WordPress Multisite Masterclass: Activation and Configuration

WordPress Multisite Masterclass: Activation and Configuration

Welcome back to our six-part WordPress Multisite masterclass. In part two of this series, you’ll learn how to activate Multisite and get your network up and running.

I’ll walk you through the installation process, then show you how to create sites on your network, add users, install themes and plugins and configure your network settings.

In this series, you’ll learn everything you need to know to create your own network, add sites to it or let users add their own, and manage the network. You’ll learn how to ensure your network is secure and high performing and how to create a successful community of users and sites.

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Before you start on this part of the course, however, I recommend you read WordPress Multisite Masterclass: Getting Started, which offers an introduction to Multisite and this series.

Read it already? Great! Let’s get started.

Missed a tutorial in our WordPress Multisite Masterclass series? You can catch up on all six posts here:

What You’ll Need

To follow along with this part of the course, you’ll need the following:

  • An existing WordPress installation. This can be one you’ve already been working with or a fresh install. I recommend working with a new one as it will give you the most options and avoid any risk of you breaking your existing site. Don’t try this out on your live site without making a backup first!
  • A code editor for editing your site’s wp-config.php and .htaccess files. I use Coda for Mac as it also includes FTP or you could choose one from our recommendations.
  • If your code editor doesn’t have FTP built in, a FTP client that will let you download and upload files to your site, such as FileZilla.
  • If you prefer to work on a local site rather than a remote one, a local installation of WordPress set up and running on MAMP or similar (you won’t need FTP if you do this but you will need a code editor). Read how to get this set up in our guide.

I’m assuming that you’re already familiar with the WordPress interface and that you’re not too scared of editing files directly, although you’ll only have to do a bit of this, so don’t worry!

Activating Multisite on Your WordPress Installation

Multisite isn’t extra software you have to download and install because it’s already part of WordPress, but you have to activate it to make it work.

Before You Start

Before you activate Multisite, you need to consider whether you want to use subdomains or subdirectories for your network. Here’s a quick recap on what that means:

  • Using subdomains means that each site will have a URL like http://site1.yournetwork.com. If you’re planning to let people create their own site, you’ll need to have wild card subdomains activated for your hosting.
  • Using subdirectories means that each site will have a URL like http://yournetwork.com/site1. You can’t choose this option on an established site that you’re converting to a network as it may cause clashes with URLs already created on your site.

If you’re activating Multisite on a site that’s more than a month old, you’ll only have the option to select subdomains. If you’re working on a local site, you’ll only have the subdirectories option.

Setting up Subdomains and Wildcard Subdomains

If you’re using subdirectories, ignore this section.

If you’re using subdomains and you expect a lot of sites will be created on your network, or people will be creating their own sites, their subdomains won’t work unless you have wild card subdomains set up. If you’re planning on using domain mapping for all of the sites in your network, however, or you’re happy to manually set up each subdomain as you create a news site, then you won’t need wild card subdomains.

You can set up subdomains in cPanel, which your hosting provider should have given you access to (check with them if you’re not sure). In cPanel, go to Domains > Subdomains to see the page for configuring subdomains. Below you can see a screenshot of a site where I’ve got wildcard subdomains configured:

Adding subdomains in cPanel

To set up a specific subdomain, add it to the Subdomain field and click Create. So if you added a site to your network with the URL http://new-site.yournetwork.com, you’d add new-site as the subdomain. Alternatively, to set up wild card subdomains, type * (an asterisk) in the Subdomains field, and click Create. That way you won’t have to create any subdomains manually.

Note: Some of the cheaper hosting providers don’t allow wild card subdomains and some don’t give you cPanel access. If that’s the case for you, my recommendation would be to find a better hosting provider but if you can’t, ask them to set up subdomains for you.

Activating Multisite

So now you’re ready, it’s time to activate Multisite!

  1. If you haven’t already, install WordPress how you usually would. Either use a script provided by your hosting provider or download WordPress and use the “famous 5 minute install” to install it on your server or local machine.
  2. Open your wp-config.php file, which you’ll find in the folder where you installed WordPress. Find the line that reads:
  1.  Immediately above that line, create a new line that reads as follows:
  1.  Now save your wp-config.php file.

The next step is to visit the WordPress admin screens and install Multisite.

  1. In the WordPress admin, go to Tools > Network Setup.
  2. You will be taken to the Network Install screen. Enter or select the following:
    • Sub-directory / subdomain install – if this is available, select the one you want.
    • Network Title – this will be pre-filled for you and you can edit it if you want – or you can always do this later in your network settings.
    • Network Admin Email – if this is different from the email you’ve already provided, edit it.
    • Click the Install button.
  1. Next, you’ll be taken to the screen for enabling the network, which will show you some code you need to add to your wp-config.php and .htaccess files:
Multisite enable network screen
  1. Open each of your wp-config.php and .htaccess files and edit them in line with the text provided on the screen. If you can’t find .htaccess on your server, it may because hidden files aren’t visible: change the settings in your code editor if you’re using one to access your files.
  2. Save both files.

