I see a lot of posts on the WordPress forums where somebody asks for a plugin that will do foo or a theme that looks like site bar (which may or may not be an actual WordPress site), without bothering what they have found so far.

This is almost always a bad idea.

For starters, there are literally tens of thousands of free plugins and themes available on the WordPress repositories. It is unlikely that someone who sees your posts will be familiar with the handful of plugins or themes which match your query. Time you spent making that post could have been better spent doing something yourself.

Furthermore, just asking for something without having researched it yourself first (and if you have researched it, you’ll be sure to tell us what you’ve found so far and why it is lacking, right?) is the equivalent of just saying “gimme!”. It makes you like you haven’t done your homework. All of the people who work on the forums (and that includes the moderators) are volunteers and do this in their spare time. While they do enjoy helping people, they do expect that people asking for help will help with some of the heavy lifting.

WordPress Makes it Easy

And how do you do some of that heavy lifting if you’re new to WordPress, or to webhosting in general? You can begin by searching the plugin and theme repositories first. Both the plugin and theme repositories have a search feature. Looking for a contact form plugin? Simply type in “contact form” and you’ll be inundated with options. Looking for a theme that’s good for photoblogging? Try searching for “photoblogging” or “photography” or even “photos” and see what you get.

As a plus, the theme directory also has a feature filter. Simply click on the link to show it, and then select those options you are looking for:

WordPress Theme Directory Feature Filter
WordPress Theme Directory Feature Filter

As with all searches, it’s possible, even probably, that you won’t find what you’re looking for the first time around. That’s okay—searching is as much an art as it is a science. But do try a few different search queries before giving up.

OPC — Other People’s Code

If you want to replicate something you’ve seen on somebody else’s website—a nifty image slider, say—you have another tool you can use: their source code. All modern browsers have a “view source” function, which you can activate on most Windows and Linux machines by pressing ctrl + u.

Examining a site’s source code will tell you a lot of things. For a start, you can tell whether a stie is even built on WordPress by searching for “wp-” because WordPress uses that prefix for a lot of its directory names. Here’s an example from this website:

An example of WordPress source code.
An example of WordPress source code.

If it is a WordPress site, you can identify the theme it’s using by looking at it’s style.css file. Because plugins can also load style sheets, look for the one associated with the “themes” folder. Again, here’s an example from this website:

An example of WordPress source code showing the theme used.
An example of WordPress source code showing the theme used.

You can actually click on the link to the style sheet, and you can often find out whehter the theme is available on the WordPress theme repository or if it is a commercial theme. (Or, as in this case, a child theme of another theme.)

If you aren’t looking for an overall appearache or feature, you can also use your browser’s “Inspect” or “Inspect Element” function by right-clicking on a specific element. Try it on the following message block to see what you can find out:

Important!

Try right-clicking on this message block to see what you can find out about it.

Here’s what you can see on the left side, which shows HTML:

An example of WordPress plugin source code.
An example of WordPress plugin source code using the “Inspect Element” function.

If you compare the code you see there with the code you see in the source code example, you can get some idea of which plugin creates that message block. Of course, not all plugins themes or plugins follow best practices, but only in the rarest of cases will you be out of luck.

Putting It All Together

The point of all the above is that by now, you’ve done quite a bit of homework, and you should make a note of that in your forum post. Be sure to mention which themes and plugins you’ve already looked at, and in which ways they do or don’t fulfill your needs.

The key to any good forum post is to ask a specific question. The more specific your query, the more specific an answer you are likely to get. Keep in mind that someone who spends their days up to their elbows in code is very likely to have a different idea of what “specific” means. If in doubt, err in the direction of too much detail. “I’m looking for a blue car” is a place to start, but it’s not as specific as “I’m looking for a late-model, 2-door, Mazda sportscar with a rear spoiler, chrome wheels, a ‘Code is Poetry’ bumper sticker, tinted windows, and remote start.” See the difference?

Examples

Let’s look at a specific exmaple of recommendation-type query and how it might be improved.

Bad query: “I need a plugin to style my sidebar.”

Better query: “I like how this non-WordPress site (www.example.com) styles its sidebar. Is there a plugin that will style my sidebar the same way?”

Even better query: “I like how this non-WordPress site (www.example.com) styles it’s sidebar. I’m currently using the “WP-Sidebar-Foo” plugin to style my sidebar with this code [copy and paste code here, between backticks], but I keep getting this error message: [copy and paste the error message here]. Any ideas on why I’m getting this message and how to make it go away? I’ve already tried faulty-technique-one and faulty-technique-two without results.”

Conclusion

My point here is twofold:

First, if you ask for free advice, it is incumbent upon you to make it easy for people to help you by providing the right amount of information. (I.e., avoid posting more than the relevant few lines of code). In general, this means asking a narrow, specific question that has an answer based on fact rather than opinion.

Second, the more homework you do yourself, the more likely you are to get an answer. I’ve given you some idea of how to do that here, but what I’ve outline here is only the beginning—practice and googling will make you a pro. An old adage says “God helps those who help themselves.” The modern version may very well be “Forum volunteers help those who make themselves easy to help.”

Be easy to help. Do some of the heavy lifting. Ask specific questions.

Comments are welcome.