Creating and Managing WordPress Multisites

Published in WordPress.

Back in 2010 WordPress introduced the multisite feature—that is, the ability to create a network of sites using a single WordPress installation. With it, you can create new sites instantly, manage them all using a single username and password, and you only have to update WordPress, or the themes and plugins your websites use, once (which, believe me, will save you a lot of time).

In this post I’d like to briefly discuss the pros and cons of WordPress multisites and teach you how to activate this feature in a fresh WordPress installation. So, without further ado, let’s get started!

What is WordPress Multisite?

As I just introduced a few lines above, WordPress multisite is a feature that gives you the ability to create a network of sites from one single WordPress. If you need to manage more than one site, a multisite setup might be the solution you need.

Pros of using WordPress Multisite

There are plenty of reasons for using a multisite installation:

  • As the network administrator, you’ll be able to manage multiple sites from one single Dashboard. No need to use third-party tools—this is pure WordPress!
  • You can install themes and plugins once, and all the sites in your network will be able to use them.
  • Updating stuff is also super easy. You can update WordPress, your plugins, and your theme all at once and all the sites in your network will run the newest versions available.
  • Users can be shared across different sites. This way, you don’t need to create users for two, three, or more websites; you can assign a user to as many sites as you want. And, what’s better, the same user can have different roles on different sites! So, in one site he might be a site administrator, in another site he might be a regular contributor.
  • You can allow users to create their own sites in the network (similar to what WordPress.com does).

Cons of using WordPress Multisite

All that glitters is not gold, though. There are some things you should also take into account if you’re starting to think of running a multisite installation:

  • All sites share the same resources, so if one site goes down, they all go down.
  • In other words, if one site gets hacked, all the sites in your network get hacked (remember that WordPress‘ core files, as well as your plugins‘ and themes’, are all shared by the sites in your network).
  • There are some plugins that don’t play well with multisites.
  • In principle, sites can only be located at one single directory or on subdomains of your main domain. That is, if your WordPress multisite is set at https://acme.com and you want to create a subsite for a certain product, you can use the following URLs: https://acme.com/product and https://product.acme.com, but you can‘t even use a completely different domain such as https://acmeproduct.com.
  • Managing a server that can run a multisite installation is not easy, especially if your sites get a lot of traffic.

Do I Need a Multisite Network?

If you’re interested in running multiple sites at once, WordPress Multisite is one possible solution for doing so. But it’s not the only one. Services like ManageWP allow you to manage multiple (single) sites from one single location, saving you time in a way similar to what WordPress Multisite does.

In the end, using one solution or the other really depends on your particular needs and what you feel more comfortable with. But, as a general rule of thumb, I’d consider using WordPress Multisite in the following scenarios:

  • If you’re interested in running a multi-language site, you can use WordPress Multisite to create a different site for each language. This is what we did with our blog 😇😉
  • A business site in which each product or service it offers has to be “separated” from the rest.
  • A magazine with different sections, probably managed by different teams.
  • Schools and academies that want their students to create their own blogs on school servers.

How to Install and Configure WordPress Multisite

Before we start, let me warn you: in this tutorial I’m assuming you start with a fresh WordPress install. If you aren’t and you want to convert an already-existing WordPress installation into a WordPress Multisite, you can do it, but I recommend you to backup your database and your WordPress files first—if things go wrong, it’ll help you revert your changes and either abort the attempt or start all over again.

First of all, you need to edit wp-config.php. You’ll find this file in the root directory of your (fresh 😉) installation. Open the file and look for the following line:

/* That’s all, stop editing! Happy blogging. */

Once you’ve found it, add the following statement right before it:

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

/* That’s all, stop editing! Happy blogging. */

so that WordPress knows you want to use it as a Multisite. If you’ve done it correctly, you’ll see there’s a new option named Network Setup in your Dashboard » Tools menu:

WordPress Multisite - Network Setup
After you enabled WordPress Multisite in wp-config.php, you’ll have a new option in your Dashboard to actually install WordPress Multisite.

Click on this option and get ready to setup your “Network of WordPress Sites”. As you can see in the following screenshot, you simply need to decide which URL format will be used by the sites in your WordPress Multisite (as we said before, it’s either a sub-domain https://site1.example.com or a sub-directory https://example.com/site1). You’ll also be asked to set a Network Title that identifies everything and the e-mail of the network administrator.

WordPress Multisite - Installation
The process for installing a WordPress Multisite is quite easy. Just select the link structure and fill the required fields.

Once all the required fields are set, just click on Install and WordPress will adapt its database, so that it can allocate multiple sites. But stay with me! We’re not over yet 🙃 There’s one last step you must complete. After the installation process is over, WordPress will ask you to edit wp-config.php a little bit more, as well as your .htaccess file.

How to Enable WordPress Multisite
During the installation process, WordPress requires you to edit a few files in your server. Follow the instructions as depicted in the previous site.

There’s a couple of things you should be aware of, though:

  • WordPress wants you to add a few lines in wp-config.php. Notice the first line (which defines a constant named MULTISITE) in the suggested snippet is the one we added when we started the process; don’t add it again (it’s already there 😅)
  • You have to replace all WordPress rules in your .htaccess file. That is, you’re not supposed to “append” the new lines, but replace old ones with these.

If you followed the instructions carefully, you’re done! 👍

Configure Network Settings

After you’ve activated WordPress Multisite successfully, your setup looks like this:

  1. There’s your regular WordPress site: https://example.com
  2. And its Dashboard: https://example.com/wp-admin/
  3. But now, there’s also a Network Dashboard: https://example.com/wp-admin/network/

You already know how 1 and 2 look like, so why don’t you go ahead and take a look at your Network Dashboard? This is how it looks like:

WordPress Multisite Dashboard
Screenshot of the WordPress Multisite Dashboard.

