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Wondering how to get started with WordPress Multisite? If so, you’ve found the right place because I’m about to dish out 2,500 words of WordPress Multisite goodness.

By the end of this post, you’ll know pretty much everything a beginner needs to know about WordPress Multisite. That means you’ll learn:

  • What WordPress Multisite is
  • When it’s a good idea to use WordPress Multisite
  • How to install and activate WordPress Multisite
  • How to manage your WordPress Multisite network
  • Some helpful WordPress Multisite plugins

That’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s jump right in at the beginning, starting with...

What Is WordPress Multisite?

WordPress Multisite has been a part of the WordPress core since WordPress 3.0, when WordPress MU was merged into the WordPress core.

Essentially, WordPress Multisite lets you create a network of sites that all share the same WordPress installation. You can either make this network public (where anyone can register a site), or private, where only people with admin access can create a new site.

Think about how WordPress.com works conceptually. With WordPress.com, you can sign up and create your own free blog as a subdomain of WordPress.com.

Now, WordPress.com is definitely its own beast, but you can still use WordPress Multisite to create something similar for yourself.

As far as where the different network websites show up, you can make them a subdomain like WordPress.com. Or, you can also make them subfolders, or even standalone domain names with proper domain mapping.

Yup! You got that right - it’s possible to have a WordPress Multisite network where each network site has its own domain name.

How Is WordPress Multisite Different Than Vanilla WordPress?

Ok, beyond the core fact that WordPress Multisite makes it possible for you or users to create their own sub-sites, here are some ways in which WordPress Multisite is different:

  • You get a new Super Administrator Role. The Super Administrator has access to every single site on the network and can manage things as needed.
  • You get a new Network Admin dashboard. This is where you can manage network-wide settings and add new themes and plugins. Speaking of…
  • Themes and plugins work a bit differently. Instead of installing plugins at a site-level, you’ll install them at a network level. Then, you can either force them active on all sites or let individual site admins make them active.

Is Each Site Separate From Another?

I’m not going to go too in-depth here. But I think it’s important to at least spend a little time on the technical aspects of WordPress Multisite because these details can (and should!) affect how you use WordPress Multisite.

By default, all sites on your network share the same WordPress database. Additionally, your Multisite installs share some tables, notably wp_users and wp_usermeta. Beyond that, each subsite gets its own tables with the blog id in the table prefix.

So despite that fact that you’re creating separate “sites”, each site is still running on the same database.

This fact has important privacy and security considerations. And it’s also why I don’t think it’s a good idea to use WordPress Multisite to manage 100% separate sites.

When Is It a Good Idea to Use WordPress Multisite?

Here are some examples of when to use WordPress Multisite:

  • You want users to be able to create their own WordPress site as part of your network. For example, many universities use WordPress Multisite to allow students and faculty to create their own blogs.
  • You’re managing multiple, similar locations. For example, a business with multiple locations or franchisees, where each location needs a separate, but similar site.
  • You have something like a sports league or club site, where each chapter or team needs its own site.

Some developers also use WordPress Multisite as an easier method to manage client websites. Personally, because each site on the network shares the same database, I don’t think this is a good approach from a security or privacy perspective. One problem with your database affects every site, which doesn’t seem fair to clients.

With that being said, there are some developers who do this effectively, so it’s certainly not unheard of. Just be careful if you go down this route…

Do You Need Anything Special to Run WordPress Multisite?

Nope! If your host can run single site WordPress, it can run WordPress Multisite.

Just remember - all sites on your network will use the same resources. So your host needs to be able to handle the aggregate traffic for every single network site. For that reason, even one high-traffic site might affect the performance of other sites.

How to Install and Activate WordPress Multisite On Your Network

Ok, so you want to use WordPress Multisite...how do you actually install WordPress Multisite and get up and running?

The process is pretty simple, though you will need to feel comfortable doing a little digging around in your wp-config.php file.

Additionally, some WordPress-specific hosts’ auto installers allow you to install WordPress Multisite from the get-go and avoid the whole activation process. If that’s the case, it’s literally as simple as installing regular WordPress.

Most of the time, though, you’ll need to install the core WordPress software. Then, you can go through the process of activating WordPress Multisite by editing your wp-config.php file.

