Essential Tools to Manage Multiple WordPress Websites
December 16, 2013 | Joyce Grace
When you have multiple sites to run, it can get hard to keep track of what's what with each site. Which one needs an update? Which one needs more SEO focus this month? Which one is loading slowly or getting traffic spikes? These questions can take considerable time out of your day if you are a business owner or Webmaster servicing multiple clients.
Thankfully there are tools to keep us informed on the statuses of our websites' health and marketability. They do the heavy lifting for us. We don't have to manually check our sites 24/7 from various IP addresses to make sure they are loading for our users, and we don't have to Google our own keywords on a weekly basis to make sure our pages are still ranking. Lots of services exist nowadays to help us do that and to let us know what's up when we need to know.
The tough part is finding these tools. Today we're going to help with that! Here is a list of essential tools to manage multiple WordPress sites specifically, though many of these tools could be used for non-WordPress sites as well.
A backup, restore, cloning and migration tool
Backups are important for security. But they have another use: they help streamline new website set ups. If you had a 'base' WordPress installation with the settings you wanted, along with the plugins you use on every site you make, you could save time by cloning that base WordPress site as a starting point for making new sites. This saves you from having to manually set up plugins, media settings, time zones, and all the other things that are routine when setting up a new web development project. If you are running multiple WordPress sites or running a web development agency, this is an essential tool you need to have.
Not only that, but if you are performing regular updates and maintenance services for your clients (which you should be doing anyways), this type of tool is essential. You can use backup copies of a site to perform updates on a staging area first. After you've done testing, you can deploy the updated site on the 'live' URL.
If you you make a change on a live site, and something breaks, you'll want to be able to restore the site to its previous version as soon as possible with a backup tool.
Then there are instances when you want to migrate from a development server to a live server, change hosts or modify domain names. Migrating files to a new server doesn't have to be manual, and shouldn't always have to result in manually copying and pasting contents of your text widgets onto the newly migrated site, or using the import/export script from WordPress.org, or manually changing all your links.
The key to all this is, of course, backup files, and those that are especially easy to use. The crossing line between 'regular' backup files and backup files that are 'easy to use' regards the tools they come with. If the backup file can work easily with a set up script, or has a one-click restore, or a pretty dashboard to make the restoration process less manual for you, it will not only be faster and result in less downtime (which your clients will be antsy about), it will save you a lot of hassle.
So where do we find tools like this? There are a few options:
BackupBuddy by iThemes
BackupBuddy comes with a gem known as the ImportBuddy.php script. It allows you to use backup files created by the plugin (or others) to easily migrate a site within a 'dummy proof' interface. It changes site links for you, and keeps those darned text widgets from disappearing after migration. You will need to know how to set up a new database and folder path on your server to be able to use this tool.
iThemes also has something called 'Magic Migration' which allows you to migrate to another server straight from your WordPress dashboard. If you store backup files on your server, the tool now allows you to restore individual files, instead of an entire site, which is useful if you've been working for a while, and are sure the mishap happened only one or two steps back from what you were doing. It saves you from having to re-do your work if you haven't been keeping minute-by-minute updates (who really does that anyway?).
There is a small learning curve to using BackupBuddy and its ImportBuddy.php script, but once you get used to it, it becomes muscle memory and is quite easy. You will need to find your own off-site storage space for using BackupBuddy, or use iTheme's Stash option (free to a certain limit).
Sometimes BackupBuddy is dependent on server environment compatibility and can (like any other tool) run into plugin conflicts, preventing it from creating backups properly. Of course, since it's a paid product you get support for instances like these, and there is always documentation to read. We know, for example, that it won't work well with WP Engine hosting because it uses PHP commands that can cause security holes. (Editors note: WP Engine has automatic daily backups of all files and databases, so BackupBuddy is not needed for their service.)
Coming from the very creators of WordPress itself, you know off the bat this has got to be good. Recently VaultPress came out with a $5 a month plan, which means it costs peanuts to use (though I would recommend most businesses stick plans not limited by a 30-day only backup archive).
