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Are you likely to lose your website?

How to ensure that your website is safely under your control

Getting a website up and running is a big job and involves a lot of individuals with their fingers in the proverbial pie, from web developers to domain name registrars, board members to website hosting companies. As with any process this large, the chance of losing control becomes more likely. There are any number of ways that your website might not be under your purview from loss of intellectual property to simply forgetting to renew your domain name registration.

This article touches on some common issues in website development, hosting and the registration process and outlines some of the simple ways that you might be in danger of losing control of your website to third parties. It is surprising how easily this can happen- so be prepared!

Web Developers

When a website is built by a developer the ownership of the website’s design and content automatically become the legal property of the creator. Which means that if you’d like access to the site’s files you need to ask permission from the website developers. While often not an issue, unprofessional developers might ask for fees to access the website files or point blank refuse to give them to you if you try to exit from your agreement with them.

The easiest way to counter this is to make sure that your contract specifically states that the design and content of the site is your property rather than the designer’s.

Website Hosting Company

A web hosting service provider is a company that stores your website data on a server so that it may be viewed on the internet. It is something that is often overlooked when discussing website optimization and security. It is also a factor that is easy to forget in the day to functioning of your business and online presence. Often by the time we realise that there is an issue it is too late to fix it easily, therefore, choosing the right company and having the right procedures in place from the beginning is vital to the smooth operation of any website.

Some concerns to look out for in website hosting companies include:

  • Poor website speed and uptime
    • Uptime should be at least 99 percent and optimally over 99.8 (Although do keep in mind that any hosting company that claims its uptime is 100 percent is most likely stretching the truth as this is virtually impossible due to required software updates)
  • Cheap packages that have excessive fees for upgrades or any cancellation fees.
  • Poor technical and customer support
    • This can be extremely frustrating, especially when members expect to be able to access the site without delay.
    • Consider whether you need 24 hour support or business hours support and be sure there are multiple channels to contact the host (i.e., phone, chat, online support system and/or email)
  • Outdated software and web application
    • Some companies try to save on cost by not using the newest versions of web software. A reputable host will provide free or cost effective upgrade options on a regular basis.

Make sure to check each of these factors before deciding on a website hosting. It is also a great idea to:

  • Ask for and review the “terms of service” as it should address all of the above questions
  • Ask for at least three references from satisfied customers
  • Pick a host that will allow you to do a trial period of at least 30 days to see whether the choice is right for you.
  • Keep a record of all of your logins. This should be provided early in the relationship with your hosting provider.
  • Know whether your website is hosted in Australia or overseas, as this can be an important part of customer service, hosting quality and privacy requirements.

However even with all the right homework, bigger issues can arise if control of the website rests entirely in the hands of the hosting provider. It is not uncommon to have unprofessional website hosting companies who are in total control of the website to:

  • Ignore the maintenance of websites and ignore the need to update.
  • Withhold information or details that you need to gain control of your website such as website domain name and access.
  • Refuse to relinquish control of the site and make hosting decisions without your input.

Financial Trouble & Liquidation:

Another major concern that hosting companies can pose to your website might not have anything to do with unprofessional behavior, but simple financial trouble and liquidation. It is important to keep in mind that if your hosting company is in complete control of your online property, it may be very difficult to get it back if they go into liquidation and can no longer offer customer service. Thus, being able to access your own site is vital to ensuring that you can always move it if things go awry.

So how can you limit the risk of a website host taking complete control of your website?

The most important factor is knowing where your domain is managed and being able to login to make changes.

When your domain name was registered (your domain name is the name under which your website is registered, for example www.google.com) you typically order it through a company who in turn registers it with a domain name registrar. You pay a registration fee to keep your domain (every two years  for .com.au or annually for .com). This is then managed with the details configured using a domain name system (DNS)- which can be managed with your hosting account, with the domain register or via a third party DNS service. While website hosting is the space where your files are stored, the DNS service tells the internet where your website is hosted and where to send emails sent to your domain

Knowing the domain name registrar and DNS login credentials is vital to maintaining your website. Someone who has access to your domain and the DNS information essentially controls the website.

