We’ve all done it – lived on the edge and clicked Update on a live WordPress site; especially for ‘small’ changes we think won’t matter much. However, we’ve also all had those panicky moments when, seconds later, our entire site goes down with the famous ‘white screen of death.’
Making changes on a live site is a risky way to operate, and professionals know that you need to test all your changes first. With that in mind, a WordPress staging site comes in very handy as a complete copy of your live site – enabling you to fiddle to your heart’s content, without fear of breaking anything accessible by the general viewing public.
This article will take you through how to create a staging site so that you can test changes to your WordPress site before going live. We will look at the various options available to you and show you how to select the best one.
Let’s get cracking!
Why You Should Use a Staging Site
In case you’re wondering, a staging site is simply a ‘clone’ (or copy) of your site that you can work on, typically offline and/or inaccessible to the public.
A staging site offers several benefits to a site owner or developer, including:
- It enables you to thoroughly test your site and any changes without the time pressure of the real site being in maintenance mode or otherwise unavailable.
- Your visitors’ experience of your website won’t be interrupted by changes as you work on the site.
- You can reduce the risk of damage to your business due to a bad impression caused by errors or downtime.
- It helps to eliminate the effects of a damaged or broken site on search engine optimization, conversions, and sales.
Now that you know exactly how a staging site will benefit you, let’s start looking at the options available to you for creating one.
Your Options for Creating a WordPress Staging Site
As with most things in the WordPress world, there are multiple ways to solve a problem. Now that you understand how a staging site can help you, you need to choose the option that most suits you.
The most suitable option for you will depend on a few factors, such as where you host your website, and your level of WordPress expertise. We’re going to explore them all in ascending order of technical difficulty below, and explain the advantages and disadvantages of each method.
Option #1: Create a Staging Site Through Your Host
Managed hosting solutions add speed, security, and other features that make it worth the extra the cost for many users.
Furthermore, most modern managed hosts provide one-click staging sites as one of their key features. If your host does offer this, you can stop reading right here, because they have made it super-easy. We’ve done a complete WordPress hosting review that looked at the various features available – including staging sites – so you can select one that offers this feature if you are looking for hosting at the moment (or are willing to switch).
The exact process to create a staging site on a managed WordPress host varies slightly, but the process is somewhat similar across hosts. Your host will provide documentation on how to create a staging site in their environment, and we’ve linked to a few of the more popular ones below:
- WP Engine: Staging Environment Overview
- FlyWheel: Getting Started with Staging
- Pressable: Cloning Your Site
The clear advantage of this method is its simplicity. Using your host’s staging tools to create a copy of your site requires nothing on your side, so even the most non-technical user can easily create a staging site for testing.
A disadvantage of this is the lack of control over anything in the staging process. However, even more technical WordPress developers appreciate the convenience of a one-click process, and it is definitely one of the features that makes a managed host worth the cost.
Option #2: Create a Hosted Staging Site
If you are with a host that does not offer staging sites as an option but still want to have access to simple staging site creation, you should take a look at WP Stagecoach. They provide hosted one-click WordPress staging sites with pricing that starts at $4 per month for a single site, so WP Stagecoach is within reach for budget users.
Their service enables you to create a staging copy of your site with one click. When you are ready to push the changes back to your live site, you can choose which file and database changes to import. The staging site can be automatically password-protected, and you can reverse changes if the import to your live site didn’t work as expected.
To use WP Stagecoach, you install and activate their WP Stagecoach plugin and enter your API key. From within your website’s admin area, you click on WP Stagecoach, set the URL for your staging site, and set up the password if necessary. Click Ride the Stagecoach to create your staging site, and wait for the process to finish. You can then log in to your staging site using the same admin username and password as your original site.
The biggest advantage of using a hosted solution like WP Stagecoach is that it provides one-click staging site, even if you are on a shared host. It is extremely easy to set up and offers rollback functionality if the staging site doesn’t update the live site correctly. Even a non-technical site owner should have no trouble setting up a staging site using WP Stagecoach.
The disadvantage is that your staging site now resides in a completely different environment to your original site, so there may be underlying technical differences that can impact the staging site. Ideally, you would want your staging site to be in an environment identical to the live site, so that you are testing under the same conditions.
Option #3: Create a Staging Site With a Plugin
We look at three different plugin solutions below, again in order of increasing technical difficulty. The overall advantage of the plugin approach is that you are working within the familiarity of the WordPress admin interface, and the plugin handles the heavy lifting of copying the necessary files and database tables.
