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What is a WordPress Staging Site, and Why Do You Need One?

What is a WordPress Staging Website?

A WordPress staging site allows you to change your website in the background without impacting the live site. You can test out new things like layouts or plugins and update your site precisely the way you want it. Then, once your modifications are ready for prime time, you move or “push” the staging site to replace your live site. Cool, huh?

Staging Sites Simply Explained

WordPress staging sites duplicate your current website (at that moment in time) that you can work on without disturbing your “live” site. Once your staging site is set up, you are provided a temporary URL.

You can access this additional WordPress installation within your website’s Managed WordPress hosting. Your staging site is a separate duplicate installation of your current WordPress website.

First, a little history…

Back in the day, if you wanted to switch themes or update layouts, you would have to set up another install of WordPress. However, unlike a staging site, that install is not connected to your live site.

You would then have to manually migrate the site content, theme, and plugins over so you could work on the duplicate of your website. Like a staging site, this approach allowed you to keep the existing live site and uninterrupted for your website visitors.

After getting things to look how you want, you will have to manually mirror any changes made on the test or beta site to the live site in real-time. Over the years, I worked on many sites after business hours for these reasons.

What was complicated is now easy.

Before managed WordPress hosting, temporary URLs were not available either. We used a little trick to access a WordPress site without a domain. You would need to modify the Hosts file on your computer, which intimidated many users.

This process requires adding a line of info to your Hosts file on your local computer that notes your site’s IP address and domain. The addition of his line would direct your computer to resolve your domain to that IP. Essentially, you were tricking your computer into thinking that your domain was on your test site.

Adding a line with your site’s actual IP and your existing domain is what you would add to your computer’s Hosts file. It looks something like this:

222.3.444.55 yourdomain.com www.yourdomain.com

You would then have to go back into your Hosts file and remove that line when you wanted to access your live site where your domain resided. Sort of a PIA…

This solution is still a viable option for those without a Staging environment. You can find out how to modify your Hosts file based on your OS here.

Enter Managed WordPress Hosting

One of the many advantages of Managed WordPress Hosting is the included staging environment. Most managed platforms can set up a staging environment with just a click or two. A lot easier than what I described above.

So why would you want or need a staging site? Here are some tasks you would prefer not to integrate on a live site.

  • Adding a membership platform to your current site.
    Adding membership plugins and protected pages can get very complex. You must add the membership area to your navigation, sidebar, and footers. Usually, you are switching themes as well to accommodate these new features.
  • Integrate eCommerce on your established site.
    Adding an eStore requires new pages for your terms, policies, etc., as well as a page for each product, customer account pages, and shopping cart. Next, you need to add your payment gateway(s) and the various plugins that will add and enhance functionality. Again, you do not want to set this up on a live site. Here again, you’ll most likely switch themes as well.
  • You want a fresh look.
    You’ll probably want a new look every other year or so to keep up with visual trends. Or you start looking dated. A staging site lets you install the new theme with your current content. You can then tweak your site to display precisely how you want before making the new look live.
  • Testing new plugins and functionality.
    By first testing on a staging site, you can identify any possible conflicts, potential configuration, or layout issues.
  • You just want to play.
    Sometimes you just want to test out new ideas and what would be involved in the implementation. Again, stating sites are perfect for this.

What’s the process — exactly?

Creating a staging site is simple in most managed WordPress hosts I’ve worked with. Check out my Toolkit for the hosts and services I use and recommend.

You quickly have a duplicate of your live site to do with what you may. Then, when you are ready to “push” the staging site to live, you go back to the staging tab and deploy the site from staging to production. Your new revised site is now live to the world.

Here’s a screenshot from WPMU, which I use to host this website. One click and you are good to go with a duplicate of your live website in staging. Easy!

Staging Site Considerations

  • There is no server-side caching in place on staging sites, and being Managed, WordPress hosting tends to have caching built-in; you’ll want to ensure newly added features or plugins that could conflict with the cache should be tested once live.
  • Depending on your hosting company, the staging site may only include a predetermined date range of the /uploads folder copied over to staging. We do not need all the uploads (images, for example) back to the beginning of time for a staging site. Check with your host for any limitations.
  • Some plugins should not be used in the staging area. For example, plugins with automation around tweeting or posting are not ideal for staging.
  • Plugins that may have issues in the staging area are generally connected to third-party services or validate licenses based on your domain name are usually available for a single website. However, if it is critical to test these plugins within your staging URL, you may need to purchase two licenses to ensure similar functionality between your live and staging sites. In some cases, you may be able to add your staging domain to the license.
  • When pushing changes from staging to production/live, the file system from staging does not overwrite the live file system but instead merges with the live file system. Therefore, when you push the staging site to production, any updated files in staging will be updated on the live website.

Production/Live vs. Staging

Your staging site is a snapshot of your live site at the moment in time when you created your staging site. Therefore, if you make any changes to the live site after creating your staging site, you will need to mirror any changes made to the live site manually into the staging site.

This is so your changes on the live site are not overwritten when you push your staging site to live. If you make any changes to your site or post daily or several times a day, you’ll want to plan your staging project to be completed as quickly as possible. This way, you do not have to keep making double entries (live and staging) to keep both sites in sync.

Staging Sites are an Invaluable Tool

Staging sites do not have to be exclusively created to go live eventually. You can also use a staging site environment as a testing environment.

Say you are curious about how to integrate a new plugin. You can create a staging environment for your live site and then, in the staging environment, play with the plugin and see how it displays and operates. Once you have your feet wet, you can add the plugin to your live site knowing there are no conflicts and tweaking the settings based on your staging test.

Now that you know what a WordPress staging site is and the various ways you can use your staging site, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without one.

At your service,

Judith: WordPress Consultant and Coach
WordPress website products and services you can trust!