Assuming that your host doesn’t offer a dedicated WordPress Multisite installer, here’s how to get up and running with WordPress Multisite…

Step 1: Install a Fresh Copy of WordPress

While you can always activate WordPress Multisite on an existing WordPress install, most of the time you’ll probably want to start from a blank install.

Feel free to use your host’s auto installer for this - it doesn’t much matter how you install WordPress.

The only important thing is that you have a vanilla WordPress install to activate your WordPress Multisite network on.

Step 2: Activate WordPress Multisite in wp-config.php File

Once you’ve got your WordPress install ready, the next thing you need to do is activate WordPress Multisite in your wp-config.php file.

To do this, you can either use your FTP program of choice or cPanel’s File Manager tool. Your wp-config.php file should be in the root folder of your site.

Once you’re able to edit your wp-config.php file, add this short code snippet to the file:

/* Enables WordPress Multisite */
define( 'WP_ALLOW_MULTISITE', true );

For clarity’s sake, it’s a good idea to add it right before the line that says:

/* That’s all, stop editing! Happy blogging. */

how to activate wordpress multisite

Make sure to save your changes and then continue.

Step 3: Complete Network Setup

Once you activate WordPress Multisite in your wp-config.php file, you’ll get a new Network Setup interface in your WordPress dashboard.

To access it, go to Tools → Network Setup.

This interface is simple, but it’s important because you’ll make an essential decision on how to handle the URLs for sites in your network.

You have two options:

  • Sub-domains: Each new site gets its own subdomain like site1.yoursite.com.
  • Sub-directories: Each new site gets its own subfolder like yoursite.com/site1.

There’s no right answer here - your decision comes down to preference. Just be aware - if you choose to use subdomains, you’ll need to set up Wildcard DNS at your host. This process is fairly simple - it’s literally just a matter of creating a subdomain with an asterisk.

If you decide to use subdomains, here’s a good article on how to create a wildcard subdomain via cPanel.

With that being said, I’ll continue this guide using Sub-directories.

Once you make your choice, give your network a name, enter your email address, and click Install:

multisite network setup

Step 4: Add New Code to wp-config.php and .htaccess Files

After you click Install, you should see two code snippets:

You need to add the first snippet to your wp-config.php file and the second snippet to your .htaccess file. Both files are in the root folder of your site. To access them, you can use an FTP program or cPanel’s File Manager tool.

Here’s what that should look like in your wp-config.php file:

And here’s what it looks like in your .htaccess file:

And once you do that, your Multisite Network should be live!

If you go to your WordPress dashboard, you should notice some new options:

A Tour Around the Multisite Network Admin Dashboard

The Network Admin dashboard is where you’ll manage lots of important details about your Multisite Network.

You can access it by hovering over My Sites on your Admin Toolbar and looking for Network Admin:

When you first land in your Network Admin dashboard, you should feel right at home. That’s because it, naturally, has quite a few similarities with the regular WordPress dashboard:

As with your usual dashboard, you’ll manage most settings by using the sidebar on the left.

Below, I’ll go through what exactly you can do in the various tabs.

Sites Tab: Add and Manage Network Sites

In the Sites tab, you can manage all of your existing network sites as well as manually add new sites.

On a fresh WordPress Multisite install, you should already see one site. That’s because your original WordPress install becomes your first network site.

To manually add a new site, all you need to do is click the Add New button:

Fill in the details and click Add Site to create a new network site:

Users Tab: See Users and Which Sites They Belong To

In the Users tab, you can manage all of the users in your network, as well as see which users are associated with which site.

As with Sites, you can also manually add a new user if needed:

Depending on how you configure your Multisite network, each individual admin may or may not be able to add users to their network site. More on this in a second...

Themes Tab: Choose Which Themes Are Available to Sub-sites

Things start getting fun in the Themes tab. Like single site WordPress installs, this is where you can add new themes and delete existing ones.

Only now, it looks a bit more like the Plugins list for WordPress single site.

That’s because instead of choosing a theme to activate for a specific site, this interface lets you choose which themes are available for sub-sites to choose.

Under each theme, you’ll see two potential options:

  • Network Enable - makes the theme available for sub-sites to choose. This does not force them to use that specific theme, though.
  • Network Disable - makes the theme unavailable for sub-sites to choose.

