If you either have a website, or you are thinking of creating one, for whatever reason, the chances are you’ll want to do some work on it at some point. Perhaps you want to build a brand-new feature, or you want to upgrade the theme, or anything in between. Whatever the platform is that you are using, that’s where a staging site, or staging environment as you may hear it called, comes in handy. In this blog, I’ll explain what a staging site is and talk you through some of the key reasons why you should use one. In future instalments, we’ll go through some of the different ways you can set one up.
A staging website, in the simplest terms, is a development environment not often accessible to search engines and the public, which can be used to test new or different elements of a website, before they are published to the live, public version of the website. It is quite common to password-protect the staging environment, to ensure members of the public can’t view it, even if they can find it.
The staging site itself can be developed in numerous ways, from using a local server hosted on your computer, right through to using the same hosting platform as your live site. We’ll cover that in more detail in future instalments though. So, knowing what a staging site is, why do you need to use one?
Now I hear you asking, why would I want to break anything with my website? This does of course seem counter-intuitive but bear with me. Whenever you have used anything from an app on your phone, to a word processor, Facebook or anything in between, all of these have been through a test phase, to iron out any issues before reaching you, the end user. If you were to make changes to your website and publish them straight away, you may very well publish errors without knowing, which in the best case would seem unprofessional.
Creating an environment in which you can test new or updated features of your website is very important; it means you are able to break things without any repercussions, allowing you to find potential issues before the end users do, resulting in a much better user experience.
If you or your organisation has a website, the chances are that you will have someone, such as a website manager or webmaster, whose job it will be to look after the website. This person will have the standard tasks of updating content every so often, writing blogs, adding new products to an e-commerce store etc.
However, when activities outside of that norm are required, which could include training up a new webmaster, or familiarising yourself with an updated system, a staging environment can essentially become a training ground. This would mean that whoever is managing the website can have more confidence when carrying out any sort of website-related tasks, helping to avoid any mistakes.
That’s where a staging environment comes in. It can perfectly mimic your live website, feature for feature, allowing you to implement all of your new features, demonstrate them to others within your organisation and make iterative changes, without anyone else seeing them. That way, you can be sure that you’re only publishing the perfect end product, that looks great and integrates seamlessly with everything else on your website.
I always liken a website to Russian (Matryoshka) dolls. Whilst your visitors will only see the end product (your website, the innermost doll) in reality there are many layers beneath that. Firstly, your website is installed on a host, which will have an interface, such as cPanel. Installed within your host is your content management system (CMS). Some of the most common ones you will have heard of are WordPress, Joomla, Wix, GoDaddy and even something like Squarespace, which I often use for clients. Going further, within your CMS, you will have installed your theme and any plugins you decide to use. All of these layers are individual pieces of software, often open-source and developed by many different parties. As a result, it is quite logical that there could be conflicts between them, especially if updates are required.
That’s where a staging site comes in handy. It provides you with the perfect environment to update any particular one of the pieces of software used on your website, with zero associated risk. If there’s an issue when you update something, you can fix it before it is published to the live site. If there are no issues, then you can just publish the changes straight away.
Third party scripts on websites are very common. So common in fact, that you might already be using them without being aware. For example, you might be using Google Analytics to assess where your visitors are from and which of your pages are the most popular. These types of third-party programmes have many uses and can be very useful. However, they can also be quite dangerous, facilitating cyber-attacks, such as the ICO’s crypto-mining attack, which affected the NHS and the British Airways attack.
When you install any third-party script, you need to test how it works, from its basic functionality to the data it collects. Staging sites are perfect for this, as you can use all manner of dummy data, which poses no risk at all, even if the code you’ve installed does turn out to be malicious.
In reality, there are many more reasons why a staging site is a must for anyone. However, I hope that these reasons have been able to persuade you to use one, if you aren’t doing so already.
For all my clients, no matter the size of the website, I will set up and use a staging environment to make any significant changes or additions, before publishing them to the live site. That way, you can be sure that whatever the change, it works perfectly and you love the look of it, before your visitors see it. Get in touch now to start your digital journey with me, be it building a brand-new website or improving an existing one. I am looking forward to hearing from you!