The cool thing about VaultPress is that it connects with your site automatically (after you set it up to do so, preferably with SSH, or FTP + database access to make it run faster, and allow for automated restores). So let's say you make a change and something goes wrong, you can click on a 'restore' button and VaultPress will do the rest: it will put your site back for you the way it was at a certain former version.
If you only want to restore one or two files, or migrate or clone the site, you can download a snapshot of your site from a list of archives and do so manually. It also stores backup files for you, so you don't need your own off-site storage plan.
If you ask your clients to get their own backup system, this is the one I would recommend they use, only because the learning curve is low to set up and the system walks you through the steps to get it running fairly easily. In other words, a non-developer could figure it out.
A security scanning tool
It's great to have backups and restores for when a site gets hacked, but it's also great to not have your site hacked in the first place. A security scanning service will help make sure your site is not infected with viruses, malware or other malicious code. It would be awful if you went a month without knowing your site was hacked, only to find out you needed to backup to a date so far back, you'd lose a lot of your content updates.
For blogs posting regularly, a backup and restore system won't save you from the hours of labor put into formatting, scheduling, editing and all the other frequent activities you do with your site. Plus, if you are hacked, or have a vulnerable site, it would be great to know where the problem is so you're not spending hours looking for it. It would be even better to have your problem cleaned up for you automatically!
Here are some solutions:
Probably the most popular security scanning service out there, Sucuri allows you to scan your site for free with a tool running on their home page. If you want their clean up services and regular scanning done automatically, you can opt for one of their plans. Interestingly, the service is so much worth your value, they guarantee if they can't fix your site's hack, they'll give you a refund.
If you have subscribed to a VaultPress backup plan that includes security scanning, you can rest assured you've got your site's safety in tact. Similar to Sucuri, VaultPress will scan your site for malicious code daily, fix it and notify you about it.
An uptime monitoring and performance tracking tool
Knowing your sites' performance levels is important, especially if you are running high traffic websites. If they are all running on the same server, that is all the more reason to keep track and be notified of any slow downs, breakages, or hosting issues. The last thing you want are all your client sites going down at the same time and you finding out from your clients, instead of being on the ball to fix it before they notice. Not only that, sometimes when you target international visitors, you want to know how they are finding your website's experience. Perhaps it's time for a CDN implementation or changes to make sure your site works on all types of browsers and within country limitations.
This is a Swedish company that rose to their own high ranks in the web monitoring industry and now draws the likes of customers such as Spotify, Microsoft, Instagram, Twitter, Dropbox, Ebay, GitHub, MailChimp, and more. Their tool allows you to view reports and get alerts when something goes wrong on a site, just by inputting a URL. They have a free 30-day trial if you want to check it out.
For WordPress users, the tool got even easier with a plugin available on the WordPress.org repository. Unfortunately it only has 2 reviews and about 1510 downloads so far, so we can't say much about whether or not it's as fantastic as it sounds yet.
Similar to Pingdom, this is a tool that is actually free and checks your site every 5 minutes to make sure it is live, well and healthy. Like Pingdom, it comes with a visual dashboard to see stats on your site's performance. The tool was made by two developers and their site has a link to a WordPress dashboard widget for viewing reports. There is also a plugin for using this tool in the WordPress.org repository, though it seems lightly used.
The main trouble with this service is having to log in to each site or account individually to be able to monitor or check on many at once. You can sign up for SMS or other alerts, however, so you only get notified when something is wrong on any of the sites.
A keyword and SEO rank monitoring tool
While having a secure website up and running is great, it probably won't make sense to many businesses if it's not bringing in any money. That's why it's important to not only make sure the site is healthy on the technical side, but also on the search engine side. That means monitoring ranking. If rankings for a particular keyword drop, you will want to know fast, so you can find out if:
- The site has been penalized by a search engine.
- The site is mysteriously no longer crawl-able by search engines due to a development change (it can happen - just one little change in the robots.txt file or elsewhere can affect site visibility).
- Competitors are fiercely competing for rankings and you need to match their SEO efforts.
