Has your website been taken hostage?

What happens when a bad provider takes your site hostage?

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the same story from my clients–they signed a contract with a bad vendor and ended up with a site that they couldn’t update and/or didn’t get the site they expected. In the end they were not able to move the site to a new provider or the process ended up costing them thousands, just to wrangle the site away from the first company. The original provider refused to raise a finger during the migration process or worse actively sabotaged the process. Unfortunately, this is not simply a one-time case, but a business practice where unscrupulous web providers build and host web sites but the knowing clients don’t actually own the sites.

Does this sound familiar?

This is of course nothing new, many businesses employ tactics to retain clients by making it very difficult for them to walk away. Being the owner of a web design, e-commerce and hosting business myself, I can sympathize with the notion, but in the end I like to have the quality and value of my service be the reason my clients stay with me and not coercion.

What can you do to protect yourself?

To protect yourself you need to be diligent about asking lots of questions and getting quotes from a few different vendors. Often the decision to build a new website is made in a rush–some deadline is looming, or the business is anxious not to miss out on seasonal sales/marketing. Regardless, I can’t stress enough the importance of going with a vendor that is reputable, has your best interests in mind and most importantly develops your website in a way that will allow for someone else to continue the development of the site should the client decide to go elsewhere for service.

Making the right decision up front can save thousands for dollars and hundreds of man hours down the road.


Here are some questions you need to ask of a potential vendor before you signing a contract.

  • Is the CMS or e-commerce system proprietary or is it a system that is commonly used by other service providers?
  • Will I be given complete access to the website back-end if request it? (This would include FTP, Control panel and/or Shell access)
  • If not, why?
  • Does the website make use of a common database platform like MySQL, SQLServer or their equivalent?
  • Does the admin system have a built in export function that will allow for easy export of all site data to a CSV, XML or equivalent file?
  • How long is the standard contract for hosting?
  • Will my company have full access to the DNS registration so that the domain can be transferred if needed?

Dangers of going with proprietary software

Proprietary software can be great…for the provider, but rarely great for the client. Proprietary software means that the back-end, (or software/programming) of the website is owned by the website developer. That developer might be modifying that system to meet the needs of the client, but in the end, the developer owns the system. The system can not be legally modified by another developer, and the client is leasing the system from the vendor. This if often not made clear to the client when the contract is signed. If the relationship goes bad, and the client wants to go their separate way, guess what… the client often has to start over from scratch. This can be a nightmare scenario for any business.

If you are a small or medium size business, go with open source software or commercial e-commerce platforms that are NOT owned by the website development firm.

There are plenty of great open source and commercial e-commerce platforms out there that clients can own and then pay a reputable e-commerce development company to develop on their behalf. Keeping the company that develops the website separate from the ownership of the site and software is the best way to protect the client in case the project goes south (or the clients wants to change providers down the road). Also, make sure that you are paying a separate company (not the company developing the website) for the domain registration, so you can re-point the website to a new server if you ever need to move the site.

Finally, to recap, ask the questions I listed above, make sure that you have access to the back end of the site (FTP, Control Panel and/or Secure Shell) even if you don’t intend to use it and/or don’t even know what it means–just make sure that you have it in writing that the developer will provide you with it if requested–and don’t develop the website on software the is owned by the developer.

I would love to hear your comments about this post. Please add your comments and or questions below and I will respond ASAP!

Best,

Matt


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About The Author

Matthew Harris

Matthew began designing and building websites in 1995, and has since grown Harris Web Works (formerly Medium Well) into a full-service online marketing provider. He continuously adds expertise to become proficient in the evolving world of e-commerce, digital marketing, search engine optimization, mobile web, and more. Client work includes large corporate websites to comprehensive, customized services for small-to-medium sized businesses. He has worked as a designer, programmer, marketer and project manager. Matt is on the Board of Directors of Search Engine Marketing New England (SEMNE), and is a partner at Digital Media Sync in New Haven, CT.