How WordPress Multisite Works: A Helpful Guide

WordPress is best known as a site builder and content management system for standalone, self-hosted websites and personal and business uses of all kinds. Thanks to the Multisite feature in the WordPress source code, your basic WordPress installation can also be converted into the hub of your own network of websites. With Multisite, any WordPress user can create an independent network of sites or invite others to create their own sites on the network for a variety of educational and commercial purposes.

Multisite began as a standalone application called Multisite User, but it has been a feature of the WordPress core code since version 3.0. Many WordPress site runners who need just one site for personal or business purposes will never need to activate this feature. However, if you’re interested in managing multiple sites without creating separate installations and web hosting arrangements for each one, Multisite makes it easy to create and run virtually unlimited numbers of individual WordPress websites under the umbrella of a single WordPress installation on your hosting account.

What Is Multisite?

Once Multisite is activated, you can create a network by building as many subdomains or subdirectories on your site as you like, or by inviting others to register with your site and build their own WordPress websites within the network. In this structure, your original WordPress website serves as the nexus for all the sites that make up your network, and you, as the webmaster for the main site, serve as the administrator for the entire network – a position that some call the “Superadmin.”  

Individual site owners can also act as the WordPress admin for their own subdomain sites, but they won’t have the ability to make network-wide changes that originate from the main site – only the Superadmin can do that.

Who Needs Multisite?

Having a network of connected sites is not necessary for most individual site owners or businesses. Adding contributors to the site, or linking to content created on related sites, can create the only kind of networking they need, but maintaining a network of sites that can be managed from just one main WordPress installation can be useful for a wide range of purposes, including:

  • Education.  Education portals can create a single “hub,” site that hosts the websites of multiple instructors or classes so that students can get a consistent experience across all of them, and instructors don’t need to direct students to their own personal sites. Multisite can also be useful for training users in coding and other aspects of web design and development, by making it possible to set up multiple test sites under one master site for applying design concepts or trying out new approaches.
  • Managing multiple client sites. Design businesses and other kinds of companies can provide clients with the option of a managed site for blogging or other purposes related to doing business with the parent company. For example, online marketplaces like Fine Art America offer participating artists and designers a portfolio or blog space of their own under the brand of the main site.
  • Running a commercial website network. Multisite can be used to set up a commercial web network like WordPress.com, in which users pay a subscription fee to have their own site hosted within the network.
  • Creating an internal business network. A company with multiple employees or contractors who deal independently with customers or clients, such as sales personnel or realty agents, might use Multisite to allow each of these professionals to set up an individual site under the brand of the main site.

It is possible to host a virtually unlimited number of sites in a Multisite setup. Doing so in these and other circumstances can save the expense and time of creating separate web hosting accounts and setting up individual websites that need to be managed on their own: but activating Multisite it means that nearly all tasks related to managing the entire network becomes the responsibility of the super administrator or owner of the main site.

Activating Multisite in WordPress

Activating Multisite in a new or existing WordPress site requires inserting a line of code from the WordPress codex into the site’s wp_config.php file. This snippet of code includes the phrase “WP ALLOW MULTISITE” and is placed above the last line of code in the file.

Once Multisite is activated, it appears as an option on the site’s main Admin dashboard under Tools> Network Setup. Select the Multisite option to begin customizing the new network’s settings, including its name, administrator, and whether sites on the network will run as subdomains or subdirectories under the main site – a decision that affects the URL structure and behavior of the sites that will be added to the network.

When the network settings are in place, users can either register with the main site in order to create a site on the network or request that the main site administrator adds their site to the network.

Managing Sites in the Network

Unlike individual sites with their own web hosting accounts, the sites on a WordPress multisite hosting doesn’t have complete autonomy, and major management functions work from the top down, originating with the main installation. This means that changes, such as adding or customizing WordPress themes or plugins or making other updates, can only be done to the main WordPress install itself. Those changes through WordPress themes and plugins are then integrated into the subdomains on the network.

Individual site administrators don’t have the ability to make those network-wide changes themselves, although they can make site-specific changes such as customizing the site’s title and tagline for their own purposes. The super administrator, or owner of the main site, is responsible for all the tasks that relate to running a WordPress site in general, such as setting up and managing hosting and the main site’s domain.

The number of sites that can reside on a network, and the amount of content they can contain, are limited only by the resources, such as storage and bandwidth, that are available to the main site through its hosting provider. WordPress site runners who want to run a fairly extensive network of subdomain sites might need to consider hosting plans that can accommodate that kind of demand.

WordPress Multisite hosting is not for every user, but it’s available within the source code for those who want to create an internal professional network or a commercial one that hosts a wide range of users. Managing a multisite network is very similar to managing a single WordPress site, and it can open new opportunities for your brand and your business.

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