The plugin approach (in most cases) does have some disadvantages, however, as it is typically a multi-step process that requires you to interact with both the original and staging site to complete the process. In the case of some plugins (like Duplicator), technical knowledge is required to setup the staging site.
1. WP Staging
The first plugin we will look at is relatively new, so it only has some 3,000 active installs, but its 4.8-star satisfaction rating suggests it is working well for those users. WP Staging is attempting to bring one-click staging sites into the WordPress admin.
Once the plugin is installed and activated, go to Plugins > Staging to get started, then:
- Click on Create New Staging Site.
- Enter a name for your staging site to create subdirectory under your existing WordPress website.
- Confirm the scan of files and database tables and set any of the advanced options.
- Click Start Cloning.
- Once the process is complete, you can click the button to login to your staging site using the same admin credentials.
At this stage the plugin cannot push the changes back to the live site, so the staging site is really just a testing ground for themes and plugins.
- One-click staging
- No configuration required
- Permalinks don’t work without .htaccess file changes
All-in-One WP Migration is a very well-known plugin for migrating WordPress websites, with over 100,000 active installs and a 4.7-star satisfaction rating.
The plugin enables you to export an exact copy of your website, which is what we need for testing purposes.
- You start by going to All-In-One WP Migration > Export in the WordPress admin.
- You can do a ‘find and replace’ to change, for example, the occurrences of the original domain name to a subdomain you plan to use for the staging site.
- You can also opt to exclude spam comments or post revisions to reduce the size of the export.
- Once you have saved the export file the plugin creates, you can import it to a new WordPress installation on your subdomain.
- You have to install the plugin on the new site and then go to All-In-One WP Migration > Import in the WordPress admin.
- You can drag-and-drop the export file into the import area to start.
- Once the import completes, you need to log in with the admin credentials from the original site.
- Once logged back in, you update your permalinks by clicking Save twice, and then you are done.
- Easy to use
- Simple to set up
- Can find and replace to change URLs, etc.
- Requires setup of separate WP site
Another plugin you can use to create a staging site is the very popular Duplicator. With over 700,000 active installs and a 4.9-star satisfaction rating, this plugin is clearly a preferred choice for many to migrate or clone their sites.
Clicking on the Duplicator menu in the WordPress admin will take you to a Packages screen, which will show you any previous exports you have done.
- To get started click on the Create New button on the Packages screen.
- A system scan will show you the details of your site. Click Build.
- Once the build has completed, you can download both the installer and archive files by clicking on the respective buttons.
- You will need to upload both files to an empty directory on your web host using FTP, or if you prefer to work locally, copy them to an empty folder under your web root.
- In a web browser, visit the URL for the install file (e.g. http://mywebsite/my-wp-directory/installer.php)
- Enter the necessary configuration details, including connection settings for an empty database.
- Click Run Deployment and follow the instructions to update the database and test the website when it is complete.
- Completely configurable
- No need to install WP for new site
- Requires some technical skills
Option #4: Create a Staging Site Manually
If you want to get really hands on, you can create a staging site manually. The basic steps for this process are:
- Setup WordPress locally, or at a subdomain on your web host. (We’ve previously written before about how to set up a local copy of WordPress on Mac and Windows.)
- Create a copy of your site (both the files and the database).
- Import data into new WordPress installation, making sure to update URLs and links in the database.
This is not a process we’d recommended for beginners, so unless you are comfortable with MySQL database operations, we would suggest you stick to one of the other options. If you do choose to go this route, you can follow this step-by-step tutorial: The Ultimate Guide to Cloning a WordPress Site.
Obviously, this approach gives you complete control over the process, and for those with the requisite experience, is relatively quick to implement. However, it does require technical skills and there is significant room for error. You will also need to manually make corrections or restart the process if any issues arise.
Updating a live site seems like no big deal until it takes your site down for what you thought was a minor change. Using a staging site protects you from the drama by giving you a safe space to test your changes first.
We’ve outlined why you should create a staging site and shown you the options available:
- One-click through a managed host
- Using a hosted staging solution
- Using a plugin to create a staging site
- Going the manual route
We also explained how to go through the process, and the advantages of each method. So, protect yourself and your site by creating one today.
We’d love to hear your experiences and tips and tricks for creating and working with a WordPress staging site. Share them in the comments section below and subscribe to the comments to keep up with the conversation!
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