Q&A: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About WordPress Multisite Answered

Q&A: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About WordPress Multisite Answered

If you follow this blog, you’ll have noticed my series of posts on WordPress Multisite a few weeks ago.

The comments, questions and discussions that the posts have generated have been awesome, to say the least. Dozens of you have talked about what you’re doing with Multisite, shared your experiences and asked questions. And there are some questions that have been particularly useful for other readers or have come up again and again.

So in this post, I’m going to answer some of those questions. I’ll answer some of the questions I get asked about Multisite when I speak at WordPress events and WordCamps, the questions posted on the blog, and questions which I’ve thought of while I’ve been writing but haven’t had the space to cover in my blog posts.

I’m going to posit this into six topics:

  • Activation and installation
  • Hosting and domains
  • Administering your network
  • Creating sites
  • Multisite for communities
  • Business and SEO

So here goes!

Activation and Installation

Question #1: Can I run Multisite on my local machine?

You certainly can. Install WordPress using MAMP as you would with a standalone installation, then activate Multisite just as you would on a remote server. There’s just one difference: You can’t use subdomains on a local machine.

mama website
Use MAMP to install WordPress and activate Multisite on your local machine

Question #2: Can I activate Multisite without editing files? I’m not comfortable delving into the code.

Sorry, but no. Multisite is too fundamental a change to your WordPress installation to be able to do it just with a plugin. But you are given very clear instructions on editing those files when you go through the activation process.

Question #3: I don’t have access to my files. How do I set Multisite up?

Speak to your hosting provider and ask them to give you access. If they won’t, upgrade your plan or switch to a better provider. It’s your site, you should have access to your files.

Question #4: Will each site in my network have its own .htaccess file?

No. There’s just one for the whole network, which is in your root directory.

Hosting and Domains

Question #5: Do I need VPS (Virtual Private Server) if I’m running Multisite? My hosting provider has said I should get it.

VPS can help if you’re setting up a network but it’s not essential. For me it depends on the size of the network and what you’re using it for – for client sites you minimize the risk of downtime with VPS but with a small personal network you don’t really need it. Don’t let your hosting provider sell it to you if it’s not necessary – you can always upgrade at a later date.

Question #6: Could you give recommendations on hosting providers for Multisite and how this will differ from a single WordPress install?

I’m not a hosting expert and I’m always wary of recommending hosting providers. However if you look on our blog you’ll find that Daniel Pataki has written some great reviews of hosting providers, and it’s also worth looking at the WordPress Codex. My only recommendation would be to remember that you get what you pay for. Make sure your hosting provider gives you full access to DNS management, cPanel and doesn’t restrict you in any way. And that they have great support!

Question #7: Can I use SSL with Multisite? How do I do it?

There are two approaches to this: get an SSL certificate for your network’s domain, or get it for any domains you’re redirecting to your network using domain mapping.

If you get SSL for your network’s domain and you’re using subdomains, you’ll need wild card SSL which costs a little more – order that from your SSL provider instead of a standard SSL certificate. If you’re using subdirectories you won’t need wild card SSL. And if you’re using domain mapping you’ll need an SSL certificate for each domain you’re mapping (NOT the network’s domain as your visitors don’t see that).

Administering Your Network

Question #8: How do plugins work with Multisite? Do I have to install them more than once for multiple sites?

No you don’t. Install the plugin once on your network then activate it for the sites you want it to run on. Or network activate it if you want to run it on every site. Then when the plugin is updated you only need to do that once. It makes updates much quicker.

plugin updates screen Multisite network
Update the plugins for all the sites on your networks in just one place with a Multisite network

Question #9: My main concern is resources. Multisite “feels” like it may be more resource intensive than standalone. Is this a problem?

It depends how many sites you have on your network. If you’re running more than three or four, I’d say Multisite is definitely less resource-intensive than all the separate WordPress installs. Both in terms of servers and time. And don’t forget it’s possible to host millions of sites on a Multisite install, as with our Edublogs network.

Question #10: When I log in as network admin I don’t see the sites in my network in the “My Sites” list in the admin bar.

You need to check that you’re registered against each of those sites. Go to Sites in the network admin menu, then for each of them click the Edit link, then go to the Users tab. If you’re not shown as a user, add yourself as a user to each site, using the username you’re using for the network as a whole.

But remember you don’t always need to be able to access all of your sites in this way. If your network is large and the sites are run by other people, I’d advise against it. If you need to access their sites, you can always use the User Switching plugin to see the site as if you’re logged in as another user.

site users screen in network admin
Add yourself as a user to sites you can’t see in the ‘My Sites’ menu

Question #11: Can I keep a local copy of my Multisite network for testing?

Yes you can. I keep a local development installation of my sites for testing/development plus a remote live one. They’re not exact mirrors as the database isn’t mirrored but the themes/plugins etc. are. If you want to copy your network to a development installation on a  local machine you’ll need to install WordPress locally first, and then copy your network. I use Github for version control with my local files, which means I can then use SSH to deploy changes to my live network.

