What is WordPress Multisite?

WordPress is so much more than meets the eye. Behind its user-friendly UI and massive ecosystem of plugins and themes lie some incredibly powerful features. Features that, while thoroughly documented, aren’t necessarily common knowledge. Among the biggest of these hidden gems is WordPress multisite.

What WordPress Multisite Is: The Basics

WordPress multisite is a collection of websites that all share the same WordPress installation.

What is WordPress multisite, you ask? At its most basic, multisite is a collection of websites that all share the same WordPress installation. The core files, themes, plugins and database are shared among each website in what’s collectively referred to as a “network.”

A WordPress multisite network can be comprised of any number of websites. Whether you need two or two hundred, it’s possible – so long as you have enough horsepower from your web host. And, since you’re only using a single installation, keeping core, themes and plugins updated can be done in just one place.

And that’s just scratching the surface of what WordPress multisite can do. Today, we’ll take you on a tour of a WordPress multisite setup, how it works and how to know if it’s the right fit for your project.

When to Use WordPress Multisite

Before we dive into what WordPress multisite is from a more technical standpoint and how to set it up, let’s make sure we know what it’s used for. When is, and when isn’t, WordPress multisite a good solution?

Let’s look at some common scenarios that will help you determine if WordPress multisite is right for your project.

Multisite Is Great for Related Websites

A WordPress multisite network is best utilized when all websites within it are related in some way.

First and foremost, a WordPress multisite network is best utilized when all of the websites within it are related in some way. This allows for centralized management, thus avoiding the task of having to go from site-to-site to perform routine software updates, etc.

Some of the more common usage scenarios include:

Schools

Schools are a great use case for WordPress multisite. Think of an institution that wants to provide faculty and students with their own individual websites.

In this situation, the school’s IT department can provision an individual site and storage space for each person. They might also add specific site meta, which enables for grouping sites together based on custom criteria.

For example, faculty users may have access to certain things that students don’t and vice-versa. While the multisite network is open to all of these people, there are any number of ways to customize for different needs.

Member-Based Organizations

Likewise, a multisite network could power a member-based organization as well. Anyone from leadership to rank-and-file members could have their own personal blog to discuss issues of interest.

Different groups of members within that organization might also have their own sites. You could take things up a notch by installing BuddyPress or bbPress to better facilitate communication.

Businesses With Multiple Locations

Businesses with multiple locations can also benefit. Each location could conceivably have its own WordPress multisite subdomain (location1.myexamplewebsite.com, location2.myexamplewebsite.com, etc.).

There’s also the ability to share content via a plugin such as Broadcast. This would allow each location to have a similar-but-unique online presence.

WordPress Plugin Installation Screen

In any case, WordPress multisite provides an easy-to-manage and scalable solution. Super admins can decide which themes and plugins are available, and exercise fine grain control over every aspect of the network.

When WordPress Multisite Isn’t the Best Fit

While a WordPress multisite network can be quite powerful and convenient, it’s not always the best solution. For example, it’s not recommended for web designers who simply want to place all of their client sites into one spot.

Why? For starters, there’s a risk in tying a disparate group of sites together. Since every site in a network shares the same resources, there are any number of things that could go wrong, such as:

  • A database server outage or corrupted data;
  • Plugin or theme conflicts;
  • Security breaches/malware;
  • A web server running out of memory, processing power or storage;

In short, anything that negatively impacts one site could impact them all. While this is never a good thing, it’s especially troublesome if you have multiple clients sharing that install.

Because of the risks involved, it’s important to carefully consider the pros and cons of utilizing WordPress multisite. There should be some fundamental benefit to putting multiple websites into this single installation. If not, it’s probably better to keep them separated.

