Just Make it Work! Workflows & Tools to Make You Look (Mostly) Competent When You’re One Person Supporting 22,000 WordPress Sites

Just Make it Work! Workflows & Tools to Make You Look (Mostly) Competent When You’re One Person Supporting 22,000 WordPress Sites

We learned that supporting a multisite doesn’t have to be scary or require an extensive background in coding or tech skills.




At MIIS, we have a WordPress multisite instance.*  I am a “super admin,” and over time have explored a little bit of the back end. I am not the original creator, nor do I do much of the technical management of it. But I understand many of the basics of how it works. I’ve never imagined being the person “in charge” of it. Too much tech. Too complicated. Too many security concerns. Too many people to please.

The experience I’ve had with multisites thus far helped me appreciate the work Tom Woodward has done at Virginia Commonwealth in creating and supporting Ram Pages (https://rampages.us/), their multisite instance. But to hear him describe it, the tech is figure-outable. You can learn it even if you’re not {fill in the blank with words of genius and industry jargon}. You can even have fun while doing it!

What’s a Multisite?

I explain our institutional website-building options to the Middlebury community this way:

“You don’t have to use WordPress, although it’s one of the most common content management systems (CMSs) available, powers over a quarter of the web, is extremely flexible, and if you ever think you might apply for a job where “website editing skills” will be a perk, you might want to consider at least trying WordPress.”

If you want to use WordPress (at MIIS), you have four options:

  1. Sites DOT
    1. sites.miis.edu for the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS)
    2. sites.middlebury.edu for Middlebury College
  2. middcreate.net with WordPress installed
  3. wordpress.com
  4. your own self-hosted site with WordPress installed (commonly referred to as wordpress.org)

Numbers 1 & 3 are “multisites.” That means that someone else controls what themes are available and what plugins you can use, and they can lock down the functionality of your site to whatever they deem appropriate. 1a, 1b, & 3 are each separate multisite instances, which means that they have different themes and plugins available, and can have additional features that are different from each other. You can build a site on them—to a point—that is safe and secure, where someone else is caring for your security. However, if you want to go beyond the basics, then at some point you may “hit a wall,” and be unable to build a site with all the bells and whistles you want. When you reach that point, you may want to move your site to #2 or #4.

Numbers 1 & 2 are institutional (MIIS and Middlebury) options for WordPress, which means we have people who can support you in your creation process, help you procure plugins and themes, and help you troubleshoot, as well as administrators who can get into the back end of your site, if that ever becomes necessary.

Numbers 2 & 4 are the most flexible; #2 is free while you are a member of the Middlebury community. You will have to pay for #4. They are flexible because you are in complete control over what themes you install and activate, what plugins you use, and who else has access to the site. They are also the most “risky,” because you are responsible for securing your site and making sure you don’t introduce vulnerabilities into your system. These options offer the biggest learning curve and the greatest potential reward.

“Where should I start my site, Evelyn?”

My recommendation, if you’ve never made a website before, is to start with “training wheels” by creating a site at sites DOT (sites.miis.edu or sites.middlebury.edu).

If you’re not at MIIS or Middlebury, consider starting with your institution’s multisite instance or at wordpress.com. It’s a faster set-up process, and once you’re more comfortable with how WordPress works, you can transfer to middcreate.net, (or your institution’s version of “domain of one’s own,”) or pay for hosting through a company like Reclaim Hosting or Hostgator (or hundreds of others) and install WordPress there.

I realize this runs counter to a lot of what we discussed at Domains 2017, but I’ve found this is the easiest way to get people up and running quickly, and ease them into the idea of having their own domain, especially if it’s a new concept to them.

However, I recommend middcreate.net (or your institution’s version of “domain of one’s own,”) immediately if you are already familiar with building websites, demonstrate tremendous drive and enthusiasm for exploration, and/or have a grand vision right from the start that a multisite won’t enable you to reach.

For e-commerce or a site totally apart from your institution, go with self-hosting through an external company.

Running a Multisite Like a Boss

I realize I strayed a little from the topic of Tom’s session, but I wanted to contextualize his session for my MIIS/Middlebury audience, which is why I wrote the above.

Also, Tom’s follow-up blog post is one of the best ones I’ve seen at summarizing a presentation after the fact, so I was tempted to leave it here: http://bionicteaching.com/running-multisite-like-a-boss/

Running a Multisite Like a Boss Intro Slide
Running a Multisite Like a Boss Intro Slide

But I wanted to mention that I love how he did his “slide-ish things” for the presentation here: http://tomwoodward.us/presentations/domains-wp-support/#/. Not sure how he made that happen, but I meant to reach out to him and ask.** It’s clean, it’s easy, it’s interactive, and you scroll through the slides using the spacebar or arrow keys.

I also wanted to give you a few of my main takeaways.


You may or may not ever find yourself supporting a multisite for thousands of users on your own, but a lot of Tom’s productivity and workflow strategies are relevant to anyone in any situation. Here are some tips I learned from Tom:

  • If you’re going to make an instruction video, keep it short and sweet. Include the instructions and nothing else, like this:

  • He’s concerned with being as effective as possible and recommends that you figure out what slows you down or is a time waster and get rid of it.
  • He believes that if you say yes almost always, that forces you to compress your time, which allows you to get more done, faster.
  • He suggests a few plugins that are exceedingly useful: Gravity Forms, Advanced Custom Fields, USP Pro. I’ll need to check them out; I’ve never used any of them.
  • He recommends that you “be human.” Even in automation templates, humanize the language. Be funny or conversational. Inject an element of your personality where it’s unexpected. It makes even the mundane things so much more fun for everyone.
  • Save CSS bits as a gist in GitHub for later retrieval. (I never heard the word “gist” before, and I still need to make a GitHub account, but I’m almost there. I’m starting to see the value, after so much research post-Domains.)
  • He uses Google scripts to check his email and archive sites. I remember being fascinated. I don’t remember how he did it.

Finally, to bring it back to the average Joe in the audience, he reminded us that he is a normal person too. It’s taken him work and experimentation to get where he is now, and if he can do it, we can do it. He is constantly tweaking little things to be even more effective.

In his words, a quote I wrote down as he was talking,

“I don’t change my behavior much—just a little bit.”

~ Tom Woodward

I think we can all stand to change our behavior…a little bit. Don’t you?

All in all, a very enjoyable and informative presentation, with a lot of food for thought and things to explore.


* Middlebury College also has one, but the instances are separate.

** Maybe he’ll read this post and proactively let me (us) know. Update from Tom via Twitter: “Slides are done w/ http://lab.hakim.se/reveal-js/# which are all kinds of fun.”