If you’re looking to launch a website for your business, blog, store, or portfolio, it's hard to find a much better deal than WordPress. The free CMS lets you piece together an impressive, engaging online presence without having to touch any code.

But, what if you want more than a single site? Maybe you need to build a network of similarly functioning websites for your organization. Or, you want to run a network of blogs and allow new writers to create their own sites with ease. If that’s you, don’t scrap WordPress just yet. The platform includes a native feature for website networks — it’s called WordPress Multisite.

Multisite takes much of the strain and friction out of running multiple WordPress websites and might be a fitting solution for your needs. However, it’s not for everyone. In this guide, we’ll teach you what Multisite is, how it works, whether it’s actually the best solution for your case, and, if so, how to get it installed.

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In certain cases, establishing a multisite network is much more efficient and cost-effective than creating multiple individual installations of WordPress. Compared to separate installations, multisite networks consume less server space and can easily share resources like plugins and themes across their constituent sites.

Multisite has been a part of WordPress since version 3.0, released in 2010, and has since become an invaluable feature for many WordPress administrators to look over networks consisting of dozens, hundreds, or possibly thousands of sites.

How WordPress Multisite Works

Multisites work a lot like normal WordPress installations, but with some extra features added in. To understand what makes WordPress Multisite different from a typical WordPress installation, let’s review some of the key aspects of multisites.

User Roles and Permissions

Standard WordPress websites have five user roles by default. Listed from most authority to least authority, these roles are administrator, editor, author, contributor, and subscriber. Multisite adds one more role above the administrator, called a super administrator (also called the network administrator, or the super admin for short).

Super admins have the most control of any user role. Their job is to oversee the entire network and all the websites within it — we can call these “subsites” of the network. Whereas administrators are responsible for only one or a few sites in the network, the super admin can access and control any subsite under their network as if they were an administrator for that site.

An administrator who creates a multisite with their WordPress installation will become a super admin, and has access to a slightly modified dashboard. In this dashboard, super admins can manage their networked websites. Importantly, super admins have permission to install plugins and themes on certain sites or across all websites in the network at once. In a multisite configuration, (regular) administrators cannot install themes or plugins on their sites, but they can activate or deactivate them.

Depending on how the network is set up, super admins may need to create websites in the network for new admins, and/or they may allow users to create new websites themselves. Super admins can also assign administrators to one or more sites in the network.

Themes and Plugins

In networked WordPress configurations, plugins and themes aren’t installed on individual websites. Instead, they’re stored in the network and then activated on individual websites. This is because websites in a network share plugin and theme files, rather than each site getting its own copy.

As super admin, you can activate themes and plugins on all networked websites, and toggle plugins and themes on and off for specific websites. Super admins can also update themes and plugins across all subsites at once.

This is different from how typical WordPress installations work, but allows for a more secure network. Since all sites in the network share a codebase, a harmful theme or plugin carelessly installed by a website administrator can affect the entire network. By limiting this permission to super admins, it keeps the network better protected.

Domains and Domain Mapping

Multisites are created by taking a standard WordPress installation and adding subsites onto it. All websites on a Multisite share the same domain name, which is the domain name of the original WordPress website. In setup, super admins choose to separate their websites by subdomain (e.g., website.network.com) or by subdirectory (e.g., network.com/website).

Alternatively, if you want websites in the network to have unique domains, you can map custom domains to sites in the network. This way, a subsite will look to visitors like any other website. You can map any domain to a subsite in your Multisite network admin settings.

Code and Storage

What differentiates WordPress Multisites from separate individual WordPress installations is the back-end configuration. In Multisites, all subsites use the same core files, and the files for all websites exist in the same WordPress directory.

Theme and plugin files are also stored in this common directory, allowing any site in the network to use the same theme/plugin files. Sharing these files — instead of keeping separate copies for each site — saves a lot of server space, helping with storage costs and performance.

Not everything is shared across sites, though. Different websites will have their own media assets and data. Therefore, each site has its own uploads folder and database tables on the back end.

