WordPress remains the most popular content management system (CMS) in the world, mostly due to the ease in which the site can be customized. There are limitless possibilities as to what one can do with a WordPress site, from selling products via WooCommerce to hosting membership-based forums. The low cost of most WordPress plugins and themes encourages experimentation on the part of the site owner. However, it is quite nerve-wracking to attempt a major change on a site without knowing for certain how the finished product will work and look. For this and many other reasons, we suggest every WordPress site has an identical development site.
What is a WordPress development site?
A WordPress development site is essentially a clone of your live WordPress site, but accessible only to a select number of users chosen by the site owner. The development site is often a subdomain of your primary site, i.e. dev.mysite.org. Whenever possible the development site should use the same plugins configured in the same way in the same hosting environment in order to best replicate the live site. Access can be controlled by plugins such as Force Login, Hide My Site, or a number of other plugins. Access can also be controlled through altering the hosting environment, but that should only be attempted by an experienced developer.
Reason #1: Test out new themes
Probably the biggest reason for using a development site is that you can test out new themes or significant alterations to the existing theme without impacting the live site. Inevitably every website will begin to look stale as the state of the art of web design marches steadily forward. You may feel your site is falling behind, but you are (justifiably) worried that installing a new theme will break the live site, causing users to see a jumbled mess and be turned away. With a development site, you can try out a handful of themes and layouts to see what looks and works best prior to implementing them on the live site. You can also gauge any incompatibilities before they are discovered inadvertently by your users. With the aforementioned access control plugins, you can invite others to view your experiments to get constructive feedback prior to making a choice.
Reason #2: Verify Ecommerce promotions are configured correctly
It is a retailer’s nightmare: you promote a new coupon-based sale through email, social media, and mailing lists only to discover that the coupon doesn’t work as you had hoped, causing either a flood of emails from angry customers if the discounts are not as advertised, or a loss of revenue if the discounts were greater than anticipated. A development site can go a long way to alleviate those concerns. You can create a new promotion and test it out thoroughly in a number of permutations to verify with certainty the promotion will go as advertised. By using a replica of the production site you can configure everything exactly as you would do on the live site to give you a full degree of confidence that it will work as intended.
Reason #3: Training new site admins
If you have a new employee or volunteer on board, you will need to train them on how to perform basic functions on the site. Through the use of a development site, you can allow them to take the reins of the site without worrying about impacting the live site through learning mistakes. You can demonstrate routine tasks such as order processing flow on an Ecommerce site or content creation on a blog site until the new site admin is confident enough to perform those duties on the live site.
Reason #4: Freedom to experiment with minor site changes
Sometimes the changes you want to make to a site are relatively minor, such as adding new images to the home page header or revising the header menu structure. With a development site you are free to experiment with these sorts of changes free from public scrutiny, and can replicate these changes on the live site once you are completely satisfied with how they look.
Reason #5: Enables your developers to write custom code without limitations
Speaking from experience, it is much easier to write custom code and develop custom functionality on a development site than a live site. With a development site, the developer has the ability to freely experiment without worrying about breaking the live site and aggravating site visitors. The development process is always one of experimentation, and the development process is almost always more efficient on a development site as the developer does not have to worry about adding extraneous code to prevent inadvertent changes that could adversely impact the live environment.
Items to consider before creating and using a development site
Once you set up and use a development site, you will find your site admin abilities will increase significantly. However, development sites do come with some related caveats:
- Be sure to limit access to your development site and test it thoroughly. You do not want customers to accidentally order from your development site, nor do you want search engines to look at it either.
- Keep your development site up to date. The biggest cause of hacked websites is out of date websites, and often times these out of date websites were unprotected development sites that hadn’t been updated in years. Be sure to keep your development site in top shape at all times.
- Make sure your hosting plan has enough storage space for a development site. In general, a development site will double the amount of space required on your hosting account. If you have an especially large WordPress site (i.e. a site that sells large mp3 files as downloadable products), you may have to have a developer help you with advanced techniques to keep the amount of duplication to a minimum.
- Disable any recurring automated emails. Some sites (especially subscription-related sites) periodically send automated emails to a customer base on a regular basis, such as notices that a subscription will expire in 7 days. If your site has this type of setup in place, be sure to disable those automated emails to prevent customers from receiving duplicate copies. Since it may not be intuitive how to do this, you may want to consult a developer to be certain.
With the above in mind, it is time to consider a development site for your website. If you do not have one and would like to have one set up, be sure to contact us so we can get you on your way.