At some point in the life of a WordPress site, its owner will want to make changes significant enough to justify blocking access to the site. It’s not a good idea to leave a site online when major changes are being implemented. A site with rough edges looks unprofessional and visitors won’t know that it’s because you’re renovating — they’ll think that’s just how your site looks. Also, when changes are being implemented, the site is in an unpredictable state — if you’re changing code while users are attempting to execute it, the results will not be pretty.
That said, taking a site offline should be the option of last resort. It inconveniences users and can result in lost revenue. In many cases, manually entering a maintenance mode isn’t necessary. Let’s look at the alternatives, and then discuss the best options for when taking a site offline is unavoidable.
WordPress’ Built-In Maintenance Mode
When you update a plugin or theme, WordPress enters a built-in maintenance mode. It will present a brief message to inform users that the site is unavailable. You don’t have to do anything; it’s automatic. Usually updates happen so quickly that your site will only be in maintenance mode for a few seconds. If you have a very busy site, that’s a significant amount of time, but, for the most part, it’s the best way to avoid showing users inconsistent state.
As an aside, if you do an update and something goes wrong, it’s possible that your site will get “stuck” in maintenance mode. To unstick it, delete the “.maintenance” file from the root directory of your site.
Use A Staging Site
A staging site is a copy of your WordPress site on which changes are made before they’re integrated with the live site. A staging site is usually a better option than putting a live site in maintenance mode, because you’ll be able to test any changes before showing them users.
If you plan on a long process of renovation, using a staging site will allow you to play with new designs and functionality while the old site continues to serve users.
Both WP Stagecoach and VersionPress make creating staging sites straightforward.
Maintenance Mode Plugins
If you’re absolutely determined to put your site into a maintenance mode, there are plugins that will help you. WP Maintenance Mode and the pithily named Coming Soon Page & Maintenance Mode let you design an attractive maintenance mode page with a custom message. They’ll also take care of making sure WordPress sends the right response codes to web browsers and search crawlers, letting them know that the down-time is only temporary.
If you do need to take your site offline, it’s better to use a plugin than blocking access by some other method, because a completely unavailable site has negative consequences for SEO.