Retain Control of your Website
Your job as a business owner is to ensure that you have a duplicate set of keys to your online kingdom.
By Greg Raven
It seems as though no business can be considered even halfway serious if it doesn’t have a good-looking and informative website. If you are a typical shop owner, though, your tennis skills probably far exceed your skills at designing and/or coding a website.
Enter the web expert, who might be a friend, relative or hired hand, who deals with all the arcane “administrivia” of registering a domain name, acquiring space on a server, enabling email for your domain, designing the site, turning the design into pages, transferring the files to the server, making certain that search engines find your pages, fixing things that break, and updating things that change. For the truly computer challenged, this expert might even help with the set-up of your personal computer, so you can see your own website, and send and receive email.
Whether your expert is doing all this for free or you are paying him a small fortune, the bottom line is that even though your business has a website, someone else has all the keys to your online kingdom.
Your job as a business owner is to ensure that you have a duplicate set of those keys.
Over the years, I’ve been called on to work on dozens of websites where the person who originally put everything together has vanished for whatever reason, and the owner of the company has no idea about the complexities of his own website. I’ve had cases where the owner didn’t know how to renew the registration of his domain name; what passwords he needed for dealing with the registrar, web hosting provider, or Internet Service Provider (ISP); how and when to make the necessary payments to keep everything going; or where to find source and backup files for his website.
I’m not saying that you now have to train yourself to replace your web expert, but — no matter how much you trust him — there is information about your site that you must have, to safeguard your online presence.
Know Your Registrar
The first step is to learn where your domain name is registered. Registrars are companies such as Network Solutions, GoDaddy, Register.com and NameCheap.com. They record the vital information that links you as a person to your website. To find out the current registration information, you can look up your domain name at whois.net. Although contact information is sometimes encrypted, you can at least find the registrar, and contact it directly to learn the registration details.
In order to change or update this information, however, you will need to have the account name, password, and email address that was used when your domain name was registered. If you don’t have this information, contact the registrar and explain the situation. There’s usually some way for the legitimate site owner to regain access to the domain account. However, if you wait until the week before your domain registration expires, there’s a good chance you will not have enough time to update your account before your registration lapses. Once your registration lapses, you may have to pay hundreds of dollars to get your own domain name back, on top of normal registration fees.
Once you are in control of your domain name, have yourself added as a contact person (along with your e-mail address), so you are never out of the loop.
Know Your Host
With the details about your domain name nailed down, it’s time to figure out who is “hosting” your files. It may be that your registrar is also hosting your website. If your host is separate from your registrar, you will need all the information they require for allowing you to access your account. Again, ask them to add you as a contact for this account.
In addition to knowing how to gain access to your account information, for most day-to-day website work, you’ll need to know the FTP (File Transfer Protocol) address for transferring files to your website. In most cases, this takes the form of ftp.yoursite.com with your account password to open a connection. Sometimes, though the FTP server name bears no relation to your account name. Without FTP access, you won’t be able to make changes to your website.
Know Your Email Provider
The simplest set-up is when your registrar forwards all your domain email to your personal email account, or your host provides email accounts in addition to web-hosting. In the latter case, your domain account name and password will usually be enough to allow you to retrieve email and make changes to the set-up (such as adding new email addresses, setting a vacation message, etc.).
If you have a separate email provider, make certain that you know not only how to set up your email software to get your messages, but also where to administer all email settings for your domain.
Know Your Code
There are more ways to build a website than you can imagine, and some are clearly better than others. The worst situation is where each page is hand-coded, as this makes site-wide changes and updates extremely difficult.
If your expert has created your website in such a way that there are “global” files for repetitive aspects of your website design, you need to be able to lay your hands on those files (or copies, at the very least), so that if worst comes to worst, you don’t have to reverse-engineer your site to find out how it was coded. For that matter, you should also find out if there is any special software used in the creation or maintenance of your site. This knowledge will help you narrow your search for a replacement expert, should that need arise.
You also need to know if there are any copyright issues governing the code, images, or other aspects of your site. You may think you’re the copyright holder because it’s your site, but this isn’t always the case. Make certain that material that originated with you has your copyright, and that any other copyrighted materials are being used with permission.
If your website is built using a content management system (CMS) — which includes “blog” software — you should have your own user name and password (even if you never use it) so you can sign onto the system. Most CMSs make use of a database called MySQL, which requires its own user name and password, so you’ll need those, too.
Finally, if your site is backed up to an outside system (such as Rsync.net for Unix/Linux systems, Mozy.com for Mac systems, or Carbonite.com for Windows systems), you’ll need the contact information for the back-up provider and, ideally, a short primer on how to restore your main system if your web host experiences a major catastrophe. If your back-up system allows it, it’s a good idea to have the back-up software email you a report each time it runs a backup. This shows you that the system is working, even if you don’t understand all the ins and outs, and you get to see what changes are being made to the site on a day-to-day basis.
Know Where Your Wallet Is
If you have an online store, the code that runs that store may be part of your hosting agreement. If not, you will need all the account information so you can make changes to the items you’re selling. Again, try to get yourself added as a contact person.
If your store is “secure,” meaning that information sent to your site (such as credit card numbers) is protected from poachers, you may also need the details on the SSL (Secure Socket Layer) certificate that establishes and guarantees that security. You can check the current status of your SSL certificate at Digicert.
If you accept advertising (such as Google AdSense), you’ll need to have a user name and password with administrative access to ensure that payments are sent to you. If you are using Google for Adsense, Adwords, Sitemaps, email, site search, widgets, or any of its products, the best approach is to set up one Gmail account that is the master account for all your Google tidbits. That way, with one user name and password, you can cover a lot of the items you’ll need to track in case of emergency. And, because all mail to that Gmail account is archived indefinitely on Google’s email servers, you’ll have access to the whole history of interactions across the range of these items, from just about any computer on the planet.
Know Your Accessories
You’ll also need to find out if you have user forums, bulletin boards, blogs, social networking, and any other “add-on” systems on your site. Some web hosts include these add-ons as part of your hosting package, in which case your main account user name and password will allow you to control them. But if you are using external suppliers (such as Blogger.com or Yahoo! Groups) for any of these features, get your own user name and password with administrative privileges.
Obviously, if you have more than one site, you’ll need to collect the access information for each of them, especially if your sites are scattered across a variety of servers, or you have accounts with Facebook, Flickr, Friendster, GooglePages, Hi5, and/or Myspace (to give just a few examples) as part of your total web presence.
Know Where to Find Answers
You’ve probably heard how difficult it is getting programmers to write documentation. Your website is essentially one big piece of software, though, so if you can get your expert to document what he’s doing and why, you’ll be ahead of the game if you ever need to turn the project over to someone else — especially if that someone else is you. Even if your expert can email you with sporadic progress reports, you can at least collect these reports in one place, for later reference.
If all of this sounds like a lot of work, well, it is. But if your web presence is important to you and your business — and in today’s business climate, it should be — it’s better to put in a little time in preparation against disaster than it is to pay someone $75 an hour or more to sit on the phone for a couple of days trying to coax a password out of your registrar’s customer support personnel, while your website is down due to circumstances beyond your control.
See all articles by Greg Raven
About the Author
Greg Raven is an associate editor for RSI magazine and technical writer. He is certified as a Master Racquet Technician by the U.S. Racquet Stringers Association. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. He plays tennis five days a week, and is turning into an avid cyclist.