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Understanding WordPress Multisite

To the outside observer, to manage a single WordPress website, you must be a jack of all trades. You troubleshoot tech issues, keep the site secure, and create a user-friendly experience for visitors.

If you manage multiple WordPress sites, you’ve become the stuff of legends. Not only do you read and write fluent CSS, but you constantly cycle through multiple WordPress websites, updating plugins and core files as the need arises.

And if you do all of that without Multisite, we have some exciting news for you: there’s an easier way. Let’s look at everything you need to know about WordPress Multisite, including its benefits, features, and uses.

What is WordPress Multisite?

At its core, Multisite (sometimes called WordPress MU) is a tool that simplifies the management and creation of multiple connected websites. The WordPress multisite feature allows you to create a network of similar virtual sites under the umbrella of a single WordPress installation.

Think of Multisite as a giant oak tree. All of the branches (in this case, the WordPress network of sites) connect to a single trunk (the original WordPress installation). Anything that happens to the trunk affects all of the branches, but an issue with an individual bough won’t necessarily impact the rest of the tree.

You can activate Multisite on any WordPress version after WordPress 3.0—either upon initial setup or on an established WordPress site.

WordPress Multisite vs. WordPress Installation: What’s the Difference?

A standard WordPress installation is essentially an instance of WordPress. When you download and install WordPress to use as your CRM, you end up with a WordPress installation.

WordPress Multisite is a type of installation whereby you can manage multiple sites from one database. Most of the core functions of these two installation types are the same. There are, however, three crucial differences.

1. The Number of Sites

The most evident difference between the two is the existence of multiple websites on a WordPress Multisite network.

When you first install WordPress, you have a single site. You can create separate pages within that website, but they will all live under the same installation.

With Multisite, you (and potentially others, which we’ll touch upon later) can create an unlimited number of websites in a network—without having to install WordPress an unlimited number of times. These websites can even have unique domain names.

2. File Storage

When you activate Multisite, some back-end changes occur around data and media storage. You’ll now find that each site in the network has its own folders for media uploads, as well as its own database table. However, some network-wide data, such as user information, continues to be stored together.

3. User Roles

In a standard WordPress installation, there are five user roles: 

  • Administrator
  • Editor
  • Author
  • Contributor
  • Subscriber

As the topmost in the hierarchy, the Administrator can view and edit all site features, including plugins and themes.

Activating the Multisite feature adds a sixth role: Super Admin. The Super Admin has the same sweeping powers as an Administrator, but across the entire network. Administrators still exist for each site, but their capabilities are slightly reduced.

This distinction between Administrators and Super Admins leads to one of the many notable benefits of Multisite.

What are the Benefits of WordPress Multisite?

So far, you could accomplish everything we’ve mentioned about Multisite through multiple WordPress installations. So why take the time to set up Multisite? We’ll give you five good reasons.

1. It Allows Multiple Levels of Administrators

One of the most practical features of Multisite is the creation of the Super Admin role.

Whoever activates Multisite on the original WordPress installation becomes the network admin (other Super Admins can be added later on). They gain administrator privileges for every subsequent site they create, as well as any other user-created sites. This authority allows them to take full advantage of WordPress’ admin capabilities, including:

  • Installing WordPress Themes and plugins across the network
  • Adding and editing users
  • Updating WordPress core files
  • Deleting plugins and themes

A site Administrator on a standard WordPress installation would have the above capabilities, but site Administrators within a Multisite network do not. While they can perform all of the duties required to run a website—activating plugins, deleting posts, editing pages, uploading files, and more—they can’t make significant, network-wide changes.

Ultimately, this system is beneficial for two reasons:

First, it promotes security within the network. Site Administrators can’t make any damaging or permanent changes that might compromise the network—those decisions are left to the knowledgeable Super Admin.

Second, it allows the Super Admin to delegate responsibilities. Administrators can run the day-to-day of their individual websites, while Super Admins can focus on high-level issues.