It looks like a regular WordPress, doesn’t it? Great! There’s no need to learn yet another tool 😆

There are a few differences you should notice, though. On the one hand, the admin bar has now a new option that lets you jump from one site in your network to another quickly and effortlessly. You can see it in the following screenshot:

WordPress Multisite - Admin Bar Menu
Your Dashboards will now include a new menu option in the admin bar to switch from one WordPress to another, as well as to access the network admin quickly.

On the other hand, the menu included in this Dashboard is a “simplified” version of a regular WordPress Dashboard—it only includes the items related to admin tasks, such as plugin or theme management, and there’s nothing about posts or pages.

Another page that’s completely different from what you’re used to is the Settings screen. Among network settings, you’ll encounter the e-mails that are sent to the administrators of newly-created sites, how to populate them by default, and so on. In my opinion, though, the most interesting setting is found under the Registration Settings section:

WordPress Multisite - Registration Settings
WordPress Multisite’s Settings includes an option for determining who can create new sites and users in your Multisite setup.

As depicted in the screenshot above, you have full control on who can register to your network and who can create new sites:

  • Registration is disabled. Only network admins can add new users and/or new sites.
  • User accounts may be registered. Visitors can create (subscriber) accounts in your sites.
  • Logged in users may register new sites. Any logged user (that is, including subscribers) can create new sites in your network.
  • Both sites and user accounts can be registered. New users can subscribe and create new sites, all at the same time.

How to Manage WordPress Multisite

Managing a WordPress Multisite is not very different from managing a regular WordPress installation. Basically, you’ll have to take care of updating WordPress to its latest version, as well as any plugins or themes that you might have installed. On the other hand, you’ll also be able to manage (that is, add, edit, and remove) sites in your network.

Let’s take a look at the most common operations and some of the differences you might encounter when managing a network compared to managing a single site.

Sites

The first and most obvious difference in the network Dashboard is the Sites menu. Here, you’ll be able to manage all the sites in your network. The following screenshot shows how the list of sites looks like in your Dashboard. As you can see, it’s pretty similar to how posts or pages are listed on a regular WordPress site, isn’t it?

WordPress Multisite - Site Management
The Network Dashboard offers a familiar interface for adding, viewing, and removing your sites.

If you want to create a new site, you simply need to click on Add New and fill all the fields. These include:

  • Site Address (URL). The name of the directory (or sub-domain, depending on how you configured your Multisite) of the new site.
  • Site Title. The title of the site.
  • Site Language. The locale that will be used in that site.
  • Admin Email. The e-mail address of the person who’ll be responsible of administering the new site.
WordPress Multisite - Adding New Sites
Adding a site is as simple as filling these three fields: tell WordPress its URL, name the site, and type in an e-mail address for contacting the new site’s webmaster.

And that’s it! Creating a site is super easy 🙌👏

You can also edit existing sites by simply hovering on them in the Sites screen and clicking on Edit. The Edit screen is organized in four tabs:

  1. Info. Basic information about the site.
  2. Users. The users within the site.
  3. Themes. The currently active theme that’s used in the site.
  4. Settings. Some advanced settings that you can tweak to adapt the behavior of this site.
WordPress Multisite - Site Settings from Network Admin Screen
There’s plenty of settings you can tweak for any given site in your network.

Plugins and Themes

By default, site administrators cannot install new plugins or themes—they can only activate or deactivate the plugins and themes that the network administrator installed. This approach offers one extra layer of security, because regular site administrators won’t be able to add unknown or malicious code in your WordPress installation, and it’s the network administrator’s task to keep everything up-to-date.

WordPress Multisite - Plugin Management
Using the Plugin List in the Network Dashboard, you’re able to activate or deactivate a certain plugin on all sites in your network. One click and everything’s updated!

The previous screenshot shows the list of installed plugins in a WordPress Multisite. Notice that there’s a special action named Network Activate, which doesn’t appear in a regular WordPress installation. If you “network activate” a plugin, the plugin will be active in all the sites in your network, and site administrators won’t have any control on them. If, on the other hand, you install a plugin but don’t “network activate” it, the plugin will be available to site administrators and they’ll be the ones deciding whether they want to use the plugin or not.

Wrapping up

I hope you enjoyed this “brief” introduction to WordPress Multisite. As you’ve seen, it’s quite easy to set up a multisite—getting it up and running is straightforward. I personally like how intuitive it is to navigate from one site to the other, all beautifully presented in a Dashboard I’m already familiar with.

Now it’s your turn! Do you use WordPress Multisites? Where? When? How’s it working for you? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Featured image by U.S. Army MWR.

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4 thoughts on “Creating and Managing WordPress Multisites

  1. “…sites can only be located at one single directory or on subdomains of your main domain.”

    This is not true. You can absolutely use multisite with different domains.

    1. Thanks, Nick. You’re absolutely right—I don’t know what I was thinking about when I wrote that. I stand corrected 🙂

  2. Am I permitted to deploy Nelio A/B Testing across select WordPress Multisite client sites? I’m asking both as a Superadmin, and as a Standard Admin User on one of the sites. Are the 2 instances independent? If I can do it, is it within the ELA?

    1. From our plugin’s perspective, each sub-site in a multisite installation is independent from the others. So, unless you have a subscription that allows multiple instances, you’ll only be able to use the plugin in one site at a time.

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