Website ownership is a serious issue. As part of being an SEO consultant, I’m frequently asked to conduct SEO Audits on potential client’s websites. Among sundry other tasks, I always check to see who owns your website – the legal owner, that is. With surprising regularity, it turns out NOT to be the guy who commissioned the report, and who mistakenly thinks HE (or she) is the rightful owner! There is more than one aspect to this…
Who is the Domain Registrant?
Each country has rules governing ownership and transfer of domain names. These rules are clear, unequivocal and rigorously enforced. In all instances, the “registrant” is defined as the legal owner.
Frequently, domains are registered by the website designer on the client’s behalf. Sometimes they may have been initially registered by the office junior, the wife, girlfriend, business partner, the accountant… Time passes. Things change. Maybe now, the registrant is the ex-wife, ex-girlfriend, ex-business partner…
If your name is not listed as the registrant, you do not own the website! Best you get this sorted BEFORE the excrement hits the fan, and some one is holding knife to the throat of your valuable corporate website, demanding a 6-figure ransom!
Proprietory Web Software
Just because you are using a licensed copy of a proprietary web software program, you certainly don’t own the software. However, if it’s on your own domain, hosted under your control, then you’ve got some security should any differences of opinion arise with your web designers.
If you are using Open Source software, on your own domain, hosted on an independent server, you’re in far better shape in the sense of having control over your assets.
Conversely, if you’re using proprietary software owned by your website design company, hosted on their servers… you have a massive risk exposure in the event of a difference of opinion over when (or if) you should pay your accounts. If they are also listed as the registrant of the domain, you have placed yourself in an unenviable, vulnerable and potentially devastating position. Silly you… Oh dear, how sad, never mind!
Web Hosting Issues…
Hosting is a vexed question, and its damned hard to establish if the hosting company is a real hosting company, or an affiliate reseller of another company’s hosting services. Sometimes, there are multiple tiers… That said, do you know who to call if something bad happens to your website? The worst aspect of website designer’s hosting service is, its usually in a reseller sub-account, and you cannot have access to the nitty-gritty parts of the site. Things like FTP access, root-level file editing, messing with email accounts, installing other software, or direct access to stats data are usually off-limits. At best, that’s a pain in the bottom… at worst, it prevents you from having a full site backup in the event services are terminated for any reason!
And unrelated bad stuff happens! Last month, my hosting company’s US-based Data Centre operators got locked out of their premises, presumably over a rent or maintenance dispute with the building’s owner. Is your website designer smart enough, and well enough connected in the data centre world, to seamlessly relocate ALL client sites to safe environment within a couple of hours?
All website designers are not created equal. Most are honest, reliable and decent business people. However, some website designers are control freaks who like to keep cash-cow clients screwed down and locked into systems they cannot easily escape from, and ruthlessly milk them of every possible dollar. All the while, they deliver a minimum of service, and maximum of awkwardness, and make it as difficult as possible for a client to escape their clutches.
A decade of dealing with the aftermath of the cowboys, control freaks, the bloody-minded and the plain ignorant has taught me (and some of my clients) some valuable lessons.
- Ensure you are the domain registrant, and have access to your domain registration account.
- Ensure your hosting account is independent of your website designer, and you have the account access details
- Ensure you keep a written copy of your domain and hosting account details with your lawyer or bank
- Ensure you have a full site software back up, including all configurations, modules and plugins
- Ensure you have a full database backup every month.
- Don’t rely totally on the hosting company’s server backup processes…
- An oldie but a still-relevant goody – don’t put all your eggs in one basket!
This is rudimentary business risk management. Taking responsibility for your businesses activities is in integral part of management. When things go wrong, as they sometimes do, make sure you have a contingency plan.