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Let me tell you a story about Joe.

This gentleman owns several Web sites for his vacation-rentals business. Joe was unhappy with his Web designer – we’ll call him Andy.

Andy went out of town a lot, leaving Joe unable to change some parts of his Web sites. Andy had built a simple – crude – content-management system that allowed Joe to make some changes, but much of the sites’ content was out of his control. (Quick tip: Many content-management systems are a waste of money. You’re often better off spending $150 for Macromedia Contribute, but that’s the subject of another column.)

Andy was also rather obstinate. If Joe asked Andy to do something, Andy would only do it if he liked the idea. If he didn’t, he would virtually refuse to do the work. I understand and respect a service provider willing to tell a client when the client is wrong, but in some cases Andy was refusing to do really useful things – things that would help the sites convert visitors to renters more readily.

Andy was arrogant, and he didn’t like being told what to do. “If I ask Andy to talk to you and you explain what needs to be done to the site, Andy will listen politely for an hour then call and tell me what a jerk you are,” Joe told me. Andy told Joe that he had already “search optimized” Joe’s sites – he hadn’t.

There’s a good chance that Andy hadn’t optimized the Web sites because he didn’t know what to do. (Another quick tip: If your designer tells you he’ll handle the search-engine aspects of your site – he probably won’t.) There was another issue. Joe suspected that Andy was working for a direct competitor of Joe’s. Joe was pretty sure that Andy was managing the Web site of another vacation-rental owner, and that Andy had a closer relationship with this other business than he did with Joe. Thus, Andy might be holding Joe’s sites back. He might not want them to rank better in the search engines than his other client’s site.

It was a very unpleasant relationship, and it had to end.

I suggested that Joe take control of his sites and find someone to manage them. Someone who would work with Joe, rather than fight with him.

Joe had two problems. First, he had to move the four Web sites, and he didn’t have full access to the sites. If your designer gets hit by the proverbial bus, do you have the access information that would allow you to take the Web site and put it on another server somewhere? You should.

Joe didn’t have this information, but fortunately he was able to persuade Andy to let him into the sites, and I found someone to copy the sites and load them onto another server. But Joe had another problem. He didn’t really “own” his four domain names.

You provide several contacts when you register a domain name: the registrant, technical contact, administrative contact and the billing contact. Ideally all of these should be in your name, not the Web designer’s. There’s also an ID and password that allows you access to your domain account at the registrar. It’s essential that nobody has this login information if you don’t trust them 100 percent.

If you’re not listed as the registrant, you don’t own the domain name. If someone else’s information is listed as one of the contacts, they may be able to manipulate the domain in some way. If someone else can login to the account, they can take the domain from you – even if you are the registrant.

If you don’t have the login information, you don’t control the domain name. If your designer dies or disappears, it will be very hard to take control of that domain name.

Joe was lucky.

Using the, “What happens if you get hit by a bus?” argument, he was able to persuade Andy to give him the login information and took full control of his domain names. Other business owners are not so lucky. I know one woman being “held hostage” by her Web designer, who refuses to give her the domain name. The designer is forcing this woman to continue paying exorbitant sums for lousy service.

So, Mr. or Ms. Business Owner, who controls your domain name?

Peter Kent is an e-commerce consultant in Denver. He can be reached at www.PeterKentConsulting.com or GeekNews@PeterKentConsulting.com.