A staging site or development version of your site can run in parallel to your live or production site and allows you to make changes and experiment without directly affecting the version which your readers, clients and customers see and interact with.
Once you are satisfied that that your modifications, edits and upgrades are ready for consumption, you can then push the changes from the staging server out to your live WordPress site. Making changes to the live site can be tempting as it can be more convenient in the short-term. However, when something goes wrong it can easily be a decision you quickly regret. Even if your work on the live site runs smoothly and is completed without a hitch, your end users could still experience periods of restricted access, limited functionality or worse while the work is taking place.
Having access to a staging or development environment provides many benefits. This article will cover some of the options available to WordPress users that present an alternative to making changes to a live site.
Some of the benefits of having a testing environment for your site, and using some of the plugins below, include:
- Building a new WordPress installation offline before setting it live
- Clone and migrate a site to a new domain
- Develop, test and modify plugins
- Test new themes and work on changes to your existing theme
- Create and finalise content offline before publishing
- Keep an easily accessible backup version
- Track changes to your site over time
Options for Creating a Test Version of a WordPress Site
What follows is a mixture of methods, plugins and services that can help you create a copy of your site for testing new features and code, and then applying those changes to the live version of your site. All have their pros and cons, whether that is less than ideal functionality, lack of features, cost, or not being ready for production. Make sure you explore the options thoroughly before committing to one and starting work on your project.
Manually Create a Local Version
One option is to create a local version of your site yourself and then work on the changes there, before transferring the site to the live online version. There are already some detailed guides on how to do this on WP Lift, so take a look at these articles for more information:
Create a Portable WordPress Installation
If you just want to test certain pieces of code, plugins or themes quickly, without creating a full replica local or development instance of your site, then the Instant WordPress service will be of interest.
Instant WP is a complete standalone, portable WordPress development environment and it will even run from a USB flash drive. If you want a quick and easy way to create a WordPress test environment without hardly any setup time, then add Instant WP to the list of essential apps you keep on your emergency USB flash drive.
The exe file is only 60MB so it’s worth having to hand should the situation arise where you need to run WordPress from a USB drive. By combining it with the plugin covered next, you should be able to quickly create a staging environment of your site in no time at all.
Use the Duplicator Plugin
This free plugin allows you to move a WordPress site from one location to another in just three easy steps. With the plugin installed, you can create a ‘package’ which is a copy of all your WordPress files including the database, which is then rolled up into a single zip file archive.
The Duplicator plugin includes an installer file for extracting and installing your package elsewhere. It’s very easy to use and in only a few steps, you can create a fully functioning clone of your site.
To use this plugin for creating a staging or test environment, simply create a package of your live site. Then install that package to another domain or subdomain, or install it locally. Once the clone has been created, you can then go in and make your changes, whether that is editing code, testing plugins or changing a theme. Once you are happy with your work, create a package of the clone and push the development version to your live production server.
This isn’t fool proof as you will most likely overwrite any changes made to your production site in the meantime, such as comments left or user stats.
You could also use this plugin to make incremental backups of your site at the touch of a button, for use should something go wrong with the live version of your site.
Perhaps the best use of the Duplicator plugin is for those that setup new WordPress sites on a regular basis. With this plugin, you can keep a clone of your standard installation, including themes, plugins and site settings, and then deploy that starter kit to a new domain to save you lots of time when getting a new site up and running.
Duplicator is a great free plugin with lots of downloads and a healthy user feedback rating that makes light work or cloning and migrating WordPress sites.
RAMP by Crowd Favorite
This is a premium service for content creators and publishers, rather than developers and code editors. RAMP creates a staging version of your site, where you can work with content and related features of WordPress, before selectively pushing them to the production environment.
The area this service works with is related to content, including regular posts and pages, custom post types, tags, categories and custom taxonomies, and menus, making it a solution for staging and publishing WordPress content.
RAMP from Crowd Favorite allow multiple teams or individuals to work on content creation duties at the same time in the staging environment, without having to publish both teams output at the same time, thanks to its ability to selectively push out new content to the live site.
It’s a great tool for anyone running a site with multiple authors and who wants the content to be completed and signed off on a staging environment, before being pushed to the live site.
For anyone looking to make their content creation and publishing activities more professional, RAMP is well worth taking a closer look at.
One plugin to keep an eye on is WP Stagecoach. It’s still in alpha mode but early reports suggest that it’s shaping up to be a promising option.
Once the plugin is installed, it can be used to quickly create a stating environment. Once the test site is setup, changes can be made to it, before returning to the live site. Then by using the functionality of WP Stagecoach, the staging version can be scanned to check for any changes, comparing the live site to the staging site.
If changes are found, you can then import the changes to the live site. All the changes are listed individually and by type, and are available for selection an in individual basis. For example you could just import file changes or databases changes, or apply all changes to the live version of your site. This makes it a great way to push out changes without overwriting the whole site.
When WP Stagecoach is released, and if it works as well as the alpha version, it will be a great addition to the library of WordPress plugins for developers and site managers. From the WP Stagecoach site, you can sign up to the newsletter for updates or apply to become an alpha tester.
Choose a Host with Staging
Choosing a webhost for your WordPress site that includes the easy creation of a staging environment amongst its features is a great way to avoid the need to spend additional time setting up plugins or local versions of your site.
One such services that offer staging features as part of their WordPress managed hosting service is WPEngine.
With the above service, as well as getting hosting for your site that is optimised for WordPress, you can also easily create staging environments for testing out upgrades and modifications to your site. Read our guide to managed hosting for WordPress to see what else these services have to offer.
It’s tempting to become a cowboy coder and make changes to the live site. Not only can it be exciting but it can also seem like a great way to save time. However, it’s probably not the best approach for sites that are already getting visitors and even fledgling sites can be crippled should something go wrong and there not being a WordPress backup system in place.
While some of above methods are less than ideal, such as copying a test site wholesale to the live version, they can still be better than making changes to a production site. WP Stagecoach looks like a promising plugin and it will be interesting to see how it develops.
What are you thoughts on “doing it live”? Have you got any horror stories to share about making changes to the production version of a site?