When you manage a WordPress site, eventually there will come a day when you need to make some changes to it. That could mean just some simple tweaks to the theme or an update to a plugin, but either way, your site will change just a bit. And when you have to make those updates, it can be tempting to make them right on the live site. When you make changes directly on the production site, however, you run the risk that something could break – and worse, that you won’t be able to fix it.
That’s where a WordPress staging area comes in.
What is a staging area?
A WordPress staging site is a test environment that’s safe for you to experiment in. It’s a clone of your production site, meaning you can change things without fear of breaking your live site. If you’ve ever heard of cowboy coding (aka editing code on your production site) using a staging site is like the opposite of that, and a much, much better habit to get into.
Before we get too far, staging sites can go by a few different names that you may have heard of. These names include:
- Staging area
- Test site
- Sandbox environment
And really, just about any combination of those phrases will work, too. The point is that a staging area is a safe place to test changes instead of testing them on your live site.
Why you should use a test environment
Staging sites are incredibly useful for making changes in a safe way. In other words, by making changes in a test environment instead of your live site, you eliminate the chance of breaking your WordPress site.
This is useful when you’re testing out new code changes or want to try a new plugin or theme. Instead of installing things all willy-nilly on your fully functioning site, you can try them out in a sandbox environment first. Then, if that new plugin really doesn’t work that well and breaks your site, you can simply reset the staging site and there’s no harm done.
If you’ve ever used a local WordPress environment before, such as Local, you may be familiar with this concept of making changes in a sandbox environment other than your live site. Before you go thinking that you’ve already got your system set in stone though, know that they’re not exactly the same thing.
Local development vs staging sites
If you’re building a brand new WordPress site or doing a major rebrand that involves a custom theme, you’ll want to use a local WordPress environment. Basically, this option is better for any updates that you’ll be working on for a few days (or weeks or months). Once you finish working in a local environment, you’ll have to upload the files to your live site. That’s not too difficult, especially when your hosting company does free migrations, but it’s probably not something you want to be doing all the time.
A staging site, on the other hand, is a much better option for quick changes. With Flywheel’s Staging feature, you can push changes to production with just the click of a button. The staging environment lives on the same server as your live site, making it super fast to work back and forth. This allows you to keep experiments away from your live site until you’re ready to share them with the world.
So while local WordPress environments and staging sites are similar, you really should use both to have the smoothest development process around. To recap:
- Use a local WordPress environment for large changes, such as a full rebrand or brand new site. This is better for projects that’ll take some time.
- Use a staging site for small changes, such as a minor code change or testing a plugin update. This is better for making quick changes to your live site in a safe way.
How to set up a staging site
If you host your site on Flywheel, setting up a staging area couldn’t be easier – our Staging feature is a magical addition to your workflow! It takes a perfect copy of your site and places it in a staging area where you can safely test out new plugins, tweak your theme, create custom code, and experiment in an independent environment (without affecting your live site at all).
Then, if you’re happy with your changes, you can just push your changes to production with a single click and replace your live site with all of your fancy new updates. You can even choose if you want to move just the themes and plugins or if you also want to include the database. Either way, we’ll merge your uploads and make sure you never lose any of your changes!
If you need to make changes to a WordPress site, we highly recommend using a staging site to do it. What tricks do you have for smoothly updating your sites? Share your best development tips in the comments below!