Benefits of a WordPress Multisite

WordPress multisite networks offer a variety of advantages that you’ll want to consider when creating a network of related WordPress websites. These include:

Efficient, Centralized Site Management

The primary benefit of Multisite is that it makes many administrative tasks much less time-consuming. For any changes you would otherwise need to make one-by-one on each subsite, a super admin can accomplish in one swoop, from installing themes and plugins to updating software to modifying user permissions to changing other network settings. It’s an efficient way to keep your whole network up-to-date and working as you want.

Multisite networks also eliminate the need to install WordPress for each networked site — just install WordPress once, activate your Multisite, and add new websites without having to repeat the installation process.

Scalability

Multisite allows for unlimited WordPress subsites under one URL. This means that, as super admin, you can tack on as many websites to your network as you’ll ever need, whenever you need them. Plus, you may delete old sites without affecting the rest of the network. If you’d like, you can also configure the network to allow users to start their own websites without having to go through you.

Because all networked sites use the same core files, plugin files, and theme files, adding a new website is much more lightweight than a website on its own installation. Super admins can cut down on server costs thanks to this configuration.

Data Sharing

Since subsites on a multisite network are connected on the back end, this makes it much easier for developers to apply network-wide changes. Updates to core, plugin, and theme files will apply to all networked sites using those files. You won’t have to worry about some websites on the network falling behind with updates.

The tradeoff here is that any bugs in these same files affect the whole network, so major changes should be worked out in a test environment before deploying to the network.

This benefit also extends to login credentials. WordPress login information is stored for the whole network, so credentials on one subsite will work for other subsites — users won’t have to make new usernames and passwords to access each subsite. Super admins can also grant users access to new subsites without having to create new accounts for them.

Permission Control

Speaking of user access, WordPress Multisite allows for tight control over who can modify the network and its individual subsites. Multisite networks concentrate control of the network to one or a couple of super admins, in charge of adding new users and assigning permissions.

For many WordPress users, this setup is preferable to a collection of dozens of separately administered websites with minimal oversight. In a Multisite, super admins have a bird’s-eye view of the network that enables them to quickly identify and address problems.

WordPress Multisite Use Cases

Generally speaking, WordPress multisite networks are best for when you want to manage a group of WordPress sites that function similarly. This means sites that share the same hosting, use similar plugins and themes, and other custom extensions you want to add.

Some common use cases for WordPress Multisites include:

  • a business with several subsites for different services or brands, like an international brand that deploys different subsites for each of its languages.
  • an organization with subsites that all follow the same theme and branding, like a university with websites for its departments, or a company with internal sites for its employees.
  • an online community in which users can create forum subsites for niche interests, à la Reddit.
  • blogging properties and online publications that employ subsites for different topics.
  • a service in which admins pay for their own website on a multisite network to publish a blog, personal site, or anything else.
  • any group of aesthetically similar sites — super admins can install a theme and apply it to all sites in the network.

In all of these cases, system administrators can keep all subsites running properly and looking consistent on the front-end without having to switch between installed versions of WordPress.

When Not to Use WordPress Multisite

Okay, I’ve talked up Multisite quite a bit so far. However, it’s not always the best approach if you’re looking to manage multiple WordPress websites. In fact, it might end up becoming more of an issue than a solution.

Don’t use WordPress Multisite if:

  • you’re inexperienced with WordPress or websites in general. If you’re not well-versed in website configuration and management, tackling a multisite is probably beyond your skillset. If you must, hire someone to set it up for you.
  • your websites are very different in functionality and/or design. If you intend to install different themes and plugins across your networked sites, it’s easier to keep them separate.
  • you’re not willing to take heightened security precautions to protect your network. Since subsites share a codebase, a compromised file could bring down all of your sites.
  • you can’t afford sufficient hosting. The more sites you run, the more traffic you’ll need to handle, and the more you’ll need to pay for WordPress hosting.

