Why WordPress Multisite Is Bad for Agencies

Written by Kevin Liew on 02 May 2019
39,106 Views • WordPress

Much of what you do in website development and management is repetitive in nature. Building the same kinds of widgets to appear on different sites. Sending the same emails to clients at specific milestones. Even your choice of design templates or extensions may overlap between websites.

This is especially true at agencies, where designers and developers likely find themselves having to repeat the same tasks to set up and work within each client’s content management system.  If this is the case, you’ll quickly max out resources as you attempt to take on more clients. 

One of the ways in which you can improve the quality and speed of your team’s output is by managing all of your clients’ websites within one master dashboard.

That said, it’s not enough to choose any multi-site management tool for your agency. For instance, many web designers and design agencies initially might consider turning to WordPress’s native multi-site management solution, which is appropriately called WordPress Multisite.

The only problem with this solution is that despite its name, Multisite is not a true multi-site management tool. It’s great if you have a network of connected websites that you need to manage together. Outside of that use case, though, Multisite comes with a number of limitations. For example:

  • Sites on a Multisite network must use the same hosting plan and network configurations.
  • User management is superficial, in that you can set access levels but have no control in defining what those are.
  • Only the network admin can install and manage themes and plugins. This leaves each site stuck using the same designs and features as the other sites on the network.
  • Multisite isn’t universally supported, which may limit your choices for web hosts, themes and plugins.

In sum, WordPress Multisite is often not the right choice for design agencies.

In this post, we’re going to look at how WordPress Multisite works and why it’s almost never going to be the right solution for your agency.

What Is WordPress Multisite?

Back in 2010, WordPress gave its users the ability to create new websites and manage them all from the same WordPress dashboard using a feature called Multisite.

Essentially, it took WordPress from a single site management tool like this:

To a multi-site management tool like this:

As you can see, the Multisite dashboard is a greatly simplified version of the typical WordPress one. Not only that, Multisite isn’t really a content management system anymore. You can see that you can create and manage websites, users, and themes, but you can’t create posts, personalize designs, and so on. That’s only for single-site dashboards to do.

That’s because the goal of Multisite is to help network administrators take care of high-level management of websites, including:

  • Administering WordPress software updates.
  • Granting users access to specific sites.
  • Installing and managing themes and plugins your individual site admins are allowed to use.
  • Implementing universal settings for the network, like upload limits, new site defaults, and default language selection.

And there are indeed benefits to using Multisite under the right circumstances:

  • Convenience - You only have to log in to one WordPress installation to gain access to all of your websites.
  • User Management - You can manage all of your clients’ WordPress user accounts from one location.
  • Software Management - With Multisite, you only have to install and manage themes and plugins for your clients once.
  • Software Updates - You can manage WordPress software version updates for all your clients’ sites with a single click.

That said, the benefits of using WordPress Multisite typically aren’t enough to make it worth an agency’s time.

Let’s break it down.

The Disadvantages of Multisite for Agencies

Here’s why you won’t want to manage websites using WordPress Multisite:

Use Cases

To be clear, WordPress Multisite is not a tool to manage separate client websites with.

That’s because it places all websites on the same WordPress network, which greatly limits what you can use Multisite to manage.

Specifically, you can use WordPress Multisite to build the following kinds of network sites:

  • A large brand with different but related companies under its umbrella.
  • A corporation with different departments.
  • A website with multilingual branches.
  • A business with multiple locations.
  • A blog network.

In essence, WordPress Multisite is best if you have one client with multiple, connected websites.

Network Configuration

The way Multisite works is this:

  • You create a network name and install WordPress for it.
  • You configure Multisite by adding some code into the wp-config.php file.
  • You add new subdomains to the network — these will be your clients’ individual sites.

Because of the way this is set up, your clients’ websites all end up with the same IP address, under the same network name, and sharing the same hosting server space.

This can cause serious problems for your clients in terms of:

Security - If any of your Multisite websites collect visitor or customer data and it’s stored on the server, the shared network could pose a security risk in a case where any one of them were to be breached.

