Who Owns Your Website? (Hint: It Might Not Be You)
Who owns your company’s website?
The answer—which surprises most business owners—is that there’s a chance it’s not you. Your website could actually belong to your web designer or digital marketing company.
It happens more than you think. In fact, we just finished rescuing one Midwest HVAC company from a website hostage situation. The company signed on for a “free” website in conjunction with “low monthly payments” for web marketing services. When the contractor went to cancel his monthly service, the web company charged him a hefty cancelation fee and took back the rights to his website’s source code.
Understandably, the owner was infuriated when he found out he had basically been “leasing” his own website. He didn’t even own his website domain (e.g. www.yourcompany.com)!
Luckily, we salvaged most of the content, and we were able to recode and rebuild the website from scratch. In this specific instance, we were also able to preserve his SEO despite a domain name change (we were actually able to improve them a bit in the rebuild process), but all of their historical analytical data was lost.
Don’t let this happen to you. Your website is arguably your number one marketing asset—you should think of it as digital equity. Your website should be an appreciating asset—much like a home in a strong housing market.
How to Find Out if You Own Your Domain and Website
If I were you, the first thing I would do is verify that your domain name and website are actually yours. Start by checking your domain registration record. You can do this for free by using https://www.whois.com/whois/. If you see your marketing agency or web designer as the registrant contact, your web company may own rights to your domain. You need to address this with them—ASAP.
After you know who’s listed as the domain owner, pull out your website contract and dig into the fine print.
Here are the basics of what you should own and/or be able to take with you if you “break up” with your web marketing company:
- Your domain name
- The design and visuals of your website
- Your website’s content
And while you can’t technically “own” these, you should obtain legal licensing rights to:
- * The source code
- ** The content management system (CMS)
If you’re using a monthly-priced, “drag-and-drop” website builder, you might be “leasing” your website. But, it’s not just the cheap, pay-per-month services that use this model, either—we know of at least three well-known web design agencies that bury their proprietary platform and ownership clauses underneath flashy presentations and pages of legal jargon.
* I am not an attorney. When I say you should own your website’s source code, understand that most companies’ websites use at least some “open source” code. While you can’t technically “own” something that is open source, you should be able to retain control over it in the event you decide to fire your web marketing company.
** While you cannot “own” a publicly-used content management system (CMS), like WordPress or Drupal, you should have legal rights to choose and control which CMS your business uses and to take any custom programming with you.
Deciphering Jargon—The Fine Print of a Website Design Contract
Look—if your web contract looks more like you’re buying a multi-million-dollar home than a website, you’ve GOT to actually read the terms and conditions—carefully! Or, do what I do and have your attorney read them and translate them into English for you.
However, it doesn’t take a legal buff to be able to pick out these red-flag buzzwords and phrases:
- Proprietary Platforms or Proprietary Technology: A proprietary web platform is owned by a marketing or software That means you are required to host your website on their platform, and if you want to switch to WordPress or move it to another vendor as it is, you’re up a creek without a paddle. Even if you DO gain access to all your files, they probably won’t be compatible with other hosting platforms, causing you to rebuild your website from scratch. Any time you hear proprietary, just think about what will happen when you don’t want to use their proprietary platform anymore.
- Ownership Condition Date: What this means is that you become the owner after a fixed period of time—usually after a year or more of continued services. Typically, contracts that include this verbiage have a steep cost for cancelling before that time.
- Lease to Own: Like a car, if you lease-to-own, you don’t technically own it until you fork over a certain amount of money over a certain period of time. If you see “lease to own” in your contract, you don’t own your website until that time period has elapsed—and if you cancel beforehand, you’ll pay for it out-of-pocket.
- Low Monthly Price: Like lease-to-own, if a web design contract has a “low monthly price” to get started—and it includes the full website without any mention of hosting—it usually means you’ll pay a hefty fee for cancelling before the contract is up, with no guarantee of website ownership.
- Get Started for Free: Nothing good in digital marketing is free, and if it is, there’s a heavy price tag coming for you later.
What to Do If You Don’t Own Your Website
First, don’t panic. We’ve helped dozens of contractors get out of this situation relatively unscathed, so it isn’t a death sentence. If you don’t own your website and are looking to leave the provider who does, there are two paths you can take:
- Have another vendor rebuild your site based on your existing content and the files you do own
- Have another vendor start from scratch and build you a completely new site
I will caution you—don’t pull the plug on your existing website until your new one is ready to launch. And make sure your new digital marketing partner is very well-versed not just in website design and development, but also technical SEO. Ask them to outline the exact steps they’re going to take in launching your new website and killing the old one.
Prevent a Bottom-Line Disaster—Be Smart About Website Ownership
Having helped numerous contractors fight their way out of sticky website situations, the best way to fix an ownership disaster is to avoid one in the first place. Before you sign a new web design contract, make sure you do the following:
Be Up-Front About Website Rights
When you’re exploring new website options, the very first thing you should ask a sales representative is if you will have immediate—and full—rights to your website code and content. It’s crucial to know if you’ll own the entire site code because if you don’t, then you can’t walk away with a fully functional site when you leave.
And don’t forget about hosting. Usually, that “low monthly fee” includes hosting, meaning on their platform. What that usually means is that your site is dependent on the company’s software, which you can’t take with you. Look for companies that offer hosting as a separate cost. If they are combined into one fee, you may not own the code.
Read the Contract—and Do Your Homework
If your life is anything like mine, you barely have time to sleep, let alone examine a dense legal contract. But trust me—before signing anything, actually read it. I mean really read it. That’s where the fine print lies, and that’s where you’ll see what you’re really signing up for. Another tactic you should use is to read online reviews of the vendor you’re considering. Every company will get an occasional negative review. You just can’t please everyone. But, if there are dozens of negative reviews written by seemingly reasonable business owners—that’s a HUGE red flag.
Another due diligence strategy is to do a Google search for “company+scam” or “company+complaint.” What you find—or don’t find—can be a strong signal of trustworthiness.
Weigh All the Factors
The cost for switching website companies isn’t just monetarily high—it also takes a toll on you mentally. It’s a guaranteed mix of headaches and “oh sh**” moments, so take an extra minute to see what you’re getting into before you jump. At a minimum, you should choose a web design company with proven success in the HVAC industry.
Here’s why: Your website isn’t just a brochure, it’s your online sales representative. A key factor you’ve got to consider is how it will contribute to your bottom line. For example, you’re going to need features and markup specific to home services, advanced analytics, and call tracking in order to get the biggest bang for your buck. If you need help, let me know.
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