WordPress Multisite will now be installed. You’ll need to log in again and when you do so you’ll see the dashboard:

WordPress Multisite dashboard

Now you can start adding sites, plugins, themes and more.

Creating a Site

Your network will have just one site in it to start with: the base site, which is the site you started with before you activated Multisite. You can add extra sites yourself as the network administrator or you can enable site creation for users. The next part of this course is dedicated to enabling site creation for users, so here I’ll show you how to do it yourself.

  1. Go to the network admin screens by clicking on My Sites > Network Admin in the admin menu.
  2. Go to Sites > Add New.
  3. Type in the site address (i.e. the subdomain or subdirectory), the site title and the email address of the site administrator, as shown in the screenshot below:
Adding a site in WordPress Multisite

Then click the Add Site button and WordPress will create the new site for you.

If you’ve used your own email address for the site administrator account, you’ll be able to see it when you hover over the My Sites link in the admin menu. If you’re not the administrator, you can still see it from your network admin screens. Click Sites > All Sites to view all of your sites. Below you can see my new site listed along with the base site:

WordPress Multisite sites screen

Note that the URLs for my sites are a bit long as I’ve installed Multisite in a subfolder of my main site. Yours should be more straightforward.

Editing and Configuring Sites

As the network administrator, you can either edit sites via their dashboard and admin screens, or via the Sites section of the network admin screens. There are some things you can only do via the Sites screens, such as enabling a theme for a site.

Changing a Site’s Status

From the Sites screen in the network admin, you can change the status of each of the sites in your network. The options are:

  • Deactivate. This is what happens to a site on the network if its site administrator deletes it. The site administrator can no longer access and the public can’t visit it but you as the network administrator can. Below you can see that a deactivated site is shown in red in the network admin screen – it’s marked as deleted which is confusing as it hasn’t been deleted, just deactivated. To activate a site again, click the Activate link.
deactivated site marked in red
  • Archive – The effect of archiving a site is the same as deactivating it, except for the error message that’s displayed when people try to visit it. The site administrator can’t access it, nor can the public, but you as the network administrator can access it via the Sites screen in network admin.
  • Spam – This doesn’t delete the site, but does make it inaccessible to anyone, including the network administrator. It’s the final step before hitting the delete link.
  • Delete – This deletes the site, its database tables and all uploads associated with it. Used with caution!

To do any of these, hover over the site’s name in the Sites screen and then click the relevant link.

Site Info

In the network admin screens, go to Sites to view your sites, and then hover over one of them and click Edit. This will take you to the site editing tabs, with the Info tab selected by default:


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WordPress Multisite edit site info

Here you can view and edit the basic information relating to the site, such as its status and URL. Sometimes I’ve created a site and made a typo when I was typing its URL – if that happens to you, this is where you edit it. The site will still work with the new URL, you’ll be pleased to know.

Site Users

You can add and edit the site’s users by clicking the Users tab:

WordPress Multisite editing users for a site

Here you’ll see all of the users for the site. Use this screen to add an existing user from your network to the site or to add a new user. Whichever of these options you use, you’ll have to select a role – which will be the user’s role for this site, not for the network.

Site Themes

Click on the Themes tab to enable themes for individual sites. This is useful if you’re running a network of your own sites or of client sites, and each site will have its own theme. That way, you or your site administrators can’t accidentally activate the wrong theme. If your users are creating their own sites then you’ll want to make more themes available to them, which you do by network enabling the themes (more of which shortly).

In the screenshot below you can see two themes that are installed on my network but not network activated. The themes that are network activated aren’t shown on this screen, as you don’t have the option to enable them for individual sites.

WordPress Multisite enabling themes for a site

To enable a theme for a site, click the Enable link beneath its name. It will then appear on the Themes screen in that site’s admin screens.

Site Settings

The Settings tab gives you access to more settings for an individual site on your network:

WordPress Multisite editing site settings for one site

Here, you have access to all of the settings relating to the site. I tend to avoid this screen as I prefer to use the settings screens in the site admin for each site, but it’s a handy screen to have if, for some reason, the site admin screens aren’t accessible (e.g. the domain isn’t working) and you need to change a setting to make things work again.

If you do edit these, take care as you could be overriding settings made by the site administrator.

Managing Users

As I’ve already mentioned, you can add users to a specific site via the Users tab in the Sites admin screens. You can also add users to your network, and edit their details, via the Users screens.

These screens work in a very similar way as for a standalone WordPress site, with one exception: there’s information on which sites the user has an account for. Below you can see the users on my new site, with a site admin user set up for the site I just created:

WordPress Multisite users screen

You can see there’s an extra column that shows you which sites your user has been added to.

You can use this screen to access the user profile screen, or delete the user – hover over the username, then click the Delete link. Deleting a user won’t delete a site they’ve created – if you have a user set up a spammy account and a splog (spam blog), you’ll need to delete both the user and the site.

