Escape the Web Design DungeonYou're the owner of your website, not its prisoner
How does this happen? Typically, innocent business owners who lack technical knowledge fall prey to one or more pitfalls by surrendering control to a “master.”
Who is master of your domain?
Seinfeld jokes aside, it is critical to be the master of your domain. This means that you — not your web designer, not your newspaper or yellow pages publisher — should be listed as the Registrant Contact for your domain, at the very least.
Every domain has three official contacts — a Registrant Contact, an Administrative Contact, and a Technical Contact. Your name, organization, mailing address, phone number, and most importantly your email address should be listed as the Registrant Contact. The Administrative Contact should either be you, or an administrative person in your organization. Your web designer should perhaps be your Technical Contact at most.
Some people choose to use a “domain privacy” feature to hide everything but their name behind alias information. This may or may not hurt your website’s SEO — but in any case, the real information behind any alias should be true and current.
To see the contacts currently listed for your domain, do a WHOIS lookup using, for example, ICANN WHOIS. If you are not listed as the Registrant Contact, you should fix that ASAP though whomever is running things for you. You must have ultimate control over your domain in case you ever want to change hosts, change registrars, sell the domain, etc.
I know of one person who lost his domain name and all the content of his website after his web designer — listed as all three contacts — suddenly died.
Master of your web hosting?
In the same way, you should also have ultimate control over your web hosting. Otherwise, it’s like not having keys to office space you’re renting. Access is only granted through some sort of guard — if it’s granted at all.
Local web design companies often “white label” web hosting from a big provider to make it seem like they offer hosting themselves. Newspapers and yellow pages publishers may not permit any access to the hosting setup you’re paying for. As the website’s owner, then, you don’t have the login authority to add files, edit, copy, or delete them. You are powerless to have a new designer work on your site.
The given reason for this is to prevent you from “messing things up.” But the result is that you’re locked into continued payment for any and all website revisions, for life.
(For more about quality web hosting see “Web hosting: Why Bluehost is my go-to solution.)
Master of your CMS?
Most websites these days are built inside a Content Management System, or CMS. WordPress is by far the most popular CMS, but there are others like Drupal, Joomla, and so on.
As with hosting, web design companies often limit their clients’ access to the CMS. The client may have permission to make simple changes — like editing copy — but not bigger changes like adding a plugin or editing a style sheet. Again, this prevents the client from messing things up, but it also locks them into web design services.
The CMS itself can even become a prison. I once had a small museum approach me about redesigning their website, which held a great deal of content — many images, tables, lists, records, etc. — inside a decent but very obscure CMS that hardly anyone uses. I could have either learned their CMS and custom-built a whole new set of templates for it (leaving them at the same disadvantage down the road), or converted the whole site to WordPress. Either approach would be quite costly. They balked. As far as I know, they are still stuck where they were.
Some of the “free” or “do-it-yourself” website providers out there today can lock you into the same type of corner. If you need specific, custom functionality three months from now, can you add it? If you need to export all of your content to a different CMS, can you do that? With WordPress, a solution for almost anything you can imagine already exists. With other systems — well, maybe you can enjoy the birds flying freely out there beyond your bars.
Your website is your castle
A website is like your company headquarters, or your own home. You may hire a decorator to give the place a fresh new look, or a contractor to move walls or build an addition, but they should never lock you out — or lock you into using their services for life. If a really poor electrician leaves you with switches that don’t work, you should be able to hire a different electrician, and not have to rebuild your whole building from the ground up.
As a web designer, I make sure all of my clients have the master key to all three of these:
I want to be their builder, not their jailer. Hopefully, they’ll be pleased with my work and stick with me for a long time. But if they prefer to use someone else, or to take over themselves, they should find everything in order.