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How (And Why!) To Create a Staging Site for WordPress?

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Creating a WordPress staging site is one of the smartest things you can do as a website owner. It allows you to test changes and experiment with new features without worrying about breaking your live production site.

In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll cover everything you need to know about WordPress staging sites: what they are, why they‘re so important, the pros and cons, and step-by-step instructions for setting one up yourself. Let‘s dive in!

What Is a WordPress Staging Site?

A staging site is an exact copy of your live, production WordPress site. It‘s hosted on a separate server or local environment and acts as a sandbox where you can test changes before pushing them to your real website.

When you make changes on a staging site, it doesn‘t affect the live site at all. This allows you to experiment freely without worrying about breaking things or introducing bugs to your visitors.

Some key things a WordPress staging site enables you to do:

  • Test design changes, new plugins/themes, website copy changes, etc.
  • Find and fix bugs, issues, or incompatible plugins before affecting real users
  • Show in-progress work to clients for feedback before going live
  • Backup/snapshot your site before making major changes
  • Migrate your site to a new host safely with less downtime

Without a staging site, any changes made on your live site are instantly public. One small mistake could break your entire website and prevent visitors from accessing it until you fix the issue.

A staging site acts as a shield, absorbing mistakes and issues so your production site stays stable and reliable for visitors.

How Do WordPress Staging Sites Work?

A WordPress staging site is an identical copy of all your live site‘s files, database, plugins, themes, and content.

It‘s hosted on a separate subdomain (e.g. staging.yourdomain.com) or different server and kept in sync with your production site.

When you make changes on the staging site, nothing happens on the live site. You can experiment, test things out, and make sure everything works as expected.

Once you‘re happy with the changes on staging, you can then "push" or "sync" them to your production server. This imports all the changes and updates made on staging to the real live website.

Some key things happen behind the scenes when using a WordPress staging site:

  • Database duplication – Your MySQL database is copied entirely so staging has all the same content, user accounts, etc.

  • File duplication – All plugins, themes, uploads, and core WordPress files are copied over to the staging environment.

  • Link mapping – Links are dynamically mapped to work properly in the staging site (so you don‘t have to replace URLs manually).

  • Testing safely – You can experiment, tweak, and test new features without affecting your real site.

  • Sync changes – When ready, you can push/migrate all changes made on staging to your production site.

Having this separate "sandbox" environment makes developing or making site changes much safer compared to working on a live production site.

Types of WordPress Staging Sites

There are a few different ways you can setup and host a WordPress staging site. The most common options include:

  • Hosting provider staging – Many managed WordPress hosts like WP Engine, Kinsta, and Pagely offer free staging sites. This is the fastest and easiest approach.

  • Plugin-based staging – Plugins like WP Staging or Duplicator create staging sites that run on your own hosting account. More hands-on but doesn‘t require paying your host for staging.

  • Localhost staging – Using tools like MAMP, Local, or DesktopServer to mirror your site on your own computer for a local staging site. Great for developers.

We‘ll cover how to setup all three types later in this guide. The best option depends on your technical skill, site needs, and budget. Many WordPress professionals use a combination of these staging options.

Why Use a WordPress Staging Site?

There are many great benefits to working on a WordPress staging site rather than making changes directly on your live site:

1. Reduce Risk of Breaking Your Site

The #1 reason to use a staging site is to avoid breaking your live production site.

Making even small changes like updating your theme or plugins carries some level of risk. If a change causes a critical error, it could take down your whole website until you fix it.

With a staging site, you have a safe space to experiment and test changes without visitors ever seeing errors or outages. You can catch bugs and identify compatibility issues before they get to your real site.

This makes your live site much more stable and reliable for visitors.

2. Test Design and Functionality

Want to give your site a whole new look? Planning to try out some new plugins?

A staging site lets you preview design changes and test new functionality before pushing them live. See how a new theme looks, try out the admin UI of plugins, and ensure new features work as expected.

You don‘t want to surprise yourself or your users with untested changes on your real site. Use staging to test things thoroughly first.

3. Show Clients Work In Progress

For client websites and projects, a staging site is invaluable for sharing works-in-progress.

You can give clients access to review changes you‘ve made on staging and provide feedback before anything goes live. The staging environment provides a safe space for them to test things out.