If you click Add New, you’ll be able to add new themes either directly from WordPress.org or by uploading a ZIP file. This process is identical to how it works with single site WordPress.

Plugins Tab: Force Enable Plugins on Sub-Sites

As with Themes, the Plugins tab lets you choose which plugins are available to sub-sites. But the Plugins tab has an important difference.

With themes, you can Network Enable a specific theme. But with plugins, you either Network Activate or Network Deactivate:

  • Network Activate - makes the specific plugin active on all sub-sites. That is, the sub-site owner doesn’t get a choice.
  • Network Deactivate - deactivates the plugin on all sub-sites. Depending on your settings, the site owner may or may not be able to manually activate these plugins.

As mentioned, depending on how you configure your network, individual site admins may or may not be able to activate or deactivate some plugins on their own. But no matter what, individual site admins will never be able to deactivate a plugin that you Network Activate. More on this in a second...

Again like themes, you can install new plugins directly from WordPress.org or by uploading a ZIP file:

Network Settings: Configure Tons of Important Details

Finally, in Settings → Network Settings, you can configure a number of important details about how your Multisite Network functions:

At the top, you can configure things like:

  • Allow new registrations. If you disable registration, you’ll have to create sub-sites manually. You can also choose whether or not to require users to already be registered in order to create a sub-site.
  • Add New Users. When checked, each site administrator can add new users to their site by going to Users → Add New.
  • Banned Names. Any words you enter here will not be allowed as sub-sites. Make sure to separate each name with a space.

If you scroll down further, you’ll be able to configure welcome emails as well as the default content for new sites. For example, you’ll probably remember that WordPress single site uses Hello World as its default first post:

Below those messages, you can also configure Upload and Language settings:

And finally, there’s a very important option at the very bottom. If you check Enable administration menus, users will be able to actually manage their own plugins...to a certain extent. Even when checked, these rules apply:

  • If you Network Activate a plugin, individual site admins still won’t be able to deactivate that plugin.
  • If you install a plugin, but don’t Network Activate it, individual sub-site owners will be able to activate or deactivate it at will.

Here’s an example of how the Plugins area looks to a sub-site admin (when enabled):

Pro tip - it's easy to switch between WordPress user roles if you need to preview things like this.

And that pretty much wraps up how to administrate your Multisite Network on the backend.

Helpful Plugins for WordPress Multisite Users

Ok, now you know how to install and activate WordPress Multisite as well as how to manage your network via the Network Admin dashboard.

What next?

While you’re pretty much ready to go at a basic level, you might want to look for some plugins to help make managing your Multisite Network a little bit easier.

I’ve actually already written about some helpful WordPress Multisite plugins in more detail. But here are the highlights of some plugins that you might want:

Be Careful About Which Plugins You Install on WordPress Multisite

Finally, let me end with a warning that you need to be careful about which plugins you install on your WordPress Multisite Network.

Because WordPress Multisite has a slightly different database and functionality structure, not all WordPress plugins work with Multisite.

If developers code well, plugins should be Multisite compatible. But not all developers put the time in to code with Multisite in mind.

For that reason, it’s a good idea to check for Multisite compatibility before you activate a plugin on your Network.

Wrapping Things Up

And that wraps up our big guide to WordPress Multisite. Once you get the hang of it, WordPress Multisite really isn’t that complicated. And for some uses, it’s definitely superior to WordPress single site.

Remember, to get up and running with WordPress Multisite, you’ll need to:

  • Activate WordPress Multisite setup in wp-config.php
  • Run the Network Setup inside your WordPress dashboard
  • Add new rules to wp-config.php and .htaccess
  • Manage your Multisite network from the Network Admin dashboard

As usual, if you have any questions about WordPress Multisite, leave a comment and let’s try to figure things out together!

Published:

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Colin Newcomer is a freelance writer and long-time Internet marketer. He specializes in digital marketing, WordPress and B2B writing. He lives a life of danger, riding a scooter through the chaos of Hanoi. You can also follow his travel blog.

4 thoughts on “The WPLift Guide to WordPress Multisite: How to Install, Manage + Lots More [UPDATE 2017]

  1. Hey! This guide was super useful for me, I think you really know what you’re doing and how to explain it to the community =) So I wanted to say Thank You before I go back to work on my wordpress!

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