Of course I do. Well, I think I do. I paid a bill a while back, no wait… The subject of your website ownership is not as simple as you’d imagine and in this case, ignorance definitely isn’t bliss
Website ownership is one of those things that companies take for granted, but only find out the real truth when something goes wrong or they wish to move providers. As websites and hosting as highly technical entities, a lot of businesses place this in trust to their provider whilst getting on with the rest of their day job. However, it’s bad practice to just take things under assumptions and handshakes.
Domains & DNS
Everything web-enabled revolves around domain names – websites, email addresses, backups, the Cloud – all work from a domain name. It’s vital that business owners are aware if they own their domain names, or if a third party is the listed registrant that they have everything in writing that says they are the legal owners of the domain with full rights.
The number one issue we have to deal with on a regular basis is on ownership of domain names. Providers often registered the domain names in their own name and then refuse to allow domain name transfers without paying a fee or other restriction. Depending on the domain name extension, there are governing bodies (Nominet in the UK, ICANN globally) that can adjudicate in these matters. However, their processes are slow, can be costly and have no guarantee of releasing your domain name at the end of them.
Make sure you visit a WHOIS lookup like whois.domaintools.com, look up your domains and make sure you are aware of the registrant. If it isn’t your company, then make sure you have a written agreement with your providers that you own and have full rights over your domain names. Make sure if it is your company then the address and contacts details are correct – it’s the only thing you have to prove ownership if domain ownership goes to dispute.
Website design, code & database
There’s no right or wrong answer on this – every website company has different terms and conditions. So the first step is to find out your provider’s position in this matter. Who owns the website design, the code, the database behind it and any custom development.
Again, don’t assume because it’s “your” website that you own the code behind it. Sometimes website companies develop sites using their own code, which they’d protect as it is their Intellectual Property. They may do likewise on the design, the use of CSS or the images used. Even if the provider has used an Open Source package such as WordPress, that doesn’t mean that your site is “free”. Many developers using WordPress purchased paid-for plugins which are licensed to them, rather than you, and require payment to update or export.
The data behind a site is also something to clarify. In the world where GDPR is just around the corner, the data on a website is the company owners’ responsibility. Gaining access to it and being able to export it are subjects you need to clarify with your providers – if they won’t let you at “your” data then that’s a red flag both for ownership and for data compliance.
Bottom line – ask the question and ask for a detailed list of everything associated with your website. It’s not your job to know about Cloud CDNs and WordPress APIs, but it is your job to know where everything is and what it would cost you to move it.
Imagine a world without business email? No, we neither. Email hosting is equally as important as website hosting and attracts the same questions. Often companies split the hosting of email from the websites and look to utilise major third parties such as GMail, Office 365 and Exchange.
If your provider is in effect a reseller of services then that relationship needs defining – again so that you are aware of the situation should you need to resolve it. It can sometimes take days to move email boxes from one provider to another.
Google: SEO, Business Listings, Adwords and Search Console
Businesses who heavily invest in services around Google such as SEO and Pay-per-click will often out-source this to a third-party agency. Yet we’ve heard nightmare stories of these companies having their terms and conditions weighted as such, that once the contract is ended they will remove the work they did. That means they can delete Google Business listings, remove the links they’ve built from SEO, delete Analytics and Search Console accounts and a range of other services.
Again we are no being judge and jury here – as every business owner needs to know about their investments, every agency needs to protect their work. Everyone works differently, so make sure that you aware of who owns your data on Google and who has access to it. Most Google products allow for multiple users to be “Administrators” or “Owners” so there’s no need for just one account to have access to everything – in fact, you’d should have visibility on any data held in your company’s name.
The big question – what would happen if your provider (or their providers) had a massive incident or went out of business? What provisions do both you and they have to cover these circumstances?
For Incidents, then check what backup procedures your providers (and their providers) follow. How much data do they store? Over what time frames (for example – daily backups for 5 days)? Where is the data stored? How is it accessed? What is the restore process and are there any implications?
For complete recovery, what would your organisation do? Do you have access to copies of the website, database, domains, DNS, email accounts and settings and other vital business accounts? Can you log in to your current hosting account and any accounts with third parties? What guarantees and assurances do you have to cover yourself in the event of a total failure?
The Bottom Line – don’t leave anything to chance
Assumptions and spoken agreements won’t help if you’ve no website, email nor domain names. Make sure that you are aware of your digital situation and have the right layers of understanding in place. There are so many single points of failure possible with digital and it can be easily avoided. Any reputatable company will provide a written agreement and statement of your assets, break clauses, termination charges and the ownership of your investment. If they don’t, then it’s better to start the process now than leave things to chance.