you might have experienced what has come to be known as the “white screen of death.” This happens when you install a plugin and your website then generates a blank white screen. I rarely see this happen now, but if it does, you have to remove the plugin via FTP or by using command line instructions (if you’re experienced with command line tools) to see if that resolves the conflict.

The 3rd party plugin I’d been assisting this person with is called Big Blue Button. It’s a web conferencing system, that when plugged into WordPress expands its capabilities into an e-learning tool. This person also wanted a payment gateway for subscribers to pay for access to the conferencing system. After I few emails back and forth, I was able to determine he was trying to install plugins into WordPress.com and not the self-hosted version, open source version of the WordPress software you can download for free at WordPress.org.

It’s important to focus on the why. WordPress.com is powered by Automattic.com (with two tt’s at the end), the professional services arm of WordPress. The company was founded by WordPress co-creator, Matt Mullenweg, who forked an open source blogging sofware in 2004 to create the first version of WordPress as an open source blogging engine. Automattic also runs a variety of other WordPress specific services, like WordPress VIP hosting, Akismet (spam plugin), Intense Debate (commenting engine) and Vault Press (up-to-the-minute backups).

WordPress.com is generally for the person who wants to set up a simple blog. It’s just like going to Tumblr.com or Twitter.com. You sign up, inherit a templated user profile and you’re free to start blogging. There are a number of plugins pre-installed with WordPress.com and maybe a few others that are tested for the network and made available to all site owners. There are also a number of pre-approved free and paid themes available in a theme marketplace. WordPress.com also offers the ability to register a domain name. Your website will then resolve at a domain you purchased and not something like mysite.wordpress.com.

It’s a useful upgrade for those new to hosting your own website. Howeve, it may impact your site’s domain authority in a Google search. If you own “domain.com” and it then redirectrs to domain.wordpress.com, then Google is going to spider domain.wordpress.com and not necessarily associate your posts with your primary domain. In my limited research with one specific domain I’ve been working with, Bing seems to give more weight to a primary domain redirecting to a subdomain than Google, but I’m not sure why.

Let’s recap. Remember, what you cannot do at WordPress.com is install themes or plugins outside of their internal marketplace. Even ones you might find at WordPress.org, because WordPress.com is a closed, proprietary environment. To introduce themes and plugins into the system from third party developers is to possibly introduce problems that incur from malware or simply poor development practices.

Here’s a good example. For a client, we were working on installing a popular posts plugin to display the ten most popular posts on that blog in a sidebar widget. However, it was learned that the plugin checked the database hundreds of times a day to determine which posts are most popular. All of those database requests along with general requests for content can impact site speed. Taxing the database with constant, unnecessary requests slows down the performance of your site. Introduce a few of these types of these plugins into WordPress.com and is could potentially slow down the performance of the entire network of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of websites.

WordPress.com is a “multisite” environment, where one codebase and one set of plugins is introduced into the network. Anyone can then turn on a plugin for their blog instance that Automattic has vetted for quality and added to the library of available plugins. Therefore, we can’t introduce plugins that haven’t been approved by Autotmattic, even if we wanted to. Only the system administrators and developers at Automattic can vet plugins and themes and introduce them for everyone to use. They must pass strict tests and to ensure the installation of one plugin does not cause the entire network to crash.

How is WordPress.org different than WordPress.com?

WordPress.org is run by the WordPress Foundation, a completely separate but somewhat entertwined entity. Automattic provides funding to this non-profit arm, which manages the open source WordPress project. This is the same for Acquia, the corporate arm of Drupal that funds the Drupal open source project; Red Hat, which supports the Linux open source project; and, Mozilla which services Firefox. How these companies make money is providing support and resources through their for-profit entities to companies that employ free, open-source projects into the enterprise.

Today, you can freely install the latest version of WordPress software on in shared hosting environment through most hosting companies with a one-click install. You do not have to be a developer. You do not have to know how to code. You can simply sign up at Blue Host, Dream Host, 1and1 Internet, MediaTemple or use a WordPress specific host like WP Engine or Page.ly to get up and running with WordPress in minutes.

You get your own personalized instance of WordPress on a hosting service you manage, which usually has a low monthly cost to it. From around $12 to $30 depending on the company and the offering. While the WordPress download is free to install, the cost of hosting is not free. It’s similar to your monthly cable Internet or television bill.

Whereas hosting your own verison of WordPress with a hosting company has a monthly cost, WordPress.com is free, but you’re restricted with what you can do for a reason. Automattic makes money by selling ads and upgrades. Either way you slice it, you’re going to spend some money somewhere. Is anything in life truly free? There is an illusion of free, but realistically, there is always a cost somewhere you are going to incur.

