IS YOUR WEBSITE A HOSTAGE?


You are not in control of your website. Or your web domain. Or your Google My Business listing. Or maybe your business YouTube channel. In fact, their may be many more business or marketing accounts or tools that you don't control.

It happens. A vendor (and not too infrequently, an employee or even the owner) forgets to add the right people, share account information, or add additional admins.


If its a former employee and you have access to their work email, that's not too bad. But what if its a website or marketing vendor that is no longer in business? If they created your Google Analytics account, or your YouTube channel - not to mention creating or designing your website -and they are no longer in business or other reasons...you may have to start from scratch. And starting from scratch is a very bad place to be for a business doing digital marketing. Your past work, business descriptions, photos may be lost, but even more difficult will be the lost followers and SEO value of any social or digital assets that you once may have owned.


These examples happen all too often, and it can be an annoying, time-consuming experience to recover them at best, or an economically devastating one at worst!

This is a common risk for small and medium sized businesses.

The point of this post is not to criticize the valuable skills and importance of professional web designers, agencies, web development companies or your own employees who, working against the clock, will register a domain or sign up for an account critical to your business, fully intending to later transfer the account to the business owner later. And probably would have, if they didn't get another job offer the following week and forgot.

So let's assume that everyone means well and doesn't intend to be a bad actor like the clickbait title of this post implies. In any case there are some very simple and easy ways to ensure that you can minimize these risks.

Save yourself time and money and put into place some simple measures or checks that will help mitigate or remove this ugly issue in the future. Below are some basic requirements and some questions you may want to ask.


CLARIFY WHO OWNS WHAT:

Let your web developer (or employee if you have someone working on it in house) know up front what you are looking for and what they should expect to consider when setting up a website or other digital marketing account or tool:

  1. As the business owner, you want full ownership/admin rights to the website.

  2. The web developer should select a CMS (Content Management System) and/or website hosting platform that you /your employees will be able to easily manage without knowing html or CMS.

  3. You'll want to review the CMS prior to any commitments to that platform, and have a demo and at least one alternative to the recommendation.

  4. You'll want to have an idea of what their ongoing costs are to host and manage, as well as what it would cost for 'one off' changes or website updates.

QUESTIONS WHILE INTERVIEWING WEB DEVELOPERS:

Especially if you don't know a lot of websites or digital marketing, here are a few questions that you can ask while working with your partner to ensure they understand the long-term importance for you as the owner to access, change, and manage all of your organizations digital assets:

DOES YOUR WEB DEVELOPMENT FIRM LIMIT YOUR ACCESS?

Most people know that there are different levels of authority or permissions for most business accounts. Your website may have this structure as well. Ask what authority or permission level that you (as the business owner) will have. If you don't receive the top-level authority levels, ask them why. There may be valid reasons they don't want to provide someone with few or little skills with a particular tool. The explanation they give will be valuable for you to ensure long-term operating capabilities for even if you don't have complete control. So ask and get some assurance there's a back up plan.

WHAT PLATFORM DOES YOUR WEB DEVELOPER USE?

The days when you hired a web developer who created a web page from code completely from scratch and hosted it off a server located in a closet at their home are over. Based on your business (and your budget) most of your website requirements can probably be addressed by a number of hosted website solutions. The web developer you hire will select the one that will meet your business requirements for the website and that they likely have some experience with in the past. This might be important information for you and your new web developer to discuss.

For the non-web developer, some of these platforms are very easy to update and manage (Squarespace, Wix), some are more difficult and may require some level of skill with coding (CSS, if not html, for platforms like Wordpress), while others are very limited in terms of layout and are focused on very specific business models like eCommerce (BigCommerce, Shopify).

Why should you care? Because your business will operate on this platform, so you need to know if the platform they are choosing is well-known and expected to be supported in the future. You need to know if its something you, or one of your employees can easily manage without having to call to make every tiny change, and you need to know who to contact if, for whatever reason, you and your web developer are no longer speaking.

WHO IS THIS PLATFORM? WHAT ARE THE REVIEWS?

Once you know the name of the platform, just do a quick search. If finding reviews or information about this platform is difficult, or they seem new or obscure, you might be concerned. You might ask your web developer about more mainstream options or your concerns.

