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What Is WordPress Multisite? With Setup Guide

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In this post, you'll learn what WordPress multisite is and how to get the most from it. I'll show you how to manage a multisite network, and I'll explain what multisite is used for.

You might have heard conflicting stories about how multisite works and what it can do for you. Or you might be tempted to give it a try but don’t know where to start.

In this article, I’ll explain everything you need to know about WordPress multisite. I’ll show you what it is, how to get it set up, and what it can do for you as a WordPress user.

So let’s get started!

Install WordPress Multisite in 60 Seconds

If you just want to get started with WordPress Multisite, you can jump straight into our 60 seconds setup guide!

 

What Exactly Is WordPress Multisite?

WordPress multisite is a way of running WordPress so that you can have as many websites as you want on one WordPress installation.

Normally, if you wanted to have more than one website, you’d install WordPress for each new website, set it up, and install the themes and plugins you need.

But with multisite, it’s different.

Once you’ve got multisite activated on your WordPress installation, you’ll have a network. This means you can add more sites to your network without having to install WordPress again. It also means you only have to install themes and plugins once, no matter how many sites you’re using them on.

You become the network administrator, and each site in your network can either be created by you or by someone else, who then becomes the site administrator for your site. Or you can create sites and add other users as site admins.

If you’ve ever had a WordPress.com site, you’ve used WordPress multisite, as WordPress.com is one vast multisite network with millions of sites.

wordpresscom

Uses for WordPress Multisite

WordPress multisite has many possible uses. I run a number of multisite networks, all of which I use in different ways.

Some of the options are:

  • Create a personal multisite network for hosting your own sites. This saves you having to keep multiple WordPress installations updated and backed up.
  • Create a multisite network for hosting client sites. With domain mapping, each site will have its own domain. As far as visitors are concerned, each site will look exactly as if it was a standalone site. But you’ll only have one WordPress installation to maintain, which will save you time and hassle.
  • Use a multisite network to host sites in which you use the same core set of plugins and/or themes. On my client sites, I have a set of plugins which I always use for each new site (SEO, backups, performance, etc.). It’s much easier to host all of these sites on one network and only have one copy of each of the plugins to keep up to date. This also applies if all of your site’s themes are child themes of one theme framework, and you only have to keep the parent theme updated in one place.
  • Create a network for a community so that community members can create their own blogs. You can add plugins to let you share content between sites and interact as a community.
  • For a business, create a network to host sites for your different divisions or departments. This means you only have one WordPress installation to manage, and you only have to set team members up with one user account.
  • Create a network that allows people to create their own sites for a subscription fee. You can offer a free ‘basic’ plan and then charge for extra features. This is similar to the model offered by WordPress.com.
  • Create a network of user sites that’s aimed at a specific niche or market. This way, you can provide plugins and themes that are particularly useful for that sector. A good example is edublogs, which lets educators create sites.
edublogs

The Main Differences Between WordPress Multisite and Standard WordPress

There are a few key differences between WordPress multisite and a standard WordPress site.

  • A standard WordPress installation will only host one site. A multisite network can host anything from two sites to millions of sites, like WordPress.com.
  • The site administrator of the original site the network was added to becomes the network administrator for the entire network.
  • Individual sites can be managed by the network administrator and/or by individual site administrators. An individual can be a site admin for multiple sites in the network.
  • Each site in the network will have its own website address. This can be based on the address of the network, e.g subdirectories (https://mynetwork.com/mysite) or on subdomains (https://mysite.mynetwork.com). Or you can direct other domains to your network and set up individual sites to use those domains just as if they were a separate site on that domain.
  • Only the network administrator can install and update themes and plugins. Site administrators can activate themes and plugins for their site, depending on whether the network admin has allowed this.
  • Only the network admin can update WordPress itself.
  • A theme or plugin that’s used on multiple sites in the network is only stored once. This saves space on your server as well as time keeping things updated.
  • When you activate multisite, WordPress creates some extra database tables. There’s a new set of tables for each site in the network, plus some extra tables to store information about the network itself.
  • Each user in the network is only stored once, and not duplicated for individual sites. This means you can add an existing user to more sites easily.
  • As the network admin, you get access to extra screens which are designed to help you manage the network and the sites within it.
network admin screen

Activating WordPress Multisite

To set up a multisite network, you activate multisite on an existing WordPress installation. This involves adding some code to two files in your WordPress installation.

