Multi-site Madness – A Cautionary Tale

Image of a fire juggler

I know it’s stupid, but I keep buying domain names and firing up new WordPress websites.

The smart bloggers that I know shake their heads and tell me that I really need to focus on a single site.

There are many reasons for this. The main reason, of course, is that a serious blogger, even a serious humor blogger such as myself, needs to generate consistent content. This is what users want, and probably even more importantly, it’s what the Great God, Google, wants. My mentors say that spreading myself too thin is unwise, unsustainable and just plain nuts.

But I can’t help myself.

As you may have noticed from the domain name and other references on this site, I’m hyperactive. This was first noticed when I was a kid and had to be strapped in a chair to sit through dinner, and it hasn’t gotten any better.
You don’t outgrow this. So, over the years, I’ve tried to outsmart it. My current genius idea was to pull all my websites into a single location using the cool features of WordPress multi-site.

This is both easier and harder than it sounds. And while there are advantages, there are some downsides that, as my stories often end, like Anthony Hopkins final line in Red 2, “Boy, I didn’t see that coming.”
I thought setting up a multi-site was a genius-move because, even though I’d be bouncing around several websites, I could easily manage them from one screen and Google would see all my multi-interest postings as being related to one site.

It didn’t work out that way….

WHY I BAILED – DATABASE CONSIDERATIONS

Let me cut to the chase on why I had to bail, and then back up a bit to talk about the installation process. That way, you can ditch the install explanation if you share my concerns about the problems I had managing the multi-site website. But, that said, using a multi site may be just the thing for you.

In a nutshell, the tools to effectively manage a multi-site are weak. I’m referring specifically to the ability to stay on top of the mySQL database. As you may know, your WordPress website is a series of files on a server, and it also exists in dynamic data in mySQL. You can speed up your site, a huge consideration, by using one of many disk caches out there. I won’t go into that here because usually, when you or your provider installs WordPress, a compatible cache is installed. The cache may or may not work with all the plugins you’d like to use, but that’s another article.

The MySQL database has all your user information, settings, and anything that’s not a photo, text page, or executable, PHP script. A healthy database in key to a responsive website.

What I immediately noticed was that MySQL database doubled and tripled with each new “site/domain” that I installed. This concerned me because I know, in my cheapo shared-hosting, I have a limited amount of “overhead” memory, and that searching the database is what causes much of the latency and slow load times. I searched around, and found a wonderful optimizing tool WPOptimize. It worked great for me, but you might want to check the reviews if you have a lot of photos in your site. Photo-blogger reviews from a few years back were pretty harsh.

Problem solved? Not.

The tool only worked on the “base site’s,” portion of the single database. Yes, the tool showed up as an installed option, but it could not be executed, even by an administrator. And when I ran the tool from the base account, it didn’t touch the other site’s outdated information in the database. So, all the deleted comments or numerous revisions of blog posts were untouched.

Bloat-bloat-bloat.

A TOOL FOR MANAGING MULTIPLE SITES

The database issue was enough to have me give it up. I decided I needed a work-around, that that is detailed below. But if your hosting situation is better, not as constrained and more dynamic, this may not matter to you. I’ll tell you in a bit what I did, but if you’re still interested in a multi-site install, and it was way-cool while it lasted, then I’ll share it with you directly.

Before I do, one last thing to know that my make you think about keeping separate sites. Check out a free tool, WPManage. This tool is a single-login tool that will allow you to manage multiple sites from one screen. It claims to allow you to clone/move/share plugins and themes. I can’t speak to this because I didn’t try it, and when I tried to do a backup and clone it to another site, it failed despite repeated attempts. The feedback on this tool is that the customer support is weak, but I tend to take complaints like that with a grain of salt. This is a free tool, and some of the paid features are way, way cheap. You don’t get what you don’t pay for.

GOING MULTI-SITE – PRE-INSTALLATION STUFF

As I said, what I was hoping to do was to consolidate all my sites in one place. And the advantage of setting up a multi-site is that you can set up your new sites while still leaving your old one up and running. Then, when you’re done, you can just point your domain at the correct URL. More on that in a bit.

Word press lets you export your site, and it will create a file that you can then upload over at your new multi-site. But TAKE NOTE. You should pay attention to the file-size limitations on the uploads. My default install of a multi-site would only allow me to upload one meg. This was a problem because, when I downloaded the contents of my existing sites, they were all bigger that one meg. I didn’t notice this until, like a knot-head, I’d deleted the original. Site, I then had to go back and re-install the site.

Don’t you just hate it when that happens? No? Well then, I’ll have a glass of what you’re drinking.

Anyway, if I’d been smarter, I’d have done what I ended up having to do anyway, which was change the default settings for larger uploads. There are two places to do this, one is in the settings of WordPress Multisite, and in your php.ini file. Here are instructions on that. Thank you WPBeginner.com!

This should allow you to upload bigger files. But, be forewarned, I still had problems. My uploads would time out and not install. This is probably because of the low-power hosting setup I have. But I still found it helpful to break up the content downloads from the original site. By this I mean do one download of the postings only—you check only that box, and another of comments, and yet another of the media files.

