Why You Should Avoid Using Nulled Plugins and Themes

It’s a general rule that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. That’s especially true when it comes to nulled themes and plugins for WordPress sites. What can seem like a great deal on software can damage your website and result in more problems and costs than any potential savings. For safety and security, it’s important to be able to identify and avoid nulled software.

What are nulled plugins and nulled themes?

Nulled plugins and themes are versions of paid software that have been hacked to allow access and use even when you haven’t purchased a valid license. They are often available for sale at greatly reduced prices from third-party websites, which advertise much cheaper versions of the software without mentioning that they’re illegitimate copies. 

These types of sales are unethical and can cause problems for your website. Nulled software can contain malware or simply use out of date, insecure code. What seems like a good option for cheap plugins and themes can turn into a broken website and stolen user data.

It can be tempting to use nulled software if you’re on a budget or if you’re wanting to test features and functionality before committing to a paid product. While you might save some money in the short term, it will cost you far more to undo the damage that a nulled plugin or theme can cause. 

What type of problems can be caused by nulled plugins?

Nulled software has been altered from the original version, which automatically means that it can no longer be trusted. In addition to simple coding errors, bugs, or conflicts, nulled plugins and themes can introduce more serious problems for your WordPress site.

1. Security issues

The biggest concern when it comes to nulled software is security issues. Nulled software can contain malicious code that might compromise sensitive data, break site functionality, or otherwise cause harm. Many of these plugins inject malware into your site that provides back-door entry. This type of access can cause your site to be taken down, altered without your knowledge, or hijacked to point to a different website address.

Even if there’s no malware injected into a nulled plugin, it’s still very likely to have out of date code. Code that’s outdated can present its own security and functionality issues. If you don’t know which version of the plugin or theme you’re using, then you won’t know when urgent updates are required. Not being able to keep your plugins and themes up to date leaves your site vulnerable to hackers exploiting security loopholes.

Detecting the problem, fixing the code, and restoring your site is expensive and time-consuming, not to mention stressful. If your site is breached by a hacker, you may need to restore a backup of your site. And if you don’t have a backup available, you’ll have to extract the malicious code from within the database, which is not easy. 

2. Privacy issues

Malware added to nulled plugins or themes can also be used to gather sensitive information from your site. Data like login IDs, customer names, and email addresses of your community members can be sent to a third-party who can sell it or use it for phishing purposes. 

Malware like this can be very hard to detect as it doesn’t interfere with the normal activity of your website. Often a major data breach can occur before you even know that there’s a problem. The only indication you may have that your site has been compromised is if you begin getting a lot of angry messages from your site’s users. Rebuilding that lost trust would be extremely difficult and time-consuming.

One of the great things about WordPress is that it’s open source software, so there’s a huge community of developers. Whatever special functionality you’re looking for, or whatever kind of customized design you need, chances are that someone has a solution.

While the free WordPress themes and plugins in the WordPress.org library are open source, some paid plugins are sold with mixed licenses. This means that some parts of the code are protected by copyright laws and if you’re using a nulled WordPress theme or plugin, then you don’t have legal permission to do so.

Or you may even face legal problems if the use of nulled plugins causes data loss, theft, or other issues for your site visitors or customers. This can be costly and damage your reputation. 

4. Decreased search engine rankings

If your site contains malware, it can end up on Google’s blocklist, which can seriously plummet your search engine rankings, site traffic, and sales.

And, if there’s a lot of spam on your site, your core messaging is overloaded and scrambled, making it hard for Google to truly understand what you’re all about. They may not consider your website relevant for your target keywords and therefore won’t display it in search results.

5. No software support

One of the major benefits of paid plugins and themes is ongoing access to support. 

WordPress software updates typically include:

  • Upgrades to fix security loopholes and bugs. Developers regularly release updates in order to fix errors in the code and address security loopholes. By not using the latest version of a plugin or theme, you have a higher likelihood of getting hacked or something breaking on your site.
  • Continued compatibility with WordPress. WordPress regularly releases updated versions of their software and themes — and plugins usually need to be updated to stay compatible. Since nulled software can’t be updated, your site might experience functionality issues or fatal errors that break the website entirely.
  • Access to all documentation and community forums. When you have questions or need help, community forums and developer documentation can be invaluable resources. Documentation can help you with proper settings, understanding how the software works, common issues that users encounter and how to troubleshoot them.
  • Access to support from the original developer. No one knows a piece of software like the person or team that built it. Being able to go directly to the developer for support can get your problems solved quickly. Without a receipt of purchase or a valid license key, the developer won’t be able to help you, and you’ll be stuck trying to troubleshoot your issues by yourself or hiring another developer to do it for you.

