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How to Create a WordPress Plugin

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WordPress, a versatile platform for bloggers and business owners alike, allows you to create everything from a personal blog to an e-commerce store. An integral part of this flexibility is the WordPress plugins, tiny bits of software that extend the functionality of your site. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll walk you through the process of writing a WordPress plugin step-by-step, starting from the basics to more complex concepts. This guide is written to be understandable for beginners, but also has plenty of details for those wanting to improve their WordPress plugin development skills.

Introduction to WordPress Plugins

A WordPress plugin is a piece of software that can be added to a WordPress site to extend its functionality. Whether you want to add a contact form, improve SEO, or integrate with social media platforms, there’s likely a plugin that can do it. The beauty of WordPress is that if a plugin doesn’t exist for a specific function, you can create it yourself.

Setting Up Your Environment

Before you start writing a WordPress plugin, you need to set up a local development environment.

Local Server

The first step is to install a local server environment, such as XAMPP or MAMP. This will allow you to run WordPress on your local machine without affecting a live website.

WordPress Installation

Once you’ve set up a local server, the next step is to install WordPress. Download the latest version of WordPress from the official website and extract it into your local server’s htdocs directory.

Code Editor

Finally, install a code editor like Visual Studio Code, Sublime Text, or Atom. These editors will make it easier to write and debug your code.

Creating Your First WordPress Plugin

Now, let’s start by creating a simple plugin.

Create a Plugin Folder and File

Navigate to your WordPress installation directory. Inside the wp-content/plugins directory, create a new folder with the name of your plugin. In this guide, we’ll create a simple plugin to display a greeting, so we’ll name the folder ‘greeting-plugin’. Inside this folder, create a PHP file with the same name, i.e., ‘greeting-plugin.php’.

Add Plugin Information

Open ‘greeting-plugin.php’ in your code editor. Start the file with a PHP opening tag <?php and follow it with a comment block containing details about your plugin. WordPress reads this information to display it on the Plugins page.

<?php
/*
Plugin Name: Greeting Plugin
Plugin URI: http://yourwebsite.com/
Description: This is a simple plugin to display a greeting message
Version: 1.0
Author: Your Name
Author URI: http://yourwebsite.com/
License: GPL2
*/

Activate the Plugin

Now, navigate to the WordPress admin dashboard, go to the ‘Plugins’ page, and you should see your new plugin. Click ‘Activate’ to activate the plugin.

Adding Functionality to Your Plugin

Now that we’ve created and activated the plugin, let’s add some functionality. We’ll make the plugin display a greeting message when a specific shortcode is used in a post or page.

Add the following code to your ‘greeting-plugin.php’ file:

function greeting_shortcode($atts) {
    $message = "Hello, welcome to my WordPress site!";
    return $message;
}
add_shortcode('greeting', 'greeting_shortcode');

This code defines a function that returns a greeting message. The add_shortcode function makes this function run whenever the shortcode [greeting] is used.

You can now create a post or a page, use the shortcode [greeting], and see your greeting message displayed.

Let’s Develop a More Complex WordPress Plugin

In our first example, we created a simple plugin that displays a message when a specific shortcode is used. Let’s take it a step further now by creating a plugin that adds a contact form to a post or page.

Create a New Plugin

Follow the steps from the previous section to create a new plugin. We’ll name this plugin ‘contact-form-plugin’.

Creating the Form

In the ‘contact-form-plugin.php’ file, we’ll create a function that generates a simple contact form.

function display_contact_form() {
    $form = '<form action="' . esc_url($_SERVER['REQUEST_URI']) . '" method="post">';
    $form .= '<p>';
    $form .= 'Your Name (required) <br />';
    $form .= '<input type="text" name="cf-name" pattern="[a-zA-Z0-9 ]+" required="required" />';
    $form .= '</p>';
    $form .= '<p>';
    $form .= 'Your Email (required) <br />';
    $form .= '<input type="email" name="cf-email" required="required" />';
    $form .= '</p>';
    $form .= '<p>';
    $form .= 'Your Message (required) <br />';
    $form .= '<textarea rows="10" cols="35" name="cf-message" required="required"></textarea>';
    $form .= '</p>';
    $form .= '<p><input type="submit" name="cf-submitted" value="Send"></p>';
    $form .= '</form>';

    return $form;
}
add_shortcode('contact_form', 'display_contact_form');

This function creates a form using HTML and the PHP $_SERVER['REQUEST_URI'] global variable, which gives the URL of the current page. We’re again using a shortcode to display the form.