While you’re doing this, you may want to fire up a FTP file program, go to the “contents” section of the wordpress file architecture, and download the media files, and even the themes and plugins you have. Sure, you may have this backed up somewhere already, but remember that your backups may require you to launch them from, or have the backup software interact with, your old doman. Best to have plain old .jpg or .png images, uncompressed, that went into your old blog.

This may seem like a bother, but I did it, and I’m glad I did. It seems like the export-import feature of WordPress, handy as it is, compresses files. You may still want the original, larger files you uploaded.

Now, if you’ve not already done this, is time to go into the instructions for multi-site install. It will require a minor code-tweak in your config.php file. Here’s instructions on that. Once this is done, then you will see a new menu option over in WordPress, and it will tell you what to do. You’ll make a couple of choices that are “irreversible.” Now, before you panic, you can download all your files, as suggested earlier, and even back up your original mySQL database. You can go back to where you were in the beginning. Spoiler alert, that’s what I ended up doing after several days of my multi-site experience.

MULTI-SITE URLs – DOMAIN-BASED or SUB DIRECTORY-BASED?

What the choices boil down to are whether your multi-site will be laid out in subdirectories or subdomains. So, you might have a main domain of “mydomain.com,” and then set up a second domain of “WhyCatsRock.” This, in a folder setup would look like a URL of www.mydomain.com/whycatsrock or, in a subdomain, www.whycatsrock.mydomain.com.

The choice I made was for the folder approach because it was easier to install. I could move stuff around with FTP, but be aware that your FTP program WILL NOT see this folders. You will see something like “site 1,” “site 2,” and so on. It’s up to you to remember which is which, but you can still put stuff directly on the new site. I wasn’t able to easily set up subdomains, but some people apparently prefer this because it helps preserve their “branding efforts.” In other words, their domain name always leads in the URL.

NEW INSTALL? NO? – A WORK-AROUND CHEAT

One thing that can complicate your install is if your current wordpress install has been up and running for a while. The multisite setup does not like data bases with existing posts. So, you are forced to do a clean install, which sounds like it may be from scratch. I found a work-around that saved much of my previous efforts—posts and settings. For example, I’d boosted my base memory for PHP, and done some other mods to help me with security SSL settings, and so on. I’ll explain why in a second. These instructions allowed me to save all those mods.

BACK EVERYTHING UP FIRST!

Now, know this. You will be required, as you install multi-site, to make a decision about “pretty URLS.” You may have already done this if you’ve picked a custom, non-default permalink. But if you have not, you’ll need to make this change before installing Multisite. And do this BEFORE YOU EXPORT YOUR POSTS. Otherwise, you won’t be able to re-import them because their permalinks won’t fit your revised structure. Again, I didn’t do this right and… you guessed it…. had to go back and re-install the multisite.
Yes, I really did have a Groundhog Day experience and install, and install, and install this sucker. Which makes it ironic that I ended up giving up on it. 🙂

But anyway, pick a “pretty URL.” This means that you should pick one of the options, other than the default, cryptic ones. A descriptive one is best, and I prefer NOT have have a date on the URL because I shoot for ever-green content. Also, a lack of dates can mask, a bit, erratic frequency of content posting.

Now, a moment ago I said that you can’t install if you have content. But, really, you can if you delete the database. Back it up first, of course, in case the worst happens. If you kill your data base, and then try to log in, you’ll be given the prompts that take you through the reinstall, but you’ll still have all your media files, plugins, themes, and even mods to .htaccess, config.php and so on.

This, then, is the time to re-import your posts and media, and you can then go on and add-on the other multi-sites.

ADVANTAGES OF MULTI-SITE

I’m assuming you know most of this, but the big plus is if you’re hoping to have all the same plugins and themes available everywhere, and allows you to control others who may be using your network.

HOW TO FAKE A MULTI-SITE ON ONE DOMAIN

OK, now I’ll tell you what I did as a compromise. I have my main domain, www.robblightfoot.com, but as I said, I own a zillion other domains. What I’ve done is to have these other domains be categories, such as www.thinkingfunny.com or www.orsoitseems.com. Then, I have renamed the “categories” menu title to “Robb’s Other Domains.” I have landing pages specific to these topics, and I tag the content as each post requries. Some postings cross over from humor to tech issues to others. So, I can “post” to several blogs without getting nailed for multiple postings of content that could penalize my Google rankings. Still, all the posts are on a single blog.
I also use a plugin that allows me to have multiple themes specific to certain URLs, I can create the illusion of being on a different site, to the degree that matters to anyone. But I do host both serious and silly blogs, and I like the themes to reflect that.

Finally, I have taken to using password protection tools that allow me to have granular control of what people see. There are options for global control, by category, by post, and even to protect passages of certain posts. This all, in my case, is to share some of my work without losing my ability to sell it. There also is the issue that Amazon won’t let you publish on Kindle or their print releases, normally known as Create Space. Simply put, if your content is freely available, then they won’t let you create a book. I ran into trouble with this when it came time to create a book based on posting to a humor blog. I had to prove that I had written this and that the material had since been pulled off the web. The password protection is a huge help in this area.

THE END -30-

I hope this was helpful and a bit fun to read. Drop me a line in a comment here or via email at robb AT robblightfoot.com. I’m also on Twitter @robblightfoot, and my Facebook author page is https://www.facebook.com/LightfootAuthor/ .