Hopefully that’s clear enough to make your decision. If you’d like further language that can help you choose whether or not to use WordPress multisite, read on in our linked article:

Managing Multiple Sites: WordPress Multisite vs Separate Installations

How WordPress Multisite Works

First, let’s take a look at a typical WordPress multisite setup. While it may sound like a highly-complex configuration, the ability to create a multisite network is built right into WordPress core – no extra software is required.

Still, there are a few key concepts to understand:

There Are Different Types of Multisite Networks

Before your race off to start your own WordPress multisite network, it’s important to think about which type of network you want to utilize. This should be based on both the needs of your project, maintenance requirements and even your web host.

Among the biggest decision you’ll need to make is the URL structure. Each site in your network will need to have a different URL – and you have two configurations to choose from:

Path-Based URLs

This is the simplest of the two URL structures. Each site’s address will be a virtual directory off of your main URL.

For example, if your main URL is https://www.mywpnetworksites.com, network site URLs would look like this:

https://www.mywpnetworksites.com/site1/
https://www.mywpnetworksites.com/site2/

The advantages of this configuration are ease of maintenance and compatibility. A path-based URL doesn’t require any special DNS setup or separate domain names. Although, you can still give each site its own domain if you wish.

Adding a new site (which we’ll cover below) requires very little effort. Lastly, it should work with just about any web hosting setup.

Subdomain URLs

This option allows you to utilize a unique subdomain for each website in your network. A WordPress multisite subdomain setup could be a great fit for those who want easier-to-remember URLs or aim to promote them for branding purposes.

Using our main URL from above, a subdomain-based URL would look like this:

https://site1.mywpnetworksites.com
https://site2.mywpnetworksites.com

This does require a bit more setup. You’ll have to create a subdomain for each site and ensure that the DNS is pointed accordingly. With that, it may be difficult to maintain on networks with a lot of sites.

How to Set up a WordPress Multisite Network

Once you’ve decided which type of network you want to use, it’s time to enable multisite WordPress. This takes a combination editing your site’s wp-config.php and .htaccess files, along with configuring some options within the WordPress back end.

Requirements

It’s possible to turn any new installation into a multisite network. For existing sites, you can also convert WordPress to multisite. There are just a couple of requirements:

  • All plugins on your installation must be deactivated. You’ll be able to re-activate them once your multisite network is fully set up.
  • Your WordPress installation must use Pretty Permalinks.

Beyond that, it’s also a good idea to create a full backup of your site in case you run into problems.

Steps to Enable WordPress Multisite

Now it’s time to enable a multisite WordPress network. It only requires a few steps, which we’ll cover here. If you’re looking for more in-depth explanations, WordPress has a helpful guide worth checking out.

1. Allow a multisite network within wp-config.php
Inside wp-config.php, add the following just before the /* That's all, stop editing! Happy blogging. */ comment:

/* Multisite */
define( 'WP_ALLOW_MULTISITE', true );

Upload the revised wp-config.php file and then refresh your web browser.

2. Head to the dashboard and configure settings
Next, log into the WordPress dashboard and navigate to Tools > Network Setup.

WordPress Multisite Network Settings

Fill out the settings for network, including the URL structure, title and email address. Depending on your hosting setup, the available settings may vary.

When finished, click the “Install” button and you’ll be directed to a screen that includes code to copy and paste into your wp-config.php and .htaccess files.

WordPress Multisite Network Code

Once you’ve added the code to the respective files, your WordPress multisite network is ready to go!

Managing a WordPress Multisite Network

Now that your new WordPress multisite network is up and running, we’ll turn our focus to management. The processes here are different than those of a standard, single-site installation.

Here’s what you need to know:

Sites Share Resources, but Can Still Be Fully-Customized

As we mentioned, each site in a multisite network shares the entirety of a WordPress installation. This means, for example, you can use the same theme on every site (or not) and the same is true of plugins. In addition, a single database houses all network sites.