Processing the Form

Next, we need to process the form when it’s submitted. We’ll add the following function above the ‘display_contact_form’ function.

function process_contact_form() {
    if ($_SERVER["REQUEST_METHOD"] == "POST" && isset($_POST["cf-submitted"])) {
        $name = sanitize_text_field($_POST["cf-name"]);
        $email = sanitize_email($_POST["cf-email"]);
        $message = sanitize_textarea_field($_POST["cf-message"]);

        $headers = "From: $name <$email>" . "\r\n";

        if (wp_mail("your-email@yourwebsite.com", "Contact Form Submission", $message, $headers)) {
            echo '<div class="message">';
            echo 'Thanks for contacting us, expect a response soon.';
            echo '</div>';
        } else {
            echo 'An unexpected error occurred';
        }
    }
}
add_action('init', 'process_contact_form');

This function checks if the form has been submitted, sanitizes the input data, and sends an email using the wp_mail function. If the mail is sent successfully, a success message is displayed; otherwise, an error message is displayed.

Adding an Admin Page for Your Plugin

Adding an admin page for your plugin allows users to change settings and configurations. We will add an admin page to our ‘contact-form-plugin’.

Registering an Admin Page

We will use the add_menu_page function to add a new page to the WordPress admin menu. Here’s how to do it:

function contact_form_admin_page() {
    add_menu_page(
        'Contact Form', // Page title
        'Contact Form', // Menu title
        'manage_options', // Capability
        'contact-form', // Menu slug
        'contact_form_admin_html' // Function that displays the page content
    );
}
add_action('admin_menu', 'contact_form_admin_page');

This code adds a new menu item titled “Contact Form” to the admin menu. When clicked, it calls the contact_form_admin_html function.

Creating the Admin Page

Next, we need to create the contact_form_admin_html function. This function outputs the HTML content of our admin page.

function contact_form_admin_html() {
    ?>
    <div class="wrap">
        <h1>Contact Form</h1>
        <form method="post" action="options.php">
            <?php
            settings_fields('contact_form_options');
            do_settings_sections('contact_form');
            submit_button();
            ?>
        </form>
    </div>
    <?php
}

This code generates a simple form where users can save settings for our plugin.

Registering Settings

To save settings from our form, we need to register the settings. Here’s how to do it:

function contact_form_settings() {
    register_setting('contact_form_options', 'contact_form_email');
    
    add_settings_section(
        'contact_form_settings_section',
        'Contact Form Settings',
        '',
        'contact_form'
    );
    
    add_settings_field(
        'contact_form_email_field',
        'Email',
        'contact_form_email_html',
        'contact_form',
        'contact_form_settings_section'
    );
}
add_action('admin_init', 'contact_form_settings');

This code registers a setting ‘contact_form_email’ and adds a field to our form where users can enter the email to which contact form submissions will be sent.

Creating Settings Fields

Finally, we need to create the contact_form_email_html function that outputs the HTML for our email field.

function contact_form_email_html() {
    $email = get_option('contact_form_email');
    ?>
    <input type="email" name="contact_form_email" value="<?php echo $email; ?>">
    <?php
}

This code creates an input field and populates it with the value of our setting.

Now, our plugin has an admin page where users can configure settings. We would have to modify the ‘process_contact_form’ function to send emails to the email set on our admin page.

Implementing AJAX in Your Plugin

AJAX stands for Asynchronous JavaScript And XML, and it is a method of making asynchronous requests to a server, which means the whole page does not need to refresh for the request to be handled. Here, we’ll update our contact form plugin to use AJAX to process the form.

Enqueue JavaScript File

Firstly, we need to enqueue a JavaScript file where we’ll create our AJAX code.

function enqueue_contact_form_script() {
    wp_enqueue_script('contact-form-script', plugin_dir_url(__FILE__) . 'script.js', array('jquery'), '1.0.0', true);

    wp_localize_script('contact-form-script', 'contactForm', array(
        'ajax_url' => admin_url('admin-ajax.php')
    ));
}
add_action('wp_enqueue_scripts', 'enqueue_contact_form_script');

In this function, we’re also using wp_localize_script to pass the URL of ‘admin-ajax.php’ to our script. We’ll use this URL to make our AJAX request.