This lets you get approval and tweak things based on client feedback before you ever update the real live site. Much smoother than trying to show unfinished work on the production site.

4. Preview Content Changes

For sites with lots of content, it‘s smart to preview content updates on staging first.

You can draft new blog posts, tweak your About page, or make major text changes to ensure they look good before going live. Find typos, broken formatting, etc.

Again, this helps avoid a scenario where a content error gets published on your live site accidentally. Use staging as a content preview environment.

5. Backup Your Site Before Major Changes

Before making significant changes to your site, it‘s wise to have a recent backup ready just in case.

Pushing your live site to a staging environment creates an up-to-date snapshot backup before you experiment with theme changes, try a site migration, etc.

If anything goes wrong, you can refer back to the staging site backup or in a worst case roll back your live site to the staging copy. It gives you a safety net.

6. Learn New Skills in a Safe Space

For developers and site owners looking to expand their skills, a staging site is the perfect place to experiment.

You can use it as a learning environment to safely try building custom functionality, integrating 3rd party APIs, or using new features without real consequences.

Breaking things on staging can be a valuable learning experience. Just rebuild the staging site from your live copy again when needed.

7. Improve SEO and Site Performance

A WordPress staging site enables certain SEO and performance testing that would be too risky on a live site.

For example, you can experiment with new page speed optimization techniques. Or try implementing structured data markup and test how it appears in Google.

You can also tweak internal linking structures, manage redirects, and work on other technical SEO optimizations safely via staging.

Once the optimizations are vetted on staging, push them live for visitors to benefit from the improvements.

8. Train New Team Members

For web teams and agencies managing client sites, staging is the perfect training ground for new employees.

You can replicate client sites in a staging environment and allow new developers, designers, writers etc. to get hands-on experience safely.

As they learn the ropes and get familiar with your systems, the staging site prevents them from making mistakes or breaking things on live client sites.

9. Allow Clients to Preview Site Changes

Giving clients early access to preview site changes on a staging environment can improve workflows and communication significantly.

Rather than trying to describe the changes you‘ve made or show flat mockups, clients can experience the actual site updates hands-on via the staging URL.

They can click around, test things out, and provide feedback before changes ever go live. This helps align your team and clients more seamlessly.

Pros and Cons of WordPress Staging Sites

Clearly staging sites provide immense value, but there are some downsides and costs to factor in as well:

Pros

  • Test changes safely without impacting live site
  • Fix bugs/issues before they affect visitors
  • Preview design changes and new features
  • Get client feedback and approval before going live
  • Back up site before making major changes
  • Learn new skills without consequences
  • Improve site speed and SEO more aggressively

Cons

  • Added hosting costs for extra server resources
  • Syncing large sites to staging can be slow
  • More complex hosting setup and management
  • Development and approval takes longer across two environments
  • Can‘t fully replicate production environment and traffic

Generally, the huge safety and quality benefits far outweigh the downsides of using a WordPress staging site. But it does take some extra work, server resources, and potentially hosting costs depending on your setup.

For low-traffic sites without much active development, a staging environment provides less value. But for most businesses and client sites, the advantages are massive.

Pros like WP Engine and Kinsta make using staging sites easy and affordable. For peace of mind and quality assurance, a WordPress staging site is highly recommended.

How to Create a WordPress Staging Site

Now that you know what staging sites are and why they‘re so useful, let‘s get into how to actually create one!

There are a few different options for setting up a WordPress staging site:

  • Use staging provided by your managed WordPress host
  • Install a staging plugin on your existing host
  • Create a local staging site on your own computer

We‘ll go through how to setup each of these options in detail:

Using Hosting Provider Staging

The fastest and easiest way to get a WordPress staging site is through a managed hosting provider like WP Engine, Kinsta, Pagely, or Flywheel.

Many premium managed WordPress hosts include free staging sites with automated syncing and launching. This is by far the simplest approach.

For example, to create a new staging environment on WP Engine:

  1. Login to your WP Engine account and go to the Sites screen.
  2. Find the site you want to create a staging copy of.
  3. Click "Stage Site".
  4. A perfect copy of your site will be created and you can access the URL.
  5. Make changes, test things out, then click "Launch" when ready to sync staging up to production.

It only takes a minute and requires no technical expertise. The hosting provider handles all the heavy lifting behind the scenes.

