How a staging site can save your website from disaster
It’s somewhere just after 6pm and you’re finishing off the day’s work. You ramble through a few admin tasks while, in the back of your mind, you imagine sinking into the sofa and bingeing a few episodes of The Mandalorian with a just-delivered pizza still warm in your lap. Last on the list is updating your website. You log into the dashboard, and click over to the available updates. You select all and click Update.
You reload the website and all you get is a blank screen…
If you’re new to managing a website (yours or someone else’s), such a scenario may seem far-fetched. But if you’ve been in the game for a while you know that couch time is quickly replaced by hours combing through logs, then searching for recent backups, and possibly the realisation that your most recent backup isn’t, well, that recent. Pizza is replaced with more coffee and a hearty helping of stress.
What is a staging website?
A staging site is an almost exact replica of your live website. I say ‘almost’ since it typically only differs in URL, and that it generally shouldn’t be accessible by the internet at large. The purpose of a staging site is to let you apply changes to your site and test whether they work or not; bugs can be identified and fixed, and design changes can be evaluated – all before applying those changes to your live website.
Once testing is complete and any necessary changes have been made, those changes and all necessary fixes are pushed to the live site. This ensures that the updated website is fully functional and provides a seamless user experience for visitors.
Staging vs local vs development
Staging sites aren’t the only type of testing environment that can be used to ensure that website changes don’t interfere with your personal time. But how many of these testing platforms you implement depends on the size of your live site, its complexity, how much traffic you get, and the type of information you make available to the public internet.
Let’s look at the most commonly used testing platforms for a website:
‘Local’ means that a version of your website is hosted locally – on your computer, or on a server on your network. Local sites are not accessible from the internet, nor should they be: the purpose of a local site is to serve as a testing platform for plugins, scripts, and to test design ideas. It needn’t bear any resemblance to your live site.
Changes, plugins, and scripts that work on your local machine are moved to a development or ‘dev’ site. Dev sites are typically used by teams collaborating on a website, and will typically be hosted in an online environment similar (or identical) to your live site. Dev sites can still be regarded as testing platforms, and can be used in the same no-rules spirit as a local site.
Ideally your staging site and live site should always be identical to each other. Changes that work on local or dev are pushed to the staging site. If they work on the staging site, they are pushed to the live site.
If you run a small website, then a staging site can replace both local and dev sites – if your staging site breaks, you just restore it from your live site. Luckily there are plugins that make the whole process super easy.
Benefits of Using a Staging Site
The main purpose of a staging site is to help you ‘look before you leap’. Here’s why you should have one:
Testing: A staging environment is a safe environment to test changes, updates, and new features. This ensures that your live site is fully functional and error-free, resulting in a consistently good user experience.
Error prevention: Potential errors and conflicts can be identified and resolved before they affect the live site. This can prevent downtime and loss of revenue.
Collaboration: Importantly, a staging site allows different team members to work on the same site at the same time. It provides a centralised location for collaboration and review.
Flexibility: A staging site gives you the freedom to experiment with new features, designs, and functionality without any risk.
Best Practices for Staging Site Usage
Use a staging website for every site. Whether you’re developing a single site or managing multiple sites, a staging site for each can help you ward off disaster and save countless hours when you need them most. Test updates and changes in a safe environment before applying them to the live site(s).
Use identical hosting environments. Ideally a staging website is hosted on the same server as the live site, or on an identical server. This ensures that they rely on the same server resources and software components. On the flip side, when staging sites are hosted on a different server with a different operating system or module versions, changes made to the staging site might not work on the live site.
Restrict access to your staging site. If you’re running WordPress, then this is one time you’d want to check the box for “Discourage search engines from indexing this site”. But not all search engines honour such restrictions. For this reason, and to prevent visitors from accessing the staging site, it’s recommended to password protect your entire staging site. One way this can be achieved is by using a .htaccess file.
Always backup your live site before applying changes. Sure, all checks out on the staging site. But a momentary distraction and one or two incorrect clicks later could make you wish you had a backup of your live site.
Use version control for code changes. If you’re making code changes to your website, use version control such as Git. This will allow you to track changes, revert to previous versions if needed, and collaborate with team members more effectively.
A staging website is an essential tool for anyone managing a website. It provides a safe environment for testing changes, updates, and new features, ensuring that your live site remains fully functional and error-free. Ultimately, a staging site ensures a consistent user experience for your visitors.
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