The Beginner's Guide to WordPress Multisite

Brian Casel
The Beginner's Guide to WordPress Multisite
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Brian Casel is the founder of Restaurant Engine, a restaurant web design service. For information, check out the Restaurant Engine Partner Program. Connect with Brian @CasJam.

You’ve probably heard about the powerful WordPress Multisite -- the WordPress configuration that lets a user launch several sites off their main site. It's not something that most users may know about, but it's worth getting the details to determine if it's right for your site.

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Below is a guide for WordPress users interested in what Multisite can do, and if it's right for them.

What is WordPress Multisite?

WordPress Multisite is a special “mode” built into WordPress, which allows you to create a network of multiple websites, all running on a single installation of WordPress.

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Years ago, WordPress Multisite was a completely separate version of WordPress, called WordPress MU (stands for multi-user). WordPress 3.0 introduced a major shift, whereby WordPress MU was merged with regular WordPress, and renamed "WordPress Multisite." It became a feature, which can be turned on or off.

Examples of When Not to Use It

Despite how powerful and cool (in a web geek kinda way) WordPress Multisite is, it's not appropriate for all projects and sites. Here are some examples of when not to use it.

  • Client’s Small Business Website: A few informational pages and a contact form? Use WordPress, not WordPress Multisite.
  • Portfolio Website: Showcasing your work with images, categories, case studies, and contact info can all be handled within a single WordPress site.
  • Personal Blog: If it’s one blog, use regular WordPress. Even if you have multiple categories, multiple authors, or a magazine-style blog with multiple topics, as long as it’s all under one site name your best bet is to stick with WordPress
  • Managing Many Websites: Maybe but probably not. If we’re talking about just a few websites, each with completely different purposes, functions, and goals, it might be best to run them on separate installations of a single WordPress. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as you keep them all up to date.
  • The “Super Administrator” Role: In regular WordPress, the “administrator” role has the highest permissions on the site. WordPress Multisite still has an administrator role for each site, but there is also the “super administrator.” The super administrator has access to every site on the network, with the ability to manage everything on every site.
  • Network Admin: In addition to the dashboard for each individual site on a WordPress Multisite network, there is another admin dashboard called the “network admin.” This is where one can manage settings on a network-wide basis. Only super administrators can access this area.
  • Plugins and Themes: Another important difference between WordPress and WordPress Multisite is how plugins and themes are managed. In WordPress Multisite, plugins and themes are installed in the network admin, and are available for use across any site in the network. There are two ways to activate a plugin or theme: At the network admin level, you can “network activate” a plugin or “network enable” a theme. This will make the plugin active or make the theme available for use across every site in the network. The other way is to activate the plugin or theme at the single site level for each individual site.
  • Official Documentation on the Codex: Reading this documentation is a must.
  • WordPress MU Domain Mapping: This plugin makes it easy to map unique domains to individual sites on your network.
  • WordPress Blog Replicator: This is useful if you’re creating a lot of sites on your network and want to quickly/easily replicate the entire configuration of one “template” site. It can replicate everything including your pages, posts, plugin settings, widgets, and more.
  • Gravity Forms + User Registration Add-on: Gravity Forms, a fantastic forms plugin, has an available add-on called “user registration”, which makes it easy to add a front-end form where visitors can register new sites on your network. This is useful if you want to open up your network to the public and allow anyone to create a site.