The Super Admin and Other User Roles

Installing a multisite network brings a new user role: Super Admin. Users with this role have control over every aspect of the network. Among other things, a super admin has the capability to:

  • Add or remove networks sites;
  • Install and update themes, plugins and WordPress core;
  • Manage content for each network site;
  • Manage users;

In addition, each site within a network can have its very own set of users – including administrators. Users must be assigned to a specific website in order to gain access.

Note that a single user can be assigned to multiple network sites. Theoretically, they could have different roles on each site. For example, you might assign someone as an administrator on one site while making them an editor on another.

WordPress Theme Availability

As a super admin, you get to choose which themes are available to network websites. By installing and choosing to Network Enable a theme, you are providing administrators of each site with permission to use it. This is handy for situations where you want to limit which themes can be used throughout a network.

Controlling Access to WordPress Plugins

Like themes, plugins can be made available to each site within a network. One key difference is that a super admin can Network Activate a plugin, which essentially forces its use on every site. This ability is handy for providing consistent features and functionality.

For instance, you might network activate a security plugin to ensure that all sites are protected. Or, you might make a page builder plugin network active so that individual site users are able to build their own layouts.

As a super admin, you get to decide which plugins are installed and who can use them. Besides network activating them, a network can be set up to allow individual site administrators to activate or deactivate specific plugins as well.

Also of note is that some plugins have network-wide settings, including the ability to limit what single network site administrators can change. This varies by plugin, so make sure to read up on their documentation to see what type of multisite capabilities are built in.

A Shared WordPress Database

Each site also utilizes the same database, but still maintains its own set of tables, denoted with the network site’s individual ID. This allows for some separation when it comes to things like site content, settings and active plugins. So, even while everything is technically shared, you can still make each website its own unique entity.

WordPress Multisite Database Tables

The bottom line is that network sites don’t have to look or even function the same. Sure, they can share any and all design and functional elements – or they can be completely different. Those decisions are completely up to you. WordPress multisite won’t box you in.

Flexibility in Creating New Websites

Adding new sites to a multisite WordPress installation is a straightforward process. And there are a couple of different avenues for doing so:

Allow Users to Create Their Own Websites

Similar to WordPress.com, a multisite network can be configured to allow users to register on the front end and create their own website. This is perfect for organizational use or creating online communities.

Of course, there are some concerns about the potential for misuse. Spam registrations and malicious actors could take advantage of open site registrations. Thus, it’s important to have the right security measures in place if you’re going this route.

Adding Network Sites Through the WordPress Dashboard

If you’re looking for total control over your multisite network, you can limit new website creation to super admin users only.

To add a new site from the dashboard, navigate to Sites > Add New and fill out the relevant details. Once your site has been created, you’ll be able to go in and starting managing it right away.

Site Settings Screen

Navigating to sites within your network is simple. Utilize the My Sites menu on the upper left of the screen and click on the site you want to visit.

Navigating to a Network Site

WordPress Multisite Puts Related Sites Under One Umbrella

With WordPress multisite, you have the unique ability to place any number of related websites into a single install. They’ll share the same database, themes and plugins – while still allowing plenty of room for customization.

But what is WordPress multisite best at? Perhaps its biggest advantage is in allowing super admins complete control of the network. From a single unified dashboard, you can add or remove sites, install plugins and themes, update software or simply navigate around to specific sites.

In all, WordPress multisite is an incredible tool to have at your disposal. Hopefully our guide has provided you with the necessary knowledge to determine if it’s right for your project.


2 Responses

Comments

  • This is an excellent article, thank you for making it so clear. An excellent follow-on to this article would be a detailed comparison between WP multi-site websites, and add-on domains.

    One of my web clients has one master website, and six other websites that use add-on domains. In the main website’s file structure, they are listed as subdomains, i.e., “addon1.mainsite.com” and “addon2.mainsite.com”, but each can be accessed via their unique site name, “www.addon1.com” and “www.addon2.com”.

    According to your article, this doesn’t seem possible in multi site mode. Am I wrong?

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