Question #12: I’ve set up domain mapping but the domain isn’t redirecting to my network. Help!

The first thing to do is be patient. It takes time for DNS changes to propagate so it won’t work straight away. Keep checking your DNS to be sure. But if your domain still isn’t redirecting after a couple of days, there’s probably something wrong with your configuration. Try following the steps in our post on domain mapping again – they work every time for me so they should work for you. If all else fails, contact your domain registrar or hosting provider.


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whats my dos site
A DNS checker will help you identify when your DNS changes have propagated and domain mapping should be working

Creating Sites

Question #13: Can I provide a starting template for new sites in my network with specific pages etc. set up?

Yes, you can do this with our New Blog Templates plugin. For instructions on using the plugin see this guide.

Question #14: Can I use subdomains for some sites on my network and subdirectories for others?

No, sorry. You have to pick one when you set up your network, and then you’re stuck with it forever (yes, until the end of time….).

Question #15: Does every site in my network have to run a child theme? Or the same theme?

No, you can run whatever theme(s) you want on your sites. Some of them could be running the same theme, some could have their own unique theme, and others might have a child theme. For my client sites I use a parent theme for all of them and then each one has its own child theme. But for my personal network, it’s much more mixed: some have standalone themes I’ve built, some have themes from WPMU DEV or from the theme directory, while others have child themes of any of the above. It’s up to you!

Question #16: If someone does a search on a site in my network, will the results show content from the whole network?

No. A search will just apply to that site.

Question #17: When I register a new site and follow the activation link sent to my email, I get a 404 error. What’s gone wrong?

Check that your .htaccess rules are correct – you can find them in Network Setup in the network admin screens. And if you’re using subdomain installation make sure wildcards are set up.

network settings screen
You can find the rules that should be in your .htaccess file again if you’re having problems

Question #18: Can I import a standalone site into my Multisite network?

Yes, you can. You can either do this using a plugin or by copying the files and database tables. The first option is easier but less robust. For instructions follow this tutorial.

Question #19: Can I export one of the sites in my network to a standalone site?

You sure can. It’s like importing, but the other way round. Follow this tutorial for instructions.

Multisite for Communities

Question #20: I’m using Membership 2 Pro to restrict access to BuddyPress and bbPress community on my main site, and I’m wondering if that’s overkill. I want to offer a “private community” as an added value.

I think that may be overkill. Personally, I’d approach this by putting my BuddyPress community on a sub-site and restricting access to that. You can use redirects to make the whole thing feel seamless, along with the same theme for the main site and the BuddyPress site. But you may be able to use BuddyPress in a way that keeps all of your community content private to members anyway – I recommend experimenting with your BuddyPress settings.

Business and SEO

Question #21: Can I use Multisite with e-commerce sites?

There’s a quick answer to this: yes! I host clients’ stores on a Multisite network and it works smoothly. Bear in mind that you’ll need SSL for any e-commerce site, for security reasons. I’d recommend using domain mapping and getting an SSL certificate for the domain you’re mapping. Then you won’t need SSL for your network (unless you need/want it).

Question #22: How does using Multisite affect SEO?

This question gets asked a lot. The answer depends on how you’re using domains:

  • If you’re using subdirectories, search engines will treat the entire network as if it’s one site.
  • If you’re using subdomains, search engines will crawl each site separately, treating each subdomain as a separate site.
  • If you’re using domain mapping, search engines won’t even know you’re using Multisite – they’ll treat each site as a separate site on its own domain. This is the same whether your network is set up using subdomains or subdirectories.

Question #23: Are SEO Plugins compatible with Multisite?

In my experience, the major SEO plugins play nicely with Multisite, although some commenters on the blog have said otherwise. If you use our SmartCrawl plugin you can be confident it’ll be Multisite compatible, as that’s what we specialize in.

Question #24: I want to use Multisite to create a platform for tech-savvy individuals to use for all their business/personal/family communications. Kind of like Facebook meets LinkedIn meets wordpress.com. How can I make this work?

Woah, hold your horses! It’s important to do your research and identify a niche market and a targeted product that meets their needs well. Talk to potential clients and find out what they want – don’t jump in before you know you’ve got a market. Release your product as soon as you can (it will never be perfect) and be prepared to adapt according to what clients need. James Farmer’s course on marketing will help you identify your niche. If you aim too wide and you don’t have a marketing budget of billions, you will fail. Tough but true.

Got Any More Questions?

Hopefully I’ve answered the burning question you had on your mind when you started reading this post. I haven’t covered everything as a lot is dealt with in my series on WordPress Multisite. So if you still want to know more, I recommend checking out the series:

Got a question I haven't answered? Or a tip that might help other readers? Let us know! But if you have a weird and wonderful question I haven't thought of, ask away!

Rachel McCollin

Rachel McCollin Rachel is a freelance web designer and writer specializing in mobile and responsive WordPress development. She's the author of four WordPress books, including WordPress Pushing the Limits, published by Wiley.