Over the last few weeks, we've been building multisite support for RoleUp. So I've been trying to better understand the use of multisite in the real world.
- What kinds of plugins are available to solve multisite issues?
- How popular are these multisite-specific plugins?
I realized that the usage statistics for these WordPress multisite plugins can give us a good answer to questions about the popularity of multisite itself.
In this post, I'll dive deep into the world of multisite plugins and also try to determine whether multisite is more than a very small section of the WordPress ecosystem.
What is multisite?
WordPress multisite is a unique operating mode where one parent site can be used to operate many child sites.
This allows the sharing of resources such as disk space and database, and generally simplifies management of large networks of sites. For example, updating a shared theme on the parent site updates the theme across the entire network.
WordPress multisite is a good fit in situations where child sites have a lot in common and will never need to be separated from the parent site.
A close look at WordPress multisite plugins
Measuring the popularity of WordPress multisite is not an easy task. Typical sources for overall WordPress usage statistics do not, for example, distinguish between the typical standalone installation and multisite configurations.
Randomly asking large institutions like universities and business franchises can generate anecdotal evidence, but nothing concrete.
The WordPress plugin repository lists the number of sites using each plugin, and how long since the plugin last received an update from the author. Aggregating this information for multisite-related plugins is one way to measure multisite usage in the broader community.
After reading numerous blog posts on the topic of WordPress multisite plugins, and reviewing the plugin repository, we settled on 8 plugins for our analysis. The main criteria we used were:
- a minimum of 100 installations.
- a plugin that was specific for multisite, and not simply compatible with multisite.
Using criteria noted above, here is the approximate installation/site count and time since last update for the most popular free plugins dedicated for use with WordPress multisite networks.
|Multisite Language Switcher
|WordPress Multisite Content Copier/Updater
|Multisite Post Duplicator
|WordPress Multisite User Sync/Unsync
|Multisite Plugin Manager
|Multisite Toolbar Additions
|Multisite User Role Manager
The average number of installations is just 1,225 sites, although the Multiple Language Switcher plugin is installed on 6,000 sites alone. For me, this indicates that multisite installations are an exceedingly small proportion of estimated 800,000,000 WordPress sites on the web. By this calculation, perhaps around 0.001% of all WordPress sites use multisite.
However, there is an important caveat to these numbers. To get some context about multisite usage, I spoke with Alex Frison.
Alex is the CEO of Inpsyde, Europe's largest WordPress agency and a WordPress VIP Gold Agency Partner. Alex's team is also responsible for one of the plugins we used in our analysis, Multisite Enhancements. I asked Alex if they did a lot of multisite client work, and why he thought the usage of WordPress multisite plugins was apparently so low.
Alex said: “We still do a lot of multisites because it has many advantages on big installations. But WordPress.org counts each multisite installation only once, no matter how many sites are in the network.”
Alex makes an important point here. Unlike plugins for traditional installations, multisite plugins typically install plugins on the parent site only. Thus, plugin usage on the repository is not an accurate reflection of the total number powered by WordPress multisite, which includes all child sites as well.
It's hard to put together any accurate numbers at this point, but if the average multisite network has 100 sites, you get up 0.1% of all WordPress sites. If the average network has 1,000 sites, you get up to 1% of the WordPress ecosystem.
These plugins are stable because WordPress multisite rarely changes
Typically, the frequency of plugin updates on the WordPress repository is used as a measure of how engaged the author is. An actively developed plugin affords some measure of trust and faith in that plugin.
Using the data above, we see that the average time since the last update was released for these plugins is 2.3 years! Two of the plugins have not been updated in 5 years!
That seems like an impossible number given that WordPress itself can see 5 to 10 updates per year.
Alex had an explanation for that also: “On multisite, not much happened in the past years, so the risk is low that something breaks after an update.”
Indeed, the multisite roadmap for WordPress appears quite static and includes comments like “…implementation for multisite is incomplete”. Some outstanding issues for multisite development are literally years old.
The lack of multisite development in core explains why some of these plugins, which are often recommended by WordPress blogs and web hosts, are not updated often.
But despite this, all of the plugins listed above installed and worked as expected on the latest version of WordPress running on PHP 8.
WordPress multisite is an important and under-appreciated tool
WordPress multisite is an important tool for many WordPress professionals, especially those building enterprise and multilingual networks.
Multisite usage is hard to measure, but it is definitely a small niche in the WordPress ecoystem, focused on big, high-value, and more complex projects. It's likely that between 0.001% and 1% of WordPress sites are part of a multisite network.