Follow along with my video about how to set up WordPress multisite:

 

This is a lesson from my Complete Guide to WordPress Multisite—follow along and you will learn how to use WordPress multisite from A to Z.

Adding Sites to a Multisite Network: The Options

Once you’ve got your multisite network set up, it’s time to create some sites. There are two ways of doing this:

  • You create sites as the network administrator, and then manage these yourself or add other users as site admins.
  • You enable site creation by other people, who then become the site administrators of sites they create.

You can see how in my video on adding sites to a multisite network:

 

To create sites as the network administrator, go to Network Admin > Sites > Add New. You will be taken to a screen where you fill in the details of the new site.

To enable site creation by users, go to Network Admin > Settings > Network Settings.

Scroll down to the Registration Settings section and select the option you want. You can allow site creation by existing users or by anyone. If someone who isn’t already a registered user on your network creates a site, they will have a user account set up for them at the same time.

network settings - only existing users can create sites

Managing a WordPress Multisite Network

Managing a multisite network is a little more complex than managing a single site. You’ll have more sites running on your network, more users, more themes and plugins, and more content.

A key difference between managing a network and a collection of separate WordPress sites is that you only have one WordPress installation to keep updated. You can update WordPress core and all your themes and plugins from one place.

This does, however, mean that you have to be more careful when carrying out updates. If something goes wrong during the update, it’s not going to affect just one site, but potentially all the sites in your network. If users or clients are paying you to host their sites, it could cause serious problems for your business.

So it’s essential that you have a staging version of your network that you can use to test updates. A good hosting provider will let you create a staging version of your site, use it for testing, and then push the changes you made from your staging site to your live site.

Alternatively, you can set up your own staging environment using a tool like vagrant.

Before you make any updates to your live site, make sure you’ve tested them first and that there aren’t any incompatibilities or bugs in the new versions of your themes or plugins.

Frequently Asked Questions About WordPress Multisite

I’ve been working with multisite for many years, and these are some of the questions I get asked the most.

How do I map a domain to a site in a multisite network?

It used to be that you had to install a plugin to do this, but it’s now much simpler. All you need to do is:

  • Ensure the domain name is pointing at the network by changing the DNS settings with your domain registrar.
  • Go to Network Admin > Sites and click Edit under the site you want to map the domain to.
  • On the site settings screen, change the domain in the Site Address (URL) field. Click the Save Changes button, and you’re done.
changing the site address

Can I move my WordPress site into a multisite network?

Yes, you can. You can either create a multisite network from your existing site, meaning it will be the base site in a new network, or you can migrate it into an existing multisite network. It’s not as simple as migrating it to another standard site, but it can be done.

Do I have to set up a fresh WordPress installation to activate multisite?

No. You can activate multisite on an existing WordPress site. The only difference between this and a multisite network on a new site is that you won’t be able to use subdirectories for your site URL structure—only subdomains. You can still use domain mapping.

I have a site on a network and want to move it to my own standalone site. Can I do this?

Yes. Follow our guide to migrating WordPress out of multisite.

I’m a site administrator. How can I install themes and plugins on my site?

As a site admin, you can’t install themes and plugins unless you are also the network administrator. If you need a specific theme or plugin for your site, ask the network admin if they’d be happy to install it and activate it for your site. If the theme or plugin isn’t from a reputable source, they’ll probably refuse, so make sure you do your research.

I manage a network on which people are allowed to create their own sites. How can I keep my network secure?

If you allow site creation on your network, there is a risk of ‘splogs’—spammy blogs. You can prevent this by only allowing already registered users to create sites on the network. You can also set WordPress to notify you when new sites are created, and you can use a CAPTCHA plugin on your site registration page.

What extra screens do I have access to as a network administrator?

When you activate WordPress multisite, you get a new section of the dashboard which is the network dashboard. This includes the following new screens:

  • the Sites section, with screens for adding and managing sites
  • the Settings section, with a Network Settings screen and a Network Setup screen

You may also have screens for specific plugins you’ve installed that work with the network instead of individual sites.

What does it mean when I network activate a plugin?

Network activating a plugin can mean one of two things:

  • The plugin works at a network level and helps you to manage the network, so you can only activate it for the network.
  • The plugin operates at a site level. If you network activate it, that means it’s active for all sites in the network, and site admins can’t deactivate it.

Conclusion

WordPress multisite is an incredibly useful tool for anyone who wants to run more than one website without the hassle of managing more than one WordPress installation. Follow the guide above to activate multisite and get it running the way you want it to.

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