Do you own your website?

It’s a simple question, right? “Of course, I own my website,” you might say. But do you?

Too many business owners decide to go with seemingly smart choices to get a less-expensive website (I almost said CHEAP!) that relies on monthly payments and the use of a propriety platform (read – owned by someone else).  Usually the offer is that you get a “free website” for low monthly payments.

My question is, “Would you build your house – or have contractors build your house – on land that you rented and did not own outright?  Most people would say, “NO!” What happens when the landowner wants to sell the land or build something of their own on the land? You would be out of luck!

So it goes with owning your website.

Specifically watch out for the contracts and fine print in agreements when you are hiring a website or marketing agency to help you. This goes as well for DIY platforms like Wix, Weebly, Squarespace, and the like. You may not realize what is wrong until you try to move your website to another platform or to another agency when you are seeking more results from your website. 

The fine print traps you and you are unable to access your own files to export them!  If you ask to terminate the agreement you might be charged a hefty fee or left with nothing in your hands when you stop paying the monthly fees.  You risk having no way to recover your files, images, and all the data and analytics you’ve been collecting. Even worse, you lose your SEO traction and page authority.

Caught by the fine print you learn that you never really owned your website anyway.

How can I own my website?

OK, here’s the confession. You can’t really own your website the way you could own your house when the mortgage is paid. There are several components that comprise a website and they all are kept on your hosting plan.

Let’s break this down piece by piece.

First, Your Domain Name

A domain name is registered for exclusive rights to use it.  Many host companies – like Go Daddy or Siteground – register domains as well as sell hosting plans (more on those in a minute.) We purchase the rights to use a URL or domain address by the year. You can register it with the annual fee or pay for 5 years at a time, if you wish (and that’s recommended, too!)  But, it is VERY important that you, the business owner, register the URL or domain in your name. You should control this valuable piece of property – no one else!

Next, Your Hosting Plan

All the website files and structure need to be stored securely on a server somewhere so that your website domain points to all those beautiful design files, etc.   Your website is hosted on this server and you pay for that space as well as the security and performance of the servers by signing up for a hosting plan.

Some agencies say they host your website themselves, but actually they either renting space from big host servers or they are re-selling the hosting plans on Go Daddy, Blue Host, Siteground or whatever hosting company they choose. In these cases, you do not actually own your hosting plan and you do not have control of it.  It may seem easier for you, but there is a risk. If you want to part ways from the marketing company, or if something happens to them, you risk losing your website and all those assets you’ve accumulated.

This is the reason why I do not re-sell hosting and I insist that my clients sign up and pay directly for their own hosting plans. I assist of course, by it is not my company’s name on the contract.

Then there are the website files and design – do you own them?

Legally, copyright law states that the creator of the website’s design and content automatically becomes the legal owner of said assets. You own the text and photos you give them (if any).  Upon completion of your website design, you are given a license to use it—or as we do, we specify that all website assets revert to the client’s ownership. If your contract does not specify who owns the created website, you could be in trouble.

More than you may want to know…

The HTML, CSS, and JavaScript used on your site – Websites use similar scripts and open source code, so you don’t own those, but you should retain control over your website’s specific CSS, HTML, and JavaScript files.

The source code –Many foundational elements of a website’s source code are open building blocks for most websites, making it almost impossible to guarantee 100% ownership. At the minimum, however, you should be given exclusive rights to your custom programming and any files associated with your code.

The CMS system – A content management system (CMS) is something like WordPress, which is actually an open source code developed and managed by the WordPress community.  You can’t own that, but you should ask which CMS your developer is using and make sure that it can be easily transferred.

If you are not sure who owns your website now, here’s what you do

Go to this WHOIS website and type in your domain name.

You should see one of three entries:

  • You, your business, or someone at your business is listed as the registrant contact – This means you own your domain name.
  • The registrant contact is listed as private – This means it could be you or someone else, but the contact information is private. You may need to contact the domain registrar and your current or past website team.

The registrant contact is listed as your website designer, marketing agency, or someone else – This means you need to call whoever is listed ASAP and find out why.