2. It Promotes Consistency

Unless you decide otherwise, every new website within a Multisite network will follow one of two naming conventions:

  • Subdirectories: For example, wpengine.com/examplewebsite.
  • Subdomains: For example, examplewebsite.wpengine.com.

In both cases, you’ll notice that each new site includes the title of the original WordPress installation (wpengine). This feature allows you to create a web of separate sites that share a name—perfect for building brand recognition and instilling trust in your customers.

3. It Increases Efficiency

Web developers rejoice: Multisite saves you time and effort. Here’s how:

  • A Single WordPress Installation: The days of installing WordPress again for each new website are over. With Multisite, it’s a one-time occurrence.
  • Simplified Updates: When the Super Admin updates the WordPress plugins and themes on the main site, these updates will trickle out to any sites within the network that use these assets.
  • Streamlined Site Backups: As with updates, there’s no need to tackle each site individually. A Super Admin can backup the entire network in one fell swoop.

4. It’s a Better Use of Server Space

Because every site within the network relies on the same set of plugins, themes, and core WordPress files, there’s much less code taking up space on the server. While the text and media on each new site will eat up a minuscule amount of disk space, you’ll use much less than you would if each website were a separate WordPress installation. 

5. It’s Cost-Effective

By saving time, energy, and server space, you save yourself and your business money, too. You may not need as powerful of a WordPress hosting plan or you might be able to consolidate staff responsibilities. Regardless, each of these factors can reduce overall spending.

When to Use WordPress Multisite

Creating a Multisite network is straightforward and beneficial—but it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Those using WordPress’ basic functions to manage a single website won’t need to worry about Multisite. With that said, there are several common scenarios in which the WP Multisite feature makes sense.

Using WordPress Multisite When You Run Multiple Sites at Once

Whether you use WordPress for business or personal reasons, running multiple sites at a time can be taxing on resources.

If you find yourself using the same theme for several of your WordPress sites, installing the same plugins every time, and spending hours updating each site individually, consider activating Multisite. Instead of going into each site to fix a plugin or edit a parent theme, you can easily make overarching changes that affect your entire network.

Using WordPress Multisite When You Want End-Users to Create Their Own Sites

One common reason to install WordPress Multisite is to allow end-users to piggyback off the base site and create websites—either for free or for a monthly fee.

Popular blogging sites like Tumblr or WordPress.com exemplify this approach. On these websites, anyone can create an account and start blogging. Although every user-generated site can be personalized, each one still exists within the confines of the network.

Colleges and universities often use Multisite similarly. Each department can have a website within the larger framework of the school’s site, or students and faculty can run personal blogs. In this way, Multisite promotes collaboration and individuality within a controlled environment.

Using WordPress Multisite When Building a Company Intranet 

Multisite has several outward-facing purposes, but it’s also an effective tool for handling internal affairs. Rather than have your company intranet spread out over several smaller sites (or one sprawling website), you can lean on Multisite to improve the employee experience.

For example, you might build a unique website for each department and only give Administrator capabilities to department managers. Multisite also simplifies content sharing among sites within the network, making employee collaboration easier than ever.

Using WordPress Multisite When Your Business is International

If your business operates in several countries or regions, Multisite is for you. After network setup, you can build individual sites for each country or language you work with.

Whether you rely on a WordPress Multisite plugin or have area managers handle each regional site, you can maintain a cohesive, global presence. Additionally, you can keep core content uniform across all sites while tailoring your offerings to specific laws and cultures.

Make the Most of WordPress Multisite with WP Engine

A WordPress Multisite setup may simplify site management and free up server space, but it can still be storage- and bandwidth-intensive. With a WP Engine hosting plan, you can rest easy knowing your network will run smoothly—whether it contains ten sites or a thousand.

We’ve also managed to simplify Multisite activation—a single button in your User Portal transforms your standard WordPress installation into a powerful Multisite network.
For more information on Multisite, WordPress hosting plans, or other WordPress solutions, get in touch with our experts today.

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