Performance - Unless the network admin controls the size of the websites on their network, individual websites could end up hogging disproportionate resources. This would then hurt the performance of other websites in the network.

Brand recognition - By default, websites set up on Multisite get put on a subdomain on the main network. Without the configuration of a custom domain, the website’s identity will be connected to the network’s, as well as to all other websites on it. If anything should tarnish the other sites’ reputations, your website could suffer the same fate.

Plus, this is problematic for agencies since they have no way to configure distinct deployments based on clients’ unique website needs. They all live on the same hosting plan, and any changes made to WordPress are instantly applied across the network.

If you want to manage all of your clients’ websites from a single dashboard without limiting network configuration and controls, a multi-site management tool like GoDaddy Pro would make more sense.

That’s because you get all of the advantages of managing multiple websites from a single dashboard. Plus, if you use GoDaddy’s domain and hosting services for your clients’ websites, you can easily manage the network configuration piece from this same tool. Even if you don’t, you still don’t have those same restrictions put upon you as WordPress Multisite does.

User Management

Although it’s nice that you can add new users to your network of sites from one place, there are limitations on what you can do to establish access privileges.

For instance, this is the WordPress Multisite user list:

In terms of access, there’s not a whole lot you can do here except add their name, contact information, and a few details.

Even under the Site’s list of users, there isn’t much you can do to specify their access:

WordPress provides five roles you can access to each user (e.g. Admin, Contributor, Subscriber), but no way to manage user access rules.

Your multi-site management platform should let you do this. Take, for instance, Duda’s user access controls. From just a high-level look at your user list, you instantly get more details:

What’s more, you can get super specific in terms of where they can go on their site and what they can do:

Your centralized dashboard needs to do more than let you set up new sites. You need to be able to set up and manage your user permissions, too.

Software Selection

WordPress Multisite certainly makes it easier for agencies to install and manage updates for plugins and themes. But that’s only the case because sites on a Multisite network use the same plugins and themes (or, at least, they should if you don’t want to compromise performance).

Here’s how it works:

You install all of the WordPress themes (and plugins) that your clients need into the main Multisite dashboard. This is why it’s so easy for agencies to install and update software for multiple clients with this tool.

However, you have to enable network access to your themes and plugins. There’s a number of problems with this:

  1. If you add too many themes and plugins, the files will most likely make your server run more slowly and cause performance issues throughout the network (or cost you much more to upgrade your hosting).
  2. This may cause problems for clients if they see other options are available besides the ones they currently use and they decide to “try out” another theme.
  3. You acknowledge both of these potential issues so you choose one theme and a small set of plugins that every client must use, greatly limiting what you can design for them.

That’s why website builder tools like Webflow might be a better choice for agencies. The main dashboard makes it easy to create new sites, called “projects.”

From there, it’s easy to create folders of projects, to duplicate entire site builds, to adjust permissions or even to transfer ownership. This means you can use whichever design templates or apps you want without fear of compromising server performance or creativity of design.


Another point worth mentioning about WordPress Multisite is this:

Much of the software you’d otherwise be able to use in WordPress is not Multisite-compatible.

For instance, this is a problem with many plugins and themes. Unless they explicitly say they were built for Multisite networks, or that they’re at least compatible with them, they probably won’t work.

The same thing goes for web hosting. As I already mentioned, more websites on a single network bring more server pressure with them — and not just because of the plugins and themes you install. It’s also because of each website’s database.

Each database holds 12 different tables. Every time you add a new site to the network, you’re adding 12 more tables of data, which will only expand in size as content, code, and even users are added to the website.

As you can imagine, there are some web hosts that won’t want to carry the weight of a WordPress Multisite, especially if its size grows unexpectedly and inconsistently.

Why WordPress Multisite Is Bad for Agencies

Without efficient systems in place, it’s going to be impossible to take on the large quantities of clients you need to scale your agency to the next level. But you have to be smart about which efficiencies you adopt. WordPress Multisite is not one of them (unless you build websites for a very specific type of client).

As you look around for a central management system that brings all of your clients’ sites together, don’t just focus on the convenience aspect of it for you. Think about what sort of limitations or benefits come with it for your clients’ sakes, too.

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