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WordPress Staging Sites Explained: When and How to Use a Staging Site

Wondering what a WordPress staging site is and why you might want to use one?

A WordPress staging site is essentially just a duplicate copy of your live website. When you create it, it has the exact same theme, all the same content, the same plugins, the same configuration choices, etc. You can log in to the dashboard and manage it just like a "normal" WordPress site.

However, the key difference is that a staging site is private and separate, so your website's visitors will never see it and any changes that you make will stay private until you're ready to make them public.

This makes staging sites a really useful tool to have when you're making changes to your site (like configuring a new theme) or applying new updates.

In this post, we'll talk a little bit about the benefits of using a WordPress staging site and the situations in which you should consider using a staging site.

Then, we'll share some actionable tips on how you can get started with your first staging site, no matter where you're hosting your WordPress site.

What Are the Benefits of a WordPress Staging Site?

The main benefit of using a WordPress staging site is that it gives you a safe place to make changes and test updates without affecting your website's visitors or causing problems on your live website.

Your live website is constantly receiving traffic from visitors. So if you're making changes directly to your live site, you could negatively affect the experience of your site's visitors if they're browsing when you make the change (especially if something goes wrong).

For example, it's not uncommon for plugins to have compatibility issues when you update them. If you use a staging site, you can check for these compatibility issues before making a change that could affect the version of your site that's receiving traffic.

This helps you avoid a lot of stress and also makes sure that you don't cause issues for your visitors.

Once you've made the change or verified that an update won't break things on your staging site, you can manually make the change on your live site. Or, most staging tools also let you "push" your staging site live, which essentially overwrites the live version of your site with the staging version you’ve recently updated.

When Should You Use a WordPress Staging Site?

In general, you should consider using a staging site whenever you make a large change to your WordPress site that has the potential to affect the functioning of your site or the experience of your visitors.

This doesn't include regular day-to-day actions, such as publishing a blog post or changing a couple of minor settings in a plugin. But it does include things like:

  • Applying updates to the WordPress core, plugins, or themes – especially major updates that add new features (as opposed to minor updates that fix bugs or security issues).
  • Installing a new plugin or theme.
  • Editing your site's code or adding new code snippets.
  • Making major changes to the configuration of your site.
  • Changing your theme or making big adjustments to the design settings in your theme.

There can also be other situations where you should use a staging site depending on your site's configuration. Basically, if you hear that little voice in the back of your head wondering if that button you're about to push is going to blow something up, do it on a staging site first!

What Are the Drawbacks of Staging Sites?

There aren't any drawbacks to using staging sites, but you will want to be careful about how you're using them if you publish a lot of content or if your site receives a lot of activity.

For example, let's say you create your staging site on Monday. Then, on Tuesday, you publish a blog post on the live version of your site.

Well, that blog post won't be reflected on the staging site because the staging site is a duplicate of your site as it existed on Monday.

If you were to "push" your staging site live on Wednesday, that blog post would disappear and your site would go back to how it was on Monday (in addition to all of the changes you made on your staging site).

This isn't a reason not to use staging sites – it's just important to keep in mind when you're working with them.

To get around this, you can use two tactics:

  1. Simple: Manually make the changes on your live site after testing them on the staging site (instead of "pushing" your staging site to overwrite the live version).
  2. Advanced: Use a tool that allows for "partial" pushes or merging, so that you can push parts of your staging site live instead of completely overwriting the live version. For example, if you're hosting with Onyx, our staging tool lets you compare the live and staging versions so that you can choose which specific changes to apply.

How to Create a WordPress Staging Site

At this point, we've hopefully convinced you of the usefulness and importance of using a WordPress staging site. Now, let's get into the practical part and talk about how you can actually create your own staging site.

There are a few different avenues available to create a staging site depending on your hosting provider and knowledge level. In general, the three most common options are to:

  1. Use a built-in staging feature from your host – we offer this on our Onyx managed WordPress hosting plans.
  2. Use a WordPress staging plugin – there are some great plugin solutions, though you'll usually need to pay.
  3. Manually create a staging site - you can manually move the files yourself and push/pull the database using something like WP Migrate DB

The manual method isn't an option for most users and if you feel comfortable doing that you probably don't need a tutorial. For that reason, we're going to focus on the first two approaches, which are what we recommend for most WordPress users who aren't developers.

Use the Built-In Staging Feature on Our Onyx Plans

If you're using our Onyx managed WordPress hosting plans, we've already created a built-in staging feature that lets you easily start using staging sites.

You can create a staging site by visiting the Staging tab in the site dashboard of your Onyx hosting panel:

You'll then get a separate site dashboard for the staging site. It works just like your regular site dashboard, but it includes a big orange warning reminding you that you're working in a staging environment:

If you click the Open WordPress Admin option, it will take you to the WordPress dashboard for your staging site.

When you're happy with how everything is working, you can click the Publish to... button to make your changes live.

One thing Onyx allows for that many other hosts don't is the ability to partially push your site live. This is an advanced feature, but one that can be really useful for working on your site. Instead of completely overwriting the live version of your site with the staging version, Onyx also lets you:

  • Compare files and database tables between the live and staging version to see what's different.
  • Only overwrite the files without changing the database of your live site, or even just move certain files.
  • Only push certain database tables rather than completely overwriting the database of your live site.

Again – this is an advanced tactic. If you don't know what any of that means, you can just stick to completely replacing the live version with your staging version or manually making the changes.

If you're hosting elsewhere, you can consult your host's support to see if they offer staging sites. If they don't, you can always switch to Onyx to access our staging feature – we'll even help migrate your sites for free.

Use a WordPress Staging Plugin

If your host doesn't offer a staging feature, there are also a number of plugin solutions that you can use to set up a staging site. Here are some of the most popular options:

  • WP STAGING – has a free version at WordPress.org that lets you create a staging site, but you need to upgrade to the premium version to "push" your staging site live. With the free version, you would need to manually make the changes on your live site after testing them. The premium version costs €89.
  • WP Stagecoach – a paid solution that starts at $99 per year for use on a single site.
  • BlogVault – a cloud backup service that also offers a staging feature. Starts at $89 per year for a single site.

Start Using a WordPress Staging Site Today

A WordPress staging site gives you a safe place to test changes and updates before you apply them to the live version of your site that's actively receiving traffic.

If you're using our Onyx managed WordPress hosting, we include a built-in staging feature that lets you create up to two staging sites for each live site. This means you can spin up a staging site with just a few clicks. You also get flexible options to "push" the staging site live when you're finished testing.

If you're not already hosting with Onyx, head to our Onyx page or get in touch via our Live Chat to learn more about why you might want to make the switch. We can also help migrate your WordPress sites for free.

Or, if your host doesn't offer staging sites, another option is to pay a fee and use a WordPress staging plugin like WP STAGING or WP Stagecoach.

Do you still have questions about WordPress staging sites? Let us know in the comments and our experts will do their best to help.

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