- There are any other number of reasons why the site has dropped in ranking.
That being said, rank monitoring is not just for watching out if a site drops in ranking but also if it rises! If you have started an SEO campaign with link building or blogging, you'll get great pleasure watching your rankings rise month by month and be able to prove that your efforts are working.
Here are a few tools that will take care of this trick for you:
Market Samurai, our ol' favourite keyword research tool, has an add-on feature called Rank Tracker. It comes with a freemium for you to try when you buy the software. The pricing is based on the number of keywords you want to track and payments are billed monthly to use anything but the free version.
To summarize, it allows you to track keywords and match those keywords to multiple domains to see which domain ranks, and how well, on the three major search engines: Google, Bing and Yahoo.
It also provides historical information, shows the number of backlinks leading to the domain and will even let you pick a geographical region to track. It does allow you to export results per campaign, so if you have multiple clients you can send them reports showing their individual results (but you have to set them up as 'Campaigns' first).
Market Samurai comes with a free trial, so you can check it out for its other features and then see what Rank Tracker can do for you before you decide to commit.
This is a neat find for users who want something tailored to WordPress. This plugin sends you automated emails with data about the site it is tracking. You can choose the frequency of your email reports, which are delivered in an organized table. The plugin has the same features as Market Samurai in letting you export a CSV, track multiple search engines, view historical data and see backlinks to a domain. On top of that, it also includes data about 'social signals' and also apparently tracks visits to a URL from a given keyword.
A mass publishing tool
If you run a lot of WordPress sites, it would help tremendously if you had access to publish relevant content to those blogs from one dashboard. That way if need be, you can, for example, send out a press release to all your blogs, or simply just not have to login to so many sites to be able to manage their content.
Here are a few tools that will do this for you, albeit each with their own limitations.
Market Samurai (again)
If you've opted to use Market Samurai for rank tracking or its other tools, you'll get the added bonus of using its 'Publish Content' tab, which allows you to compose and publish posts straight to your WordPress self hosted sites. You can see, edit or delete your WordPress 'draft' posts. Plus you can pre-schedule posts (or pages) and select to 'Track with Rank Tracker,' which we discovered above as a tool to see if your page is ranking for certain keywords.
With this feature, you are not able to publish one post to multiple blogs at the same time; you have to manually go into the post and re-publish to each site you want it to appear on.
Yes, that's right, that famous, market-share-stealing, pretty awesome social sharing tool, which has traditionally been a way to manage multiple social media accounts, can now publish to WordPress blogs. And not just the WordPress.com type - there is an app you can install by Quinn Sakunaga that can connect your WordPress.org (self hosted) sites to Hootsuite and allow you to publish posts straight from its dashboard. There are a few downsides to this app however:
- You can't seem to pre-schedule a post, which is one of the major selling points of using Hootsuite in the first place.
- You can save drafts but you can't get back to your draft without logging in to the WordPress site again from the Hootsuite dashboard.
Although this app is free to add on to your Hootsuite account, if you are running quite a few brands with their own social networks (like more than 5), you'll need to opt for a paid plan, especially if you want to organize your tabs by brand name and then add a WordPress stream under each brand. However, this decision should be dictated by your social media needs first, not your blogging needs, since Hootsuite is more tailored towards that market.
So far, you are not able to publish one post to multiple blogs at the same time using this app.
Sendible is a Hootsuite rival except it offers a bit more on the analytical side as well as offering e-mail marketing solutions (and a whole bunch of other stuff you can see on their website). It also offers more social media platforms to publish to.
For our purposes however, it does offer a way to mass publish content to multiple self-hosted WordPress sites. One thing it does a little different is that it offers analytics to see which blog posts generated the most traffic.
One tool to manage and automate it all
While all the above tools don't cover everything you'd need to manage many WordPress sites on a large scale, they do present one problem that you can see happening already: they're a lot to manage in themselves! If you have separate-running services to do all these things, each with their own logins, then you're not necessarily going to be making life easier on yourself.