Handling AJAX Request

We need to handle our AJAX request in our plugin. For this, we need to modify our process_contact_form function as below:

function process_contact_form() {
    if ($_SERVER["REQUEST_METHOD"] == "POST" && isset($_POST["cf-submitted"])) {
        $name = sanitize_text_field($_POST["cf-name"]);
        $email = sanitize_email($_POST["cf-email"]);
        $message = sanitize_textarea_field($_POST["cf-message"]);

        $headers = "From: $name <$email>" . "\r\n";

        if (wp_mail("your-email@yourwebsite.com", "Contact Form Submission", $message, $headers)) {
            echo 'Thanks for contacting us, expect a response soon.';
        } else {
            echo 'An unexpected error occurred';
        }

        wp_die(); // This is required to terminate immediately and return a proper response
    }
}
add_action('wp_ajax_contact_form', 'process_contact_form'); // Logged in users
add_action('wp_ajax_nopriv_contact_form', 'process_contact_form'); // Not logged in users

In the above function, wp_die() is used to stop the PHP script after the AJAX request is processed. The wp_ajax_{action} and wp_ajax_nopriv_{action} hooks are used to handle the AJAX requests for logged-in and non-logged-in users respectively.

Adding JavaScript for AJAX

Finally, we need to add our AJAX logic to our ‘script.js’ file.

jQuery(document).ready(function($) {
    $('form').submit(function(event) {
        event.preventDefault();

        var formData = $(this).serialize();

        $.ajax({
            type: 'POST',
            url: contactForm.ajax_url,
            data: {
                action: 'contact_form',
                form_data: formData
            },
            success: function(response) {
                alert(response);
            }
        });
    });
});

This JavaScript code prevents the form from submitting normally, then sends an AJAX request to our server. The server processes the request, and we alert the response.

Using WordPress APIs in Your Plugin

WordPress APIs provide useful functionality that you can utilize in your plugin. Here are a few examples:

  1. Settings API: We used the Settings API in our plugin to create an options page. It provides a robust and secure way to manage plugin options.
  2. Shortcode API: We also used the Shortcode API to create shortcodes for our plugin. It provides a simple way to create custom code snippets that users can add to their posts and pages.
  3. HTTP API: The HTTP API can be used to make HTTP requests to external APIs. You can use this to integrate external services into your plugin.
  4. REST API: The REST API provides a way to interact with your WordPress site programmatically. You can create, read, update, and delete any data using the REST API.
  5. Transients API: The Transients API provides a simple and standardized way of storing cached data in the database temporarily by giving it a custom name and a timeframe after which it will expire and be deleted.
  6. Cron API: The Cron API allows scheduling of events to run at certain intervals.

By utilizing these APIs, you can extend the functionality of your plugin and integrate it more deeply with WordPress.

Debugging and Troubleshooting Your Plugin

When you’re developing a WordPress plugin, it’s almost certain that you’ll encounter errors or unexpected behavior at some point. Here are a few tips for debugging and troubleshooting your plugin.

  1. WP_DEBUG: WordPress includes a built-in debugging mode. By default, this feature is turned off. You can enable it by adding define('WP_DEBUG', true); to your ‘wp-config.php’ file. This will start showing PHP errors, notices, and warnings, which can be extremely helpful for debugging.
  2. Error Log: In addition to enabling WP_DEBUG, you can also log all errors to a file by adding define('WP_DEBUG_LOG', true); to your ‘wp-config.php’ file. This will create a ‘debug.log’ file in the ‘wp-content’ directory.
  3. Plugin Conflicts: Sometimes, the problem isn’t with your plugin but with a conflict between your plugin and another plugin or theme. To check for conflicts, deactivate all other plugins and switch to a default theme. If your plugin works, then the problem is a conflict, and you can find the conflicting plugin or theme by reactivating them one by one.
  4. Check Your Code: Most problems in WordPress plugins are caused by syntax errors or incorrect usage of functions. Always make sure your code is syntactically correct, and double-check the WordPress Codex or Developer Resources if you’re not sure about a function.

By learning how to debug and troubleshoot effectively, you’ll be able to develop better plugins, faster. It’s a crucial skill for any WordPress plugin developer.

I hope this extended guide helps you further understand the process and intricacies involved in developing a WordPress plugin. Don’t hesitate to experiment, learn, and create more complex and useful plugins!