The benefits you get from using legitimate plugins with a valid license are essential. This helps ensure that your software stays running smoothly and doesn’t cause conflicts on your website (or if it does, that the issues are swiftly resolved). With proper support, you’ll make sure your plugins and themes are installed and configured correctly, and that they continue to work in harmony with WordPress.

6. Ethical issues

Not only can using nulled software lead to immediate trouble like a broken or hacked website, data theft and legal headaches, or a drop in your search rankings, it’s also unethical and discouraging to developers.

By purchasing nulled plugins or themes, you’re failing to support the hard work and efforts of WordPress developers, who are often working on software enhancements on their own time. Developers may abandon projects that aren’t receiving enough support, and find little to spur them to answer the call for new functionality.

Purchasing directly from the developer or reputable online marketplaces also ensures that the author has the resources to keep their software up to date, improve it, and continue to add new features. Supporting high-quality plugin and theme authors not only benefits website owners but also their site visitors. Impeccable code, thoughtful user interfaces, and extended functionality are all key to improving user experience and keeping visitors coming back to your site. The only way this happens is with financial support.

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How can you identify nulled software?

If you’re looking to add a plugin or theme to your website, make sure it’s not a nulled version. 

Here are warning signs of a nulled plugin:

  • Multiple premium plugins or themes from different developers bundled together and sold in bulk. Note, however, that some themes include legitimate licenses for additional plugins.
  • Ads on newsgroups or social media sites that advertise paid plugins or themes at a deep discount or for free
  • Download sites that explicitly use “nulled” or “null” in their name or domain
  • Sites that have a bunch of spammy ads for other websites — especially those that look like download buttons for the software but actually take you to another website
  • Pricing that’s drastically lower than on the official developer’s site

Be sure to do your research to determine if a plugin you’re considering has a paid version or not. A paid version should come with a license key of some kind. Nulled plugins will never come with a license key. So if you’re being offered a totally free, no-license-key-required version of the software, then that’s going to be a nulled version.

example of a license key in WordPress
Example of a license key for a premium plugin

What if you already have some suspicious plugins and themes installed on your site? 

You can verify that your website is safe by:

  • Running a security scan using a reliable WordPress malware scanner
  • Checking each plugin on the back end of your website to see if it has a license key
  • Manually searching for each plugin and theme online to see if it’s a paid plugin 

If you detect a nulled plugin or theme on your existing website, you’ll need to treat your site as if it has been hacked and clean it using a backup and restore plugin or manually removing the plugin and any associated malicious code.

What’s the best way to acquire WordPress plugins for your website?

The good news is that finding safe, reliable, properly-licensed software for WordPress is quite easy. There are many free, freemium, and paid plugins available that will build out the functionality that you need in a safe and secure way. 

Free solutions

For free solutions, stick to the WordPress plugin and theme directories. Plugins in the directory are monitored and checked for injected malware or hacks. They are also marked or removed if they no longer meet GPL standards, have not been tested with the latest WordPress versions, or haven’t been upgraded in a long time. 

adding a theme in the WordPress dashboard

Installing from your WordPress dashboard is the safest, most secure way to make sure you’re adding safe extensions to your website. However, you can also download plugins and themes directly to your computer and upload them into WordPress yourself using the plugin and theme upload feature or via secure file transfer protocol (SFTP). However you choose to add them to your site, make sure your free plugins and themes come from the WordPress directories.

Freemium and paid plugins or themes

If you require the advanced functionality of a paid plugin or theme, be sure to purchase from the author’s website directly or a reputable software marketplace. Create an account to track your purchase and get notifications of and access to future updates. Make sure your license key is properly installed and configured and, if the plugin requires a subscription, ensure that your payment information is kept up to date.

If you’re afraid to purchase an expensive plugin subscription due to the upfront cost, keep in mind that most premium software includes a return policy. If your purchase doesn’t work out for your website, you can ask for a refund within a specified time frame (usually 30 days). If you’re not sure if a plugin will work with your theme or other plugins you’re using, you can always ask the developer pre-sales questions or check their FAQ for any known conflicts. Play it safe and buy from the source.

Use reliable authors

To make sure you’re working with reliable authors, search for reviews and recommendations, and stick with well-known brands. When possible, use plugins that provide a good cross-section of functionality, like Jetpack. The fewer plugins you use, the less likely you are to experience conflicts. It will also reduce the need to cobble together solutions from mixed sources, which can be cumbersome to keep track of and troubleshoot when you run into issues.

Remember, your website is an essential part of your business and the heart of your reputation and services. Keep it safe and secure by avoiding nulled plugins and themes, and sticking with the WordPress names you know and trust.

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Simon Keating profile
Simon Keating

Simon has worked in marketing and product development for over 10 years, previously at HubSpot, Workday, and now Automattic (Jetpack). He has a varied education, with a degree in chemical engineering and a masters in computer science to his name. His passion is helping people and their businesses grow.

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