Are you interested in the multisite network built in WordPress? That’s unsurprising since you must have heard the term “multisite” many times. Although the name suggests “multiple sites”, users quickly realize that owners can host as many as their budget and web hosting storage allow. In this case, that term is tied to a specific situation and configuration, where all websites are tied to a central location, a “control room” of sorts. That makes monitoring and management easy, especially if sites aren’t in the same country. With that said, let’s answer the question, “what is a WordPress multisite?”
Definition of a WordPress multisite
WordPress multisite is a feature of the CMS (Content Management System) that enables users to create, control, and oversee multiple websites from a single WordPress installation and thus one Admin dashboard. WPMU, also known as WordPress Multi-User, is a feature introduced back in WordPress 3.0, in 2010. It’s a feature most often used by educational institutions, brands, and companies to save time, improve workflow, and help those working or contributing under them.
To help you understand, let’s take an example of a brand that has 10 similar-looking sub-brands with separate websites. To manage each, administrators must log in to each one at a time, then perform updates, check and publish content, install plugins and themes, and so on. Instead of signing in and out and managing websites independently, the WordPress multisite feature lets administrators sign in to a single dashboard and control all 10 websites from there. That is the part that confuses most first-time users. We will explain that below, but at the time of publication, the theoretical maximum is over 2 million websites.
With that configurations, administrators can perform some tasks once and apply them all across the board. Moreover, they can switch between website Admin sections with one click, without entering credentials and waiting for authentication. For best results, all websites should function similarly, so it’s best if they are in related niches, ideally the same. To clarify, they do not have to resemble each other visually, only use related HTML, PHP, JS, and CSS, i.e., functionality and code. When they do, things are much easier.
WordPress multisite vs separate WordPress installation: Main differences
You now know the primary benefits of a WordPress multisite network, which are time-saving, user-friendliness with someone in charge, and efficiency in website management. However, it isn’t perfect. Thus, we want to convey the pros and cons of a multi-site WordPress network by showing how it differs from multiple independent WordPress installations:
A network of several connected websites adds a top one, network admin, to the mix of WordPress user roles. That role has administrator permissions to create, control, and shut down websites on the network. The role of a head administrator or site owner now goes down a notch, to a site admin. We will explain the change in functionality below. For now, it’s important to note that network admins can add new users. They usually only give them permissions for their site, not all sites on the network. However, they can expand their user capabilities to include more websites without having to create a new account.
WordPress themes, plugins, and general updates on multisite vs normal
Unsurprisingly, having independent installations means all work must be repeated on each website. In contrast, the multisite network for WordPress lets the network administrator install the same plugins, add code, and push updates to all websites. All this can be done at once or with minimal time loss. As for themes, they can use a framework theme as “parent” across all sites, and make minor edits to child themes on each website.
That brings us to user roles. Network administrators can install themes and plugins and modify code. However, site admins no longer can, for the security and safety of the whole network. However, these admins can activate and deactivate already installed plugins and enable/disable existing code snippets. Site admin can also add users, but only for their site.
This used to be the biggest difference (and downside) until domain mapping came into the picture. A multisite network is tied to one domain or URL. If your network is at
some-website.com, sites can be installed as a subdomain (e.g.,
website1.some-website.com) or subdirectory (e.g.,
www.some-website.com/website1). Although nothing changes behind the scenes, you can also map a domain name to your network. That way, visitors will see a separate domain name and as far as they can tell, it is standalone, not a multisite member. In contrast, separate WordPress installations can have genuinely separate domain names.
From what we said, you can surmise that multisite WordPress networks use one big database, with separate database tables for each website content. However, they all share some, such as the Users database. Therefore, files are stored in the same place, every site gets a separate folder and database table. That means the Media Library is on the same server, but the access to folders is limited by user role permissions for each site. The network admin has full access.
Who should and shouldn’t use a WordPress multisite network? Notable examples
Our explanation makes it clear that users who run a network of vastly different websites won’t benefit from a multisite configuration. In contrast, those that need separate instances that look and/or work as the main website should. Here are a few cases where multisite networks for WordPress are employed:
Reseller web hosting or freelance work is not recommended since users cannot transfer their website to another hosting provider, WordPress.com is an exception. The website network lets users create free websites as a subdomain. Paid premium users can map their domains to the WordPress.com network. Users get a custom dashboard but with some limitations we mentioned.
2. Website owners
Website owners that want to add an independent section to their website can employ a multisite network. Some users want to let their visitors start tightly controlled sub-websites and thus create a big platform. Moreover, owners can offer their websites in different languages as unconnected instances.
3. Universities and institutions
Harvard lets students with a verified e-mail address create a blogging website on a free
blogs.harvard.edu WordPress platform. Any educational institution can have the main site and let professors, contributors, and students create their instance of a website.
4. Companies and corporations
Any corporation with a lot of sub-companies and franchises, or a company with a lot of departments or franchises are ideal candidates for a multisite WordPress network. That lets them modify and supervise the sites of their sub-brands.