To add a user, click on the Add New button, which will take you through the same process as for a standalone site. If you then want to add that user to a site, you can do so via that site’s admin screens or via the Sites > Users tab.

Installing Themes and Plugins

Plugin and theme installation can only be done by the network administrator, not by site administrators. Let’s take a look at how you do this, and how you then activate or enable those themes or plugins for the sites on your network.

Installing and Activating Themes

Once you’ve installed a theme you can enable it for sites in your network in one of two ways: you can enable them for individual sites or you can network enable them. A theme can only be activated on a site (by the network administrator or the site administrator) if it’s been network enabled or enabled for that site.

Here’s how you install a theme and network enable it:

  1. In the network admin screens, go to Themes > Add New and install the theme in the same way as you would for a standard WordPress site.
  2. On the ‘Installing Theme’ screen that appears, click the Network Enable link.

Alternatively, to network enable a theme you’ve already installed, click on Themes to go to the Themes screen, then click the Network Enable link below a theme.

You can also enable a theme just for one site. This can be useful if your network runs lots of sites each of which will need a different theme, for example if you’re hosting client sites. Enabling themes by site means that other themes won’t be available to sites which don’t have them enabled, so site admins can’t accidentally activate the wrong theme.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. In the Network admin, click on Sites to view all of your sites.
  2. Hover over the name of the site you want to enable the theme for and click the Edit link that appears.
  3. Click the Themes tab to view the themes settings screen for the site:
WordPress Multisite enabling themes for a site
  1. Under the theme you want to enable, click the Enable link.

Now when you go to the site administration screens for that site and click on Appearance > Themes, you’ll see the theme you’ve enabled included in the available themes for activation:

WordPress Multisite - theme enabeld in site's themes screen

Installing and Activating Plugins

Plugins also have to be installed by the network administrator, but they work differently with regard to the sites on the network. You can’t activate a plugin for an individual site. Instead, you can network activate it so it runs on every site on the network, or you can just install it so that individual sites can choose to activate it. The enabling step doesn’t apply.

Network activating plugins is useful if you’ve written or downloaded a plugin to provide features which you want all of your sites to have, for example if you want all of your sites to have a caching or SEO plugin activated. There are some plugins that can only be network enabled. For example, on my network of client sites I’ve installed the Snapshot backup plugin to ensure that all of the sites are backed up regularly. Here’s how to install and network activate a plugin:

  1. In the network admin screens, got to Plugins > Add New and install the plugin as you would in a normal WordPress site.
  2. In the “Installing Plugin” screen, click the Network Activate link.

The plugin will now run on all the sites in your network and site admins won’t be able to disable it.

But what if you want to just activate the plugin on one site? You do that by installing the plugin as a network administrator and then activating the plugin for the site.

  1. In the network admin screens, got to Plugins > Add New and install the plugin as you would in a normal WordPress site. Below I’ve installed the WooCommerce plugin. WooCommerce is a plugin that you might not want to activate for all the sites in your network unless your network is just for store owners.
Plugin activation screen for site in a Multisite network
  1. In the ‘Installing Plugin’ screen, click the Return to Plugin Installer link.
  2. Visit the site admin screens for the site you want to activate the plugin for and click the Plugins link in the admin menu.
  3. Under the plugin you want to activate, click the Activate link as you would in a normal WordPress site. The plugin will then be active, as shown in the screenshot below:
activating a plugin on a site in a Multisite network

Configuring Network Settings

The final set of screens you’ll need to use as a network admin is the network settings screens. There are two screens here:

  • Network Setup takes you to the screen you saw during installation with the code you need to add to your wp-config.php and .htaccess files. Refer to this if you ever have problems in the future and need to edit those files.
  • Network Settings gives you the ability to edit settings for your network.

To access your network settings, click on Settings > Network Settings to access the settings screen:

WordPress Multisite network settings screens

Settings you can customize are:

  • The title of your network
  • The network admin’s email address
  • Registration settings: whether users can register accounts and/or sites, whether site admins can add new users, and email domains and site names which are banned.
  • New site settings: the content of the welcome email for site admins and users and the first page, post and comment created on new sites.
  • Upload settings: file types permitted and maximum file size
  • Language settings: the default language
  • Menu settings: enable or disable the plugins menu item for site admins. If you disable this they won’t be able to activate or deactivate plugins.

We’ll return to this screen in more detail later in this series when you learn how to configure the user sign up and site creation process.

Activating and Configuring Multisite Is Easier Than You Think

Now you know everything you need to know to set up Multisite and configure your network, including adding sites, and installing and activating themes and plugins.

In the next part of this series, part three, you’ll learn about the site creation process. We’ll enable site creation by users and configure that process to enhance the user experience. Some of this you can do via the settings screens and some you can do by writing code or using a plugin.

Missed a tutorial in our Multisite masterclass series? You can catch up on all six posts here:

Did you find this tutorial helpful? Why do you want to learn about WordPress Multisite? What do you want to know more about? Let us know in the comments below.

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