Working with WP Engine Staging: What you need to know

Working with WP Engine Staging Sites: What You Need to Know

Staging sites are to WordPress hosting as responsive design is to the web: At this point, there’s an expectation that those things just are.

Not all WordPress hosts have gotten on the staging site bandwagon yet, but the best of them have. If you’re not familiar with what a WordPress staging site is, here’s my definition:

A staging site is an exact duplicate of your live site – it’s a place where you can safely install new plugins or try different configurations without the danger of messing up your live site. Once you’ve made any changes you want to your staging site, you can “push” it to your live site.

We good?

I’ve written before about how to use site staging with Flywheel, but in this post, I’d like to cover what it’s like to work with WP Engine staging. At the end of this article, I’ll also tell you how developers can use it for free.

There are affiliate links for some products mentioned in this post. I only recommend things I use and find valuable to my business.

WP Engine Staging Sites

There is only one way to stage sites with WP Engine, but you’ll hear it referred to differently based on whether you’re working on an existing site OR spinning up a new site for a client.

Staging = you already have an existing live site with WP Engine and you want to work on a staged version of it.

Transferable install = you want to spin up a new site, but intend to transfer that site to your client’s account in the future. And you want to work on a staged version of it.

WP Engine Staging for existing sites

If you need to do a plugin update or make a quick change, you can use WP Engine’s staging feature inside of /wp-admin to quickly spin up a copy of the site to test changes and updates. You can then push to production with one click and roll back changes if things go wrong.

Is this hard to set up? Nope!

If you’ve already got a live website hosted on WP Engine, then you already have site staging set up. To use it is go to the WP Engine menu item from your WordPress admin, click the Staging tab and then click the Copy site from LIVE to STAGING button.

WP Engine Staging dashboard

Once you click that button, it’ll take a few minutes (or longer, depending on the size of your site) to set up your WP Engine staging site. You’ll see a status notification like this once your site is ready. Note that the URL is specific to your staging site.

Staging status notification

To edit your staging site, go to that URL and tack on /wp-admin to login (just as you would with your live site) and use the same credentials as your live site.

Once your changes to the staging site are complete, click the Deploy site from STAGING to LIVE button and you’re all set!

WP Engine Staging for NEW sites (Transferable Installs)

The other type of staging is for new sites and WP Engine calls these “transferable installs.” The idea is that you set up a new site for a client to review (or whatever) and then when the site is complete, you transfer the payment and the install to your client’s account.

This is awesome, by the way. Flywheel was the first to roll out billing transfer in the managed WordPress space and I’m so glad to see WP Engine offering it as well. It takes so much headache out of those early conversations with the client, which used to go like this:

  • Give me your credit card and I’ll set up your account! (awful)
  • OR – You, dear client, can wade through all the options on a hosting site and create your account and then send me your login! (terrible)

Transferable installs are awesome because they leave the nerdy parts (like account creation/setup) to the developer and the payment part to the client. Also, if you’re a WP Engine affiliate, any transferable installs you create for a client (that are eventually paid) can earn you an affiliate commission.

I describe this process in more detail below.

How you should use site staging

WP Engine staging sites are not an ongoing playground for changes. Every time you want to make a new round of revisions, you should start with a “fresh” staging site. The workflow would ideally go like this:

  1. I have a live site and I want to update some plugins or make some other changes so…
  2. I copy the site from LIVE to STAGING and then…
  3. I make whatever changes I want on the staging site and then…
  4. I then deploy the site from STAGING to LIVE

If a week goes by and there are more changes to make, repeat those steps above (i.e. don’t skip to #3). The reason for this is that things have likely changed on your live site in the interim, such as a new user comment, a new post, or maybe an auto-update to WordPress. If you skip to #3 and dive into making changes on your staging site, you lose whatever new things are on your live site.

So, always start fresh with copying the live site to staging.

WP Engine’s Developer Program

I love free things. From t-shirts to meals to beer, I love free stuff. I also love that WP Engine is offering free unlimited staging to freelancers and agencies via their Developer Program.

Here’s how it works.

Step 1

Apply to join the developer program.

If you’re approved, you’ll get free WP Engine Personal account ($29/mo value). Typically this would come with staging for the 1 live site on your personal account, but with the developer program, you get as many staging sites as you want.

Note that these are password-protected WordPress installs (the staging sites, not your 1 live site). Flywheel does the same thing and this bugs me because it makes it difficult to work with certain deployment tools or use 3rd party sites for performance testing. WP Engine does at least offer nice speed performance tools that will work with staged sites. I get why they use password protection, but let the record reflect my annoyance. 🙂

Step 2

Create a brand new site: Spin up a new site in your WP Engine dashboard and get to work for your client.

Add Install WP Engine Dashboard

OR migrate an existing client site: Same as with a brand new site, spin up a new install. Then use the WP Engine migration plugin to move a new customer’s site into your free account. All the customer needs to do is give you /wp-admin access and then you can use the plugin to move the site.

There’s also “site migration” link in your dashboard you can use to get all the credentials you’ll need for migrating the site. That’s a nice touch to have that info in one spot for easy access.

WP Engine Automated site migration tool

Step 3

Add free SSL. Use Git Push. Run performance tests. Make an awesome website.

Step 4

When you’re ready to launch…

Within the WP Engine portal, you can select to “transfer the site” to any email address you’d like. If your client is an existing WP Engine customer, they can “accept” the transfer via a link in a confirmation email. Non-WP Engine customers can sign up for a new account and have the site you built for them automatically transferred. Existing customer or not, it’s a pretty hassle-free experience for your client (which makes you look awesome)/

WP Engine will also co-brand notification emails with your logo and can automatically insert your affiliate link for new customer sign-ups (Did I mention WP Engine pays a minimum of $200 per referral?).

And if your client doesn’t want to host with WP Engine for some reason? You can transfer client sites to 3rd party hosts using typical FTP workflows.

Go get on stage!

Whether you’re an existing WP Engine customer or not, if you create websites for clients, go join the developer program.

10 thoughts on “Working with WP Engine Staging Sites: What You Need to Know”

  1. Thank the good Lord for staging sites…..I cannot imagine being without this feature. Only alternative is copying everything local which can be a lot of time spent and sometimes not possible for larger sites.

  2. I wonder what everyone would have done “before” staging sites. Playing around with plugins, tinkering with WordPress theme “editor” — any of those things could be disastrous, and we just wouldn’t know it unless it happened.

    I am using Flywheel right now but I am well aware of WPEngine too. It’s nice to see these two companies with staging features. I only know too darned well what happens when websites crash because my itch to tinker with code got the best of me 🙂


  3. It’s hard to put in to a quick comment how great WPE is or how amazing and simple their staging sites are. When I initially picked my hosting provider I chose not to go with WPE because at that point they did NOT have transferable installs and I needed multiple installs for client development. With the addition of transferable installs it’s a no-brainer. WPE is best in breed. Cheers!

  4. On my WP Engine menu, I do not have the site staging set up. How do I set it up? I hate updating plugins and my
    live website gets interrupted. ~~ Lisa

    1. When you click on the Staging tab there should be a button/link to click to set it up. If you’re not seeing that, something is off and you’ll want to contact WPE support.

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