To put it simply, a staging site is a clone of your live website. It enables you to test any changes or major new features that you plan to implement in a secure environment. Developers often use staging sites as a testing ground in order to prevent errors occurring on ‘live’ websites, thus avoiding the issues and/or downtime that might otherwise result.
Staging sites can be set up using a variety of methods. One of the easiest ways is to simply do it through your web host (which we’ll describe in detail later), if it’s a service they offer. Once you have it set up, you can use it to freely test changes without impacting your live site.
These types of sites aren’t meant to be accessed by the public. If you use your staging site correctly, your main site’s visitors should never have to deal with any issues that pop up behind the scenes, such as your site breaking due to changes in its code. Additionally, staging sites shouldn’t be picked up by Google or other search engines if you do things right.
Development Vs. QA Vs. Staging Vs. Production Sites
While visitors may only see the finished product, plenty of work goes on behind the scenes of a typical website. In fact, some developers use up to three or four different sites to test their code before it goes live.
Let’s take a look at the most common types of testing environments that are used during development:
- Development website. This environment contains all the latest iterations of the code you’re working on. It’s perfect for initial testing on new features.
- Quality Assessment (QA). During the QA process, changes to your website will be tested thoroughly to find any issues that you may have missed while coding. This type of environment is most often used by large companies, since they can’t afford to have bugs pop up on live sites.
- Staging website. You’re already familiar with this term. A staging website acts as the bridge between the development and live versions of your site. At this point, any remaining errors should be addressed, and the changes should be ready to roll out.
- Production website. This is the version of your website that users will see. If you’ve been careful throughout the development process, this iteration of your site should be bug-free and provide a flawless user experience.
By now, we know how a staging website fits into the web development process, but you may still be wondering if using one is suitable for your needs. Let’s walk through the pros and cons of the issue to help you make an informed decision.
The Benefits of a Staging Site
It doesn’t take much to sell the benefits of staging sites, which:
- Enable you to produce better websites,
- Provide you with the opportunity to catch errors and bugs without putting your site at risk,
- Are usually relatively simple to set up, and
- Can be set up locally or online (depending on your preferences).
Having said that, there are some drawbacks to consider as well.
Drawbacks of a Staging Site
The major drawbacks of using staging sites are:
- It takes longer to update your website (as you need to test changes first).
- Web hosts often charge for a staging site service (although you can always set one up locally).
- Staging sites may not be exact replicas of a live website (caching is not usually enabled on a staging site).
Who Needs a Staging Site?
Ideally, everyone who runs a website needs a staging site.
However, if we’re being practical, staging websites should be used at the very least by people who run sizable operations. If you’re comfortable with the knowledge that one of your updates could break your site and alter its functionality, or render it unusable while you fix it, then you probably don’t need one.
However, if your website generates income (directly or indirectly), provides any type of service, or has users that depend on it, creating a staging website is definitely a smart move. There are even different approaches available depending on your preferences, which we’ll discuss now.
How to Create a Staging Site for WordPress
There are two ways to go about creating a staging website for WordPress. The first involves setting up a ‘local’ installation of the platform – completely separate from your main website – where you can test any changes you want.
There are several ways to go about creating local WordPress websites, but the most common involve using a tool such as XAMPP to turn your computer into a simple hosting environment. You can also use tools that install an instance on your own computer or even set up virtual servers to keep your hosting environments isolated. Regardless of which route you choose to take, pushing the changes you make on your staging website over to your live installation can be tricky.
On the other hand, some web hosts (WP Engine included) offer in-house staging functionality for WordPress. If you’re our customer, you can access this functionality right from your WordPress dashboard. Best of all, our staging service enables you to set up full copies of your website in a matter of clicks, and then merge them back with your live installation just as easily. As far as staging goes, it doesn’t get any simpler than that.
Staging Site Costs
Plenty of web hosts don’t offer staging as a standard feature. There are dedicated staging services, such as WP Stagecoach ($120 per year), but if your existing WordPress hosting provider offers their own service, you’ll likely save yourself a few bucks.
Here at WP Engine we include a staging site service with all our plans. Starting from Personal subscriptions ($29 per month) to our custom-priced Enterprise packages, all our users have access to staging websites and around-the-clock support. Set up your first WordPress staging site today!