Making changes to WordPress without publishing them

Last updated Jul 20, 2020

Ever wanted to change your theme?

Revamp your entire website?

Tweak that nasty footer?

But you don’t want to mess with your existing site, in case people are visiting your pages.

In which case, you’re in the right place!

If you’ve ever wanted to make some changes to your website without messing with what visitors to your site are currently seeing, I’m going to show you a few ways to do this.

It was a dilemma that I often used to have when clients would ask me to make significant changes, and I knew that sometimes it would be days before they would have a chance to look over the amendments and give me feedback on them.

So here are a few of the ways that I used to hide the draft changes, and which I still use on my own sites. Even now, as we speak, I’m going through a rebrand for The Website Mentor, and I have a website under development which only I can see.

I’ll tell you how I’m doing that a little further on in this article.

I should be clear that this article is NOT outlining the ways that you could migrate your website from one domain name to another, or from one hosting provider to another. That is a totally different discussion.

This is purely for those of you who are wanting to make tweaks or more significant alterations to your website, without anyone seeing them in progress.

Depending on your actual requirements, there are a number of options available to you.

Use a Coming Soon plugin in

This is one of the easiest options to implement, but it wouldn’t be my top choice, so don’t just plough straight in with the first option I present. There may be something more suitable for you!

Basically with a coming soon or maintenance plugin, at the flick of a switch, you’re able to apply a temporary holding page to the site which acts as a curtain to any development that you’re doing on the pages.

As an administrator, you are able to view and edit the entire site, but as a visitor, you only see the holding page.

There are lots of maintenance/coming soon plugins to choose from. The one that I have used in the past and really liked is Coming Soon by SeedProd.

Is this the right option for you?

Pros

  • Straightforward to use
  • You can easily make it look good, so it’s a fast solution
  • You can be changing the rest of the site in the background without anyone else seeing.
  • You can still present some essential information such as contact details and have an opt-in form so you can advise people when the site is back up.

Cons

  • It’s not a great user experience for visitors to your site to see a maintenance/coming soon message.

If you do decide to take this route, I would do so when you are going to switch it over very temporarily, ie. for less than a day. If your amendments are going to take a number of days or weeks, this is not the solution that I would recommend. If your website is new, and you’re not yet driving any traffic to this web address, then it’s a good temporary solution.

Clone the page

An often overlooked method of making changes is to simply clone the page, make the changes that you’re wanting to make, and then publish that page once you’re happy with it. You can use the likes of the Duplicate Post plugin to easily clone pages (don’t be deceived by the name, it duplicates pages as well as posts).

Pros

  • It’s fast and easy

Cons

  • You need to be careful to retain the correct url when you’re overwriting the existing page with the new one, otherwise you potentially lose search engine traffic

Only advisable if it’s just one page that you’re making changes to.

Use a theme switching plugin

Let’s face it, we’ve all made a poor theme choice at some point on our website journey (unless you joined my WordPress Success Bootcamp and were shown the right way from the outset!)

A switching plugin enables you to keep one theme live for visitors to your site, but use a different one for administrators, so that you can play around with the new one until you have it looking the way that it should. Here’s a theme switching plugin that you can try out called Theme Switcha.

Is this the right option for you?

Pros

  • It’s really easy to implement

Cons

  • There are not many other changes you can make other than switching the theme.

If you’re just wanting to try out a new theme to see how it would look with your content, this is a great fast and easy method to check it out.

Create a local environment

This is the way that most developers work, and I have to say, I’ve never been one of them.

The best way to do this is through DesktopServer.

What it means is that you create a copy of your website to your local computer, and work on it there. I see the appeal, but never having been a hardcore techie, for me, the cons outweigh the pros.

Is this the right option for you?

Pros

  • It really speeds up the workflow, especially if you’re on a slow internet connection
  • Your existing site remains live and unaffected by any work that you do on the site locally.

Cons

  • It can be a painstaking process to set up the local environment and copy your site across to it.
  • The configuration of your computer is likely to be very different to the set up on the server where your website will eventually live, and that means that moving it across throw up a few issues.

This option would only be necessary if you were doing a full website revamp. It would be overkill if you were just wanting to tweak a few things on a page or add some new elements.

Use a sub domain or a testing domain

This is the way that I used to work on my client sites, and it was a great solution for me at the time.

It basically means that if I was wanting to revamp thewebsitementor.com, I could set up a subdomain which may look something like dev.thewebsitementor.com, and create the site there.

It’s similar to the idea of creating a copy on your computer locally, but often you don’t have the issues with migration as you can do from a local environment, as the server configuration is consistent between both sites.

Pros

  • The server environment is the same, so you don’t experience any issues with configuration when you put the site live

Cons

  • A lot of people forget to delete the subdomain once they’ve migrated it over to the root domain, and this can open up doorways for hackers if it’s not maintained and updated.
  • If it’s not removed, it may cause an issue with search engines due to duplicate content.

Use a staging environment

A lot of hosting plans offer an opportunity for you to use something called a staging environment. This means that as the push of a button, they copy your website to a subdomain or a draft domain for you to make changes. It’s also simply the press of a button to put it live and delete it.

Pros

  • It’s fast and easy

Cons

  • Depending on your host, this may not be an option for you.

If you’re using SiteGround or WP Engine, they both offer this one-step staging environment.

If your host doesn’t offer this service, you can achieve the same by creating a copy on a sub domain, it’s just a little more work to copy everything over.

Summary

There are lots of ways to skin this cat. Which one of these options will work best for you will depend on the level of changes that you’re wanting to make, and how regularly you’re likely to need to do these kind of amendments.

If you have some other methods that you’re using to make changes to your website, I’d love to hear them.

Hop over to the WordPress Happy Community and share any of your thoughts there.  It’s my free Facebook group where lots of small business owners come to learn, share and support each other on their website journey.

Vicky Etherington

Vicky Etherington has been running her own online marketing agency since 2003, and in 2014 transitioned to working with coaches and therapists to teach them how to create their own client-attracting websites. 

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