The downside is that managed hosts like WP Engine tend to be more expensive. So you‘re paying extra for the added convenience of built-in staging.

Still, if your budget allows, going through your WordPress host for staging means no hassle or headaches.

Using a Staging Plugin

If your current WordPress host doesn‘t offer staging, no problem! You can use a plugin to create a staging site instead.

There are a few great choices here:

  • WP Staging – The most popular dedicated staging plugin. Creates an entire copy of your site in a subfolder. Free version available.

  • BlogVault – All-in-one backup and staging plugin. Lets you clone your site to a subdomain with 1-click. Free version available.

  • Duplicator – Plugin made primarily for migrations but can also be used for staging sites. Limited free version.

  • All-in-One WP Migration – Similar to Duplicator. Lets you duplicate site to subdomain or folder. Free version available.

Let‘s go through how to setup a staging site using WP Staging as an example:

  1. Install and activate WP Staging on your WordPress site.
  2. In the WP Staging admin, click "New Staging Site".
  3. It will now create a full copy of your site into a subfolder like example.com/staging-site-1.
  4. To access your staging site, visit that URL. Make sure to use https.
  5. As you test changes on staging, you can migrate them to live by clicking "Go Live" in the WP Staging dashboard.

The plugin approach requires a bit more technical know-how compared to using built-in hosting provider staging. But it can save money by avoiding the need for a managed host.

Plugins may also have file size limits or other restrictions in their free versions. But it‘s a solid middle ground between DIY and paid staging solutions.

Using a Localhost Staging Site

The final option is to setup a local WordPress staging site on your own computer for free. This is great for developers who want full control and customization.

There are two steps to making it work:

1. Install local server software

You‘ll need to download local server software like MAMP, Local, or DesktopServer. These tools allow you to run WordPress locally on your computer.

Some top options:

  • MAMP – Free local server for Mac
  • Local – Made by Flywheel, free for Windows and Mac
  • DesktopServer – Local server for Windows
  • Laragon – Quick install, full-featured local server for Windows
  • VVV – Customizable local server for developers

2. Create a local copy of your site

Next, create a local copy of your live site to work on:

  • Manual copy – Manually copy all files and import SQL database
  • Use a migration plugin – Easier way is to use a plugin like All-in-One WP Migration or Duplicator
  • Spinup staging copy – Some hosts like Kinsta let you launch staging sites locally

Once you copy the site down, fire up your local server and access the site through localhost:8080 or a custom domain.

Now you have an exact local version of your staging site to develop on. When ready to go live, manually copy files and database back up to the host.

Going the local route takes more technical expertise but offers maximum control and flexibility. Depending on your skills, it can be a great free option.

Other Staging Options

A few other less common options for WordPress staging include:

  • Docker containers – Spin up staging sites as self-contained Docker containers
  • Cloud hosting – Create staging on scaled cloud platform like AWS, Google Cloud, etc. More complex but very flexible.
  • Dedicated staging server – Have a staging server that mirrors your production environment for more realistic testing.

Tips for Using a WordPress Staging Site

Once you have your WordPress staging site setup, follow these tips to get the most out of it:

  • Name staging sites clearly (like staging-1, staging-2) to stay organized
  • Try to match staging environment to production as close as possible
  • Limit access to staging – use basic auth or IP restrictions
  • Communicate staging URL internally so team knows where to review changes
  • Sync/migrate staging to production frequently to prevent divergence
  • Don‘t keep staging environments around forever – clean up old ones
  • Use staging for big tasks like site migrations, redesigns, new features

Also, resist the temptation to work directly on production even with a staging site available. Get in the habit of staging first, production second in your workflows.

Wrap Up

If you‘ve made it this far, you should have a solid understanding of what WordPress staging sites are, why they‘re so valuable, and how to create one for your site or client sites.

Here are some key takeaways:

  • Staging sites enable safe testing and previewing of changes without impacting your live site.

  • They help you reduce errors and issues, get feedback, backup before big changes, and more.

  • Leading managed WordPress hosts make setting up staging easy. Plugins also available.

  • For developers, local WordPress installs can be used as free staging environments.

  • Take advantage of staging sites as much as possible for both peace of mind and better quality assurance.

Your future self will thank you the first time a change takes down your staging site but leaves production running smoothly.

Have any questions about setting up a WordPress staging site? Just leave a comment below!

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