Everything you need to know about WordPress multisite

In this article, I’m going to tell you all about the multisite capabilities of WordPress.

Multisite functionality is used to power the websites of many leading brands, such as BBC America and Reuters.

This is a non-technical guide aimed at business owners who already have one or more WordPress websites, and who need to decide whether to implement multisite functionality. I’ll be answering the following key questions which should help you make an informed decision:

  • what is WordPress multisite?
  • what are the advantages of using multisite?
  • how is the subsite content maintained?
  • when should multisite not be used?
  • how is multisite implemented?

I’m assuming that you’re already familiar with WordPress websites, but if not then you can read my introduction to WordPress here: 5 reasons to use WordPress.

So let’s crack on.

What is WordPress multisite?

A single WordPress installation

Multisite enables you to create a network of subsites from a single instance of WordPress. It’s a feature of core WordPress which just needs to be enabled – there are no plugins or additional software which needs to be installed for this – and this approach means that WordPress is only installed once on the webserver.

The only differences that can be seen on the webserver when comparing the files of a regular WordPress installation with those of a multisite one are:

  • each subsite has its own uploads folder for storing images, videos and other media
  • a dedicated set of tables for each subsite is created in the back-end database to keep the content separate

Choosing a subdomain or subdirectory structure

All of the sites in the multisite network will fall under the same domain, with subsites being created in either a subdomain or a subdirectory structure as follows:

subdomain URL – https://subsite.mydomain.co.uk/
subdirectory URL – https://mydomain.co.uk/subsite

You cannot mix these, so it’s not possible to have one subsite with a subdomain URL, and another with a subdirectory URL.

It doesn’t make any real difference from an SEO perspective which structure you go for, but there are 3 practical points to consider before opting for the subdomain directory:

  1. You would need to carry out the additional step of manually creating a subdomain in your hosting environment for each subsite created.
  2. Your web host might have restrictions on the number of subdomains allowed.
  3. If you use www in your URL (www.mydomain.co.uk) then you would need to drop this (you can’t have https://www.subsite.mydomain.co.uk).

Because of this, my default option is to go with the subdirectory structure.

Managing the network of sites

After enabling multisite, you can create new subsites and configure your network from the network dashboard screens found within the wp-admin dashboard. Whilst there’s no cap on the number of subsites you can create, you would need to investigate system resourcing (memory, bandwidth etc) if you’re thinking of adding a significant number of subsites.

A new role of Super Admin (SA) is created for managing the network. A user with the SA role can:

  • access the network dashboard screens
  • create and delete subsites
  • install and configure themes and plugins
  • manage user accounts on the network

Themes and plugins

All themes and plugins are installed on the main site only, with the subsites inheriting these from the main site where the SA has made these available. This aside, the subsites work just like any regular WordPress site.

If your main site uses premium themes or plugins then you will need to check how the charging works for multisite. Looking at some popular plugins for example:

  • Yoast (SEO) will treat multisites as a single site, and so only charge for one license.
  • UpdraftPlus (backups) charge an incremental fixed sum to enable multisite functionality, regardless of the number of subsites.
  • Elementor (page builder) counts the subsites as separate sites, which means that you’ll need to upgrade to the 1,000 site license if you have more than two subsites.

Users

Each subsite can have its own users (for that subsite only) having the usual WordPress roles of Admin/Editor/Author/Contributor/Subscriber. An Admin user on a subsite cannot access the network dashboard of the main site, or install themes or plugins directly on the subsite.

What are the advantages of using multisite?

A single WordPress instance

As the entire network is created within a single instance of WordPress, with all of the subsites sharing the themes and plugins from the main site. This also has the added benefit of reducing hosting charges if your hosting tariff is charged on a per-site basis.

Only one domain name is required

As all subsites are created within a single domain, the multisite option offers a cost-saving as none of the subsites will require a dedicated domain name.

Simplified administration

Multisite offers single sign-on – the ability to manage all sites and content from a single dashboard – enabling you to flip between subsites from the network admin dashboard

Updates to core WordPress, themes and plugins only need to be run once, from the main site.

Taking backups is also much easier, as there is only one instance of WordPress to back up.

It’s good for SEO

Using multisite is good for SEO, as all of your content falls under the same domain name. This means that your content will not become diluted across multiple domains, and avoids the situation where you have multiple URLs competing with each other.

When combined with a good SEO strategy, a multisite setup should rank much better in the Search Engine Results Pages (aka SERPs) than several related sites having different domain names.

Care does need to be taken to avoid duplicating content, which isn’t good for SEO. Where pages do need to show duplicate content – when describing products or services for example – this can be mitigated using rel=canonical links, which tell the search engine which page contains the master copy of the content. Follow this link for more information on how rel=canonical works.

How is the subsite content maintained?

Each of the subsites is independent of the main site where content is concerned. This includes the header and footer so if, for example, your business has a number of shops or branches, each multisite would be able to display its own contact details in the header and footer across that multisite. Users can create pages and posts in the usual way.

There are plugins available that will enable you to copy content from the main site to the subsites. This would be useful where products or services being offered are consistent across multiple subsites. However, the functionality of these plugins is rather limited, and only really suited to duplicating content created in the WordPress Classic Editor. Anything more complex, and the formatting gets lost. Until such time as more advanced plugins become available, you should be prepared to copy/paste content as and when required (taking into account the point about SEO and duplicate content which I mentioned earlier).

When should multisite not be used?

As great as multisite is, there are situations where implementing this is not recommended.

For a small number of sites

Creating and configuring a multisite network is an overhead from a web design perspective, so if you just have two or three websites then you’re not going to realise the benefits that multisite offers. That is of course unless you are planning to expand your business and launch more websites.

For sites which are designed differently

If your sites have significantly different designs and features, with little crossover in terms of plugins and themes, then you’re not going to get the benefit of sharing these, and so multisite should not be used.

For different brands

If you have more than one brand, then you should think carefully about your SEO strategy, as having multiple brands under one domain can impact how your pages rank in the SERPs.

How is multisite implemented?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a setting on the wp-admin screen which will let you enable multisite. This means that if you want to enable multisite on your main website, then you’re going to need to roll your sleeves up and update your .htaccess and wp-config.php files in a text editor, and then FTP these to your web server. This will add the network admin dashboard to your site, from where you can create your subsites.

Implementing multisite isn’t difficult if you know what you’re doing (as always), but if you’re not confident about doing this then this is where I will be able to help you, so please get in touch.

Conclusion

In this article, we’ve looked at the powerful features of WordPress multisite, and when this should (and shouldn’t) be used. I hope this information helps you make an informed decision on whether to implement multisite.

If you are considering implementing multisite on your WordPress website but don’t know how to, then please give me a call so that we can discuss your requirements.

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2 Responses

  1. Very imformative and should proove very useful as we have several brands published on different websites (each with similar content (where rel=canonical links should be useful). Please send more information.

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