Basic WordPress hosting and new WordPress managed hosting

With basic WordPress hosting, you’re solely responsible for keeping your WordPress installation current, which means you are responsible for clicking the upgrade link when WordPress says you have a new version to install. Before you upgrade, you should backup your WordPress yourself (plugins like VaultPress and BackUp Buddy will help with this). If the upgrade fails for some reason and breaks your site, you should be prepared to restore from your backup. And, you have to upgrade plugins just like you do your iPhone or Android apps when a new version becomes available.  You also have learn a little about WordPress security. For example, redirecting your DNS through a service like CloudFlare. While it’s generally easy to do, if you’ve never done this before, it can be challenging for the lay person.

Yes, it’s your responsibility and not your hosting provider. unless you’ve signed up with a company like Media Temple’s new managed WordPress service, WP Engine’s WordPress managed WordPress service or Page.ly’s managed WordPress service. There are others now too, but we like WP Engine and MediaTemple the best so far. It’s more expensive, costing about $29 a month for your WordPress managed hosting, but it’s well worth it.

10-years ago, when WordPress came on the scene, many of these new services did not exist. It took a decade to develop the WordPress ecosystem into what it is today. Managed hosting is a new concept that recently appeared, because it solves a pain point for the novice who aren’t interested in the nuances of WordPress, but will pay a managed hosting service a little more a month to have these things done for them.

What you get is backups, support and security, so you don’t have to worry. On WP Engine, they have a list of blacklisted plugins they ask you to not install, because you would be introducing problems to their WordPress multisite network. While they are certainly more flexible than WordPress.com, they have good reason to ask you not to install any blacklisted plugins. If you do, they run a script that will uninstall it.

You can certainly choose not to go with managed hosting and work with MediaTemple’s Grid or Dedicated Virtual (DV) systems. That’s okay, but then you’re responsible for your WordPress instance – backups, security, etc.

If you’re still challenged with understanding the difference between WordPress.org and WordPress.com, understanding the plugin ecosystem or need advice about WordPress shared, dedicated virtual or managed hosting, feel free to contact us and we’ll be glad to help. You can also check Meetup.com and join a local WordPress Meetup Group in your area. Or, you can attend a WordCamp, which are 2 to 3-day local WordPress community-driven conferences, where there are beginner, intermediate and developer level tracks that are very educational and should help you get started or keep doing, depending on your level of experience.

About Tony Zeoli

Tony Zeoli is a digital media strategist, innovator, and entrepreneur. He founded Netmix.com in 1995, which was considered by Billboard Magazine to be the "innovation and advancement of dance music on the Internet." Tony has innovated at the intersection of music and the Internet for the past thirty years as a project manager, product manager, information architect. He is also the founder of Digital Strategy Works, a WordPress web design and digital marketing agency in Asheville, NC.

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  1. Hi
    I have migrated my blog https://www.imnepal.com yesterday. All the things are good but got error in the plugin. I have deleted all the plugins. While i am starting to install the plugin, then No, any plugin is adding.
    While adding….
    Messages appears like this…
    Could not create directory. /home/danfeh5/public_html/imnepal.com/wp-content/plugins/boombox-theme-extensions

    Can you help me?

    • Tony Zeoli says:

      So sorry I did not see this until now. I have been remiss in responding to comments. Sounds like something is restricting your adding plugins at the hosting account you migrated to.

  2. Chirag K Singhal says:

    My aim is to inform people whenever i post a new blog. For that i need a plug in but i’m using wordpress.com (making the site online) so i cant install any plug-in. Is there any other way ? Thanks

    • Tony Zeoli says:

      Sorry I didn’t see this until now. You may have found another answer, but for all intent and purpose, you can now install plugins at WordPress.com, but you must pay for the $25 per month Business-level account. Only then can you install plugins at WordPress.com. Alternatively, you could host your website with WP Engine, Flywheel, or other managed WordPress hosts. Or, you could install WordPress at GoDaddy, BlueHost, or Siteground (or any other shared host that offers WordPress) and then you’ll be able to install any plugin you want.

      Also, if you are using WordPress.com, you can certainly use JetPack with WordPress.com and there is a widget that you can add to your sidebar that collects email addresses. If someone signs up for Post Notifications, they will get an email letting them know you have a new post published. There is a very well known plugin called Subscribe2, which is more advanced, but that can only be used on self-hosted or WordPress.com Business-level plans. The plugin does the same thing as the JetPack post notifications plugin, but may have additional features.

  3. Nirajan says:

    I have migrated my blog https://ujyaalonepal.net/ last week. All the things are good but got an error in the plugin. I have deleted all the plugins. While I am starting to install the plugin, then No, any plugin is adding.
    While adding….
    Messages appear like this…
    Could not create the directory. /home/danfeh5/public_html/imnepal.com/wp-content/plugins/boombox-theme-extensions

    Can you help me?

    • Tony Zeoli says:

      Sometimes, when you purchase add-ons from 3rd parties and you download those add-ons to your desktop, the actual .zip file contains more than just the plugin. It may contain a couple of files and the actual plugin’s .zip folder. So, if you try and install something that is a .zip, it may have additional files inside of it that shouldn’t be installed. Did you look in the .zip folder to see what’s in it? Is there a plugin.zip inside the main .zip?

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