IS IT EASY ENOUGH FOR MORTALS FOR BASIC TASKS?

You should also ask them how 'easy'* it is for you or your other employees to use this web hosting platform. The interface to make changes to your website is frequently called a Content Management System, or CMS. Some of these are virtually invisible (the 'drag and drop' of Wix) while others are more advanced (WordPress), and others are incredibly challenging for all but those well-versed in CSS or HTML coding.

Adding new and updated content to your website provides a good example. This should be a simple and easy task for most people, so ask to see how its done and discover for yourself if this is a tool you will feel comfortable using in the future. If you want to create a blog post for your website, you should be able to do that without initiating a lot of billable hours from your web developer.

*They will all say: "Oh, its super easy!" But you'll want to see a demo of how 'easy' it is to you.

WHO OWNS YOUR WEB DOMAIN?

If you are a business owner; you should own it. Period.

I've met many business owners who realized years after getting a website for their business that they didn't actually own their most important digital asset: Their web domain. This cannot be minimized: You do NOT want to lose your domain. And remember, as far as most web domain registries are concerned, the person who bought the domain from them is the owner - NOT the business that paid them to do it.

OWNING A BUSINESS MEANS OWNING A WEB DOMAIN.

And that means retaining control. Buying a new web domain isn't expensive (depending on the web domain of course, and your biggest challenge will be finding a new or replacement domain) but you now what is really expensive? Losing years and years of accumulated search engine optimization (even if you didn't know you were doing SEO, it happens anyway over time. Google and others have been watching your website!) is an incalculably large loss for your business.

BETTER HAVE IT IN WRITING.

While I insist a business owner should purchase all their web domains themselves (using a company credit card and a marketing proxy email account - see below), if that's not possible ensure you have a clear contract in place specifying that you own the domain despite the fact that they registered and purchased that domain using their name and information. The contract should specifically state how control and ownership should be surrendered by your vendor and that you are the legal owner.

UH OH. TIME FOR SWEET TALKING.

If you don't have that binding agreement in place and someone else owns it, start the process of getting control now. Talk to your vendor (if they are still around) and request that you would like them to transfer ownership to them. If required, a small fee to cover their costs and ensure smooth transition is not a bad idea. Its much less than the alternative.

I hope its not too late for you.

But really, its much easier if you just buy your web domains yourself.

DELEGATION IS GOOD. DETACHMENT IS NOT.

One of the reasons I believe many owners get themselves into this situation is that they need to and should delegate tasks like website building and marketing to vendors take care of it. We all agree. And this is probably more likely with business owners who didn't grow up in the internet age and it all seems just a bit too overwhelming.

PREVENTION IS THE BEST CURE:

If you are a business owner or are making the decisions for a new website, avoiding getting yourself and your company into a 'website hostage' situation starts with you.

Below are a few common sense solutions and steps to avoid problems:

A Proxy Email Account just for Business/Marketing:

Create an email account just for managing the website and some of the critical web platforms and tools associated with that website. For smaller companies, a free Gmail account works perfectly.

Wait, why not use your personal email?

While many website and marketing tools allow the creator to add (or remove) other users and assign roles to those authorized to work on an account, there are still a few that may not offer this, or can be difficult to figure out. Your time is valuable so save yourself time creating an email address that is only used to manage the website. When a new employee, another web development firm, an SEO specialist, or some new feature needs to be added, you can share the access to the website by giving them access to this gmail account - without sharing your own personal or business email credentials.

WHERE TO USE YOUR PROXY EMAIL ACCOUNT:

Since so many of the web marketing tools you are going to need (Google My Business, Google Analytics, Google Search Console) require a Gmail account, you're going to need a Google account for this. In addition to those essential website or marketing tools, you'll also want to use this proxy email to manage your YouTube channel as well as create a Google Drive account to store shared business information with vendors and employees.

CONCLUSION:

The ancient adage about 'an ounce of prevention is worth twice the cure' defines the importance and value of setting up a few simple and easily remembered requirements for all of your digital marketing programs. If you don't have a 'generic' Gmail account already in place for your business, get one now. Use it and share it as necessary with others when they sign up for and create accounts for your business.

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