It means that if something goes wrong and you wish to move your site from one website host to another you can log into these services and update  the details as well as change the login credentials. This ensures you are always in control of your domain, can change providers and take full control of your site.

Most associations store this information with their website hosting company. However, having a copy of these details, and ensuring that incoming board members and executives understand the importance of having access to it is extremely important to maintaining your website security and independence.

Domain Name

We can now see just how important the domain name is to your website, which brings us to two other ways that you can lose control of your association’s online presence:

  1. Letting someone else register the domain name:

Allowing someone else to register the domain under their name such as a web agency or president, CEO, Board member, or admin staff means that that URL is owned by them. For associations and not-for-profit organisations that often see changes in leadership it is best to have the domain name registered in the organisation’s name not an individual. The primary email address listed on the domain name register is the most important contact for control of your domain name.

To find out who your domain name is registered to go here: https://whois.auda.org.au/ or https://www.whois.com/whois/

  1. Not renewing a domain name:

A domain name is not property, but rather rented for a specific period of time. Thus, remembering to renew the domain name is important to maintaining control of your website. There should be a clear procedure in place that reminds the board when a renewal is coming up and contact details with the domain name registration company should always be up to date so that the notification to renew is sent to someone in the leadership position.

It can also be easy to lose track of who your domain name is registered with! So make sure that that is clearly outlined in a document with your other website details.

Checklist to help you stay in control

Maintaining control of your website is vital to your brand and business. Ensuring that each of these factors in place means that you don’t have to rely on the goodwill and professionalism of third parties and can ensure that your website will always remain your own. Look below for an in depth checklist of the types of questions you need to ask yourself about the whether you have the right procedures, systems and providers in place.

QUESTIONS TO ASK:

Third Party Company

1) How long has the company been operating?

2) Who owns the company / major shareholders?

3) How many owners has the company had?

4)  Can we have three clients contacts to seek testimonials from?

5) What code system supports the web program – bespoke or more common such as WordPress / Joomla  – if we need to make changes who can do this and how easily can it be done? – How do you charge for these updates?

Host

1) Where / how is the information hosted?

2) What are the standard support times to fix problems?

3) Will the client have access via cPanel/Plesk and ftp to the backend of the hosting platform

4) Is the server maintained and patched monthly?

5) How often is a backup created and is there a cost to restore information?

Both in regards to Insurances / Security / Privacy

1) How many developers does the company have to support the product if someone leaves?  – What is your ability to scale up?

2) What insurances does the company carry in case of issues?

3) What back-up / security is in place in case of problems

4) Does the company comply with all Privacy regulations – can we see the policy?

5) What happens to the web site if the company folds

6) Do you have disaster recovery plan to address the above concerns?  If so, can we please have a copy

Summary of Key Points

THINGS TO NOTE:

The functioning of the website is provided by 3 main areas:

1) The domain name and DNS, this is the registration of the domain name and the list of records that points to the services attached to that domain name.

2) The hosting. This is the physical server infrastructure that the website runs on.

3) The Website Code/Platform. This is the part that we all see when we access a website, the pages, the buttons, the pictures. This is the software application that makes it work, the best example here is WordPress.

Domain Name and DNS

  • Keep this separate from the Web-Developer and Host, preferably maintained by the association.

 Hosting

  • Where possible, ensure there is central access to your hosting and provide access to the platform to developers when & where required.
  • Confirm that you have access via FTP (File Transfer Protocol) to the backend of the hosting platform, or preferable to the complete hosting platform to ensure you can retrieve the website files if you need to move it.

Code/Platform

  • Use a common open source programs to make it easier to change your development partner if required (Joomla, WordPress) and not locked into a specific developer. If you want to change developers then you can fairly easily and the more common platforms are more likely to have better support.
  • Maintenance needs to be done at this level, patching the application for security holes.

Backup/Security/Maintenance

  • Backups of the website can be done either at the hosting or application level
  • The platform should be maintained and patched monthly for security reasons.