Testing Your Plugin

Testing your plugin is a crucial part of the development process. It ensures that your plugin works as expected and helps you catch any bugs or issues. Here are some tips for testing your plugin:

  1. Test Locally: Before you even think about deploying your plugin, you should thoroughly test it in a local development environment.
  2. Use Debugging Tools: Tools like WP_DEBUG can help you identify any errors or warnings in your plugin.
  3. Test with Different Themes: Your plugin should work with any theme. Test it with several different themes to ensure there are no conflicts or issues.
  4. Test with Other Plugins: Similar to themes, your plugin should also work alongside other plugins. Test it with a variety of other plugins.
  5. Test on Different WordPress Versions: Your plugin should ideally work on several different versions of WordPress. Test it on older versions, as well as the latest version of WordPress.
  6. Use Automated Testing: Automated tests can help catch issues and prevent regressions. WordPress supports PHPUnit for automated testing and has its own test suite you can use.

Best Practices for WordPress Plugin Development

When writing WordPress plugins, it’s important to adhere to certain best practices to ensure your plugin is efficient, secure, and compatible with other plugins and themes.

  1. Use Namespaces and Classes: Using namespaces and classes can help prevent function name conflicts with other plugins.
  2. Enqueue Styles and Scripts Properly: WordPress has built-in functions to handle the addition of styles and scripts. Never hard-code links to JavaScript or CSS files in your plugin.
  3. Internationalize Your Plugin: WordPress has a large, global user base. It’s best to create your plugin in a way that makes it easy to translate into other languages.
  4. Sanitize Input and Escape Output: Always sanitize any data your plugin receives and escape any data it outputs to prevent security vulnerabilities.
  5. Use WordPress Functions and Libraries: WordPress comes with a plethora of built-in functions and libraries. It’s often unnecessary (and inefficient) to re-write these functions in your plugin.
  6. Test Your Plugin: Test your plugin with different themes and other plugins to ensure it doesn’t cause conflicts or errors.

Distributing Your WordPress Plugin

Once you have developed your WordPress plugin, you might want to share it with the world. Here are the steps to submit your plugin to the WordPress Plugin Directory:

  1. Read the Guidelines: WordPress has detailed guidelines for plugins submitted to its directory. Ensure that your plugin adheres to these guidelines.
  2. Create a Readme File: WordPress requires a specific format for the readme file of plugins. This file contains details about your plugin such as its description, installation steps, screenshots, etc.
  3. Prepare Your Plugin: Ensure that your plugin’s main PHP file has a standard plugin header. Check that all PHP, JavaScript, and CSS files in your plugin are free of errors, notices, and warnings.
  4. Submit Your Plugin: Compress your plugin into a zip file and submit it via the Add Your Plugin page.
  5. Review Process: After submission, your plugin will be reviewed by a member of the WordPress team. They will let you know if any changes are required.
  6. Approval and SVN Repository: Once your plugin is approved, you’ll be given access to an SVN repository where you’ll host your plugin’s files. Once you upload your files and fill out some final details, your plugin will be live!

Remember to maintain your plugin by keeping it updated, fixing any bugs, and adding new features.

Learning Resources for WordPress Plugin Development

WordPress plugin development can be challenging but there are many resources available to help you learn. Here are some you might find helpful:

  1. WordPress Codex: This is the official WordPress online manual. It includes both introductory guides and detailed reference materials.
  2. WordPress Developer Resources: This is another official WordPress resource. It contains the code reference, handbooks, and other developer resources.
  3. WordPress Stack Exchange: This is a question and answer site for WordPress developers and administrators. It can be a useful resource for solving specific problems.
  4. Online Tutorials: There are many online tutorials that can guide you step by step in creating WordPress plugins. Websites like WPBeginner, Smashing Magazine, and Tuts+ have extensive tutorials.
  5. Online Courses: Websites like Udemy, Coursera, and LinkedIn Learning offer courses on WordPress plugin development.
  6. WordPress Meetups: Joining local or online WordPress meetups can connect you with other WordPress developers where you can learn from each other.

Conclusion

Creating a WordPress plugin can be a fun and rewarding process. You’ll be able to extend the functionality of your WordPress site and potentially even contribute to the larger WordPress community by releasing your plugin. With the basic skills and best practices covered in this guide, you’re now well on your way to becoming a proficient WordPress plugin developer!

Of course, this guide just scratches the surface of what’s possible with WordPress plugins. There’s a lot more to learn, such as creating admin pages, handling AJAX requests, and integrating with external APIs. However, mastering these basics is a solid first step in your WordPress plugin development journey. Good luck!

Picture of Katerina Valeria
Katerina Valeria
Hi there! My name is Catherine and I am a professional content creator with a focus on WordPress. I write blog articles for Gloria Themes, sharing my knowledge and expertise on all things related to this popular website platform.

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