Enter ManageWP! Yes, this post is written by a ManageWP writer, and yes, there are other tools out there that can do what ManageWP does, to one degree or another (usually not as extensively). To be fair, wplift wrote a great post titled, 'Manage Multiple WordPress Sites from one Location - Which Service is Best?' It runs down the different services and features of each of these centralized WordPress management tools.
Here is a mere partial list of what can be done with a service such as ManageWP's. It will not only centralize your WordPress sites into one dashboard, but also automate the services you need to manage them well:
Backup, restore, clone and migrate WordPress sites
ManageWP can do all of the above, while sending backup files to an external destination such as Amazon S3, Google Drive, Dropbox or an FTP of your choice. Backups can also be held on the server where the site resides.
It can also clone and migrate sites, which is useful if you want to change a site's hosting location, or make a new site using a copy of an existing one (as described above). You simply have to enter the path of the source files you want to clone (or opt for a completely fresh install of WordPress) and then enter the destination details. Of course you first need to create a folder path and database on your server to be able to enter the 'destination' details.
ManageWP connects to two essential services to help you make sure your sites are secure, shown within your centralized dashboard: Sucuri and Google Malware Check. Although it doesn't give daily monitoring and alerts, it does allow you to perform periodic manual checks, especially if you or your clients suspect something is wrong. You can do the check and then pursue de-hacking services if necessary, or perform a site restore using the ManageWP backup feature.
Uptime monitoring and performance tracking
ManageWP comes with an uptime monitoring tool that will automatically send you an email or text message if your site goes down. You can also select different monitoring types, such as HTTP(S), Keyword Checking, Ping and TCP Ports.
In addition to uptime monitoring, ManageWP can also do manual performance reports, letting you know your 'Page Speed Grade', your 'YSlow Grade' and other data such as the page load time, page size, number of requests and suggestions for improving performance. It's great for checking in on things when you've made a change or aren't sure the reason your sites have slowed down all of a sudden.
Keyword rank tracking
A neat thing about keyword rank tracking with ManageWP is that it not only shows your ranking for keywords on search engines, it also shows you stats related to your site from SEOMoz, Alexa, Compete, ACrank, Facebook, Twitter and other social media. For example it shows your retweets, Facebook likes, and whether you've been 'digged' on Digg and so on. It also shows you information about your site, such as its 'Cached timestamp,' the number of internal and external links (including no-follow), its Pagerank and the number of indexed pages it has. It shows domain info such as its expiry date, name servers and IP address (in case you need a record of these).
It does show historical data and can track multiple sites with multiple keywords for your sites. You can also export PDF reports or .csv files for easy sharing with your team at a company.
If you are an agency or developer dealing with multiple clients, keep in mind this tool can only track keywords and apply them to all your domains managed within it. That means if you want to send your clients reports regarding keywords that apply only to their specific site, you'd have to export the CSV file and modify data that way.
Perhaps one of the landmark features of ManageWP is that it allows you to write, edit and mass publish posts to multiple WordPress sites from one dashboard. Since it is tailored to WordPress, it shows you a screen that is almost identical to the WordPress page and post editor, which includes the custom fields, excerpt fields, and others. Unlike other tools mentioned in this article, it allows you to publish one post to several blogs at once with the click of a few buttons. You can also overwrite posts that contain a slug or keyword. You can even find posts you want to edit or trash using a keyword search.
ManageWP comes with a free trial, so you can check out all the features we've mentioned here, plus the ones we didn't have room for, before deciding to commit.
To Conclude - the options are many, but not endless!
While there are lots of options out there for managing multiple WordPress sites, not all are going to be the perfect solution for everyone. Not only that, there are few, if any, out there that combine their strengths into one tool that does it all. Each product focuses strongly in one area or another, and not every service is going to give you all the strengths and features of the others. The best you can do is get as close as possible, and find the solution that saves you the most time, or combine the solutions that would work well together.
Do let us know in the comments your preferred methods for managing WordPress sites, including solutions we weren't able to cover here. We know there are more to be spoken highly of, and your input and experiences are valuable in helping us all get acquainted with more tools out there.