Given these constraints, WordPress Multisite isn’t great for developers creating client sites if these client sites are unrelated. Instead, you’re better off maintaining separate installations for each client and allowing them to configure their sites how they please.

Also, consider whether you need multiple websites for your project. If you’re making a collection of very closely related sites, it might be more practical to create subdomains or subdirectories off your main site rather than separately managed subsites.

Wordpress Multisite Examples

To show you what a WordPress multisite looks like in practice, here are three online services that showcase the platform’s capabilities.

City, University of London

City, University of London uses WordPress Multisite to power its blogging platform, City Blogs. City Blogs lets students and staff make blog websites under the university’s domain to share their findings and teachings with colleagues.

On the website, users can sign up and request a personal blog. The multisite structure allows the university’s IT staff to oversee students’ online properties and apply changes to the whole network.

city university of london logo

The Wall Street Journal

This leading publication makes heavy use of WordPress, including its Multisite feature to run microsites and share different types of articles, as well as its video site, its podcast site, and its websites for different languages.

the wall street journal logo

WordPress.com

Yes, WordPress does indeed use its own software. The blogging platform WordPress.com runs the largest Multisite on the web — millions of bloggers having created their own subsites in its network.

As shown by the variety of blogs hosted by the service, multisite networks are great for websites with different audiences and aims but run on similar underlying back ends.

wordpress.com logo

1. Prepare to switch to Multisite.

Before setting up a multisite network, make sure that you actually need one using the criteria listed above. If you’re ready to go, check the following:

  • You must be the administrator of your WordPress site.
  • You must be able to access your site's core files using FTP or a file manager.
  • You must have sufficient hosting to support a WordPress multisite network.
  • All your plugins and themes should be safe and up-to-date.
  • All those with access to your current WordPress account are current, trusted users.

If you already have a WordPress site active, deactivate all plugins on your site. Now is also a good time to back up your files before making the transition. If you haven’t installed WordPress yet, do that now.

2. Edit wp-config.php.

The first thing you’ll need to do to switch to Multisite is add some extra code to your wp-config.php file. Access your WordPress core files via FTP or your file manager, then open wp-config.php.

In this file, scroll down to the line that says:

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

Just above this line, paste the following code:

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

Save the file, then restart your browser.

3. Set up a network.

After adding the above code to wp-config.php, you’ll see some additional options in your WordPress dashboard.

In your dashboard, go to Tools > Network Setup. On this screen, choose to denote your subsites by subdomain or by subdirectory. Choosing subdomains will make your network domain-based, while choosing subdirectories will make your network path-based. You can change this setting later on if needed, though it's recommended that you decide on your configuration now as switching can be more challenging the longer your Multisite is active.

You may also change your network details as needed, including the server address (the main domain of your Multisite), network title (what you call your network), and admin email address (how you can be contacted as super admin).

Once finished on this screen, click Install.

4. Enable the network.

Next, you’ll be given instructions to activate your network. They’ll look similar to the screen below:

wordpress multisite install instructions

Image Source

Follow these instructions, saving each file after you’re done editing. Once finished, click the Log In link to log in again.

After doing this, you’ll be able to add new subsites and configure your multisite settings. To access your network settings, select My Sites from the top toolbar, then choose any of the options from the dropdown.

For a comprehensive list of settings you may want to adjust, see this WordPress article on Multisite network administration.

Multisite: A Hidden WordPress Superpower

Multisite may not be the most talked-about feature on the WordPress platform. Really, most users won’t have much need for it and can get a lot done with a single WordPress website.

However, there is the occasional case where Multisite can be a real game-changer, saving you hours of work in the long run and powering an intricate network of related WordPress installations. It’s something of a hidden superpower. But, like any superpower, use it responsibly!

Use HubSpot tools on your WordPress website and connect the two platforms  without dealing with code. Click here to learn more.

 Use HubSpot tools on your WordPress website and connect the two platforms  without dealing with code. Click here to learn more.

Originally published Sep 29, 2021 7:00:00 AM, updated September 29 2021

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