How to Get Your Website Back from a Previous Developer
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When creating a website, some developers will purchase the domain and host the site as part of their services with their client. Over the years, we’ve noticed that this can cause issues when a client chooses to move on from that developer. I’ll explain how the process works and then what to do to regain control of your website when you choose to move on.
First, let’s start with some very basic info that you may already know, but many small business owners might not be aware of.
Most everyone these days does know that a domain name is your website address. Sometimes the place you purchase a domain name from (the registrar) is the same as the web hosting company, but often times they’re separate. I’ve had many clients lose track of this information over time or forget if they were originally the ones who purchased it. One of the key things I always tell small business owners, is that their domain name should be under their name. If they purchase it, it often is. However, if they don’t, sometimes it’s the web developers who purchase names on behalf of their clients. This can create a potentially sticky situation if you end up wanting to end the relationship with that company in the future. This is why I personally always insist that our clients own their own domain names.
Web hosting is essentially the space you “rent” on the internet to put all the files that make up your website. I often explain it metaphorically that web hosting is like your plot of land that you rent to put your “home” (aka website) on. Some web development companies will offer hosting along with their services. Many times, what they’re doing is acting as resellers for a larger company. This simply means that they’re paying monthly for web server space to that larger company and they’re setting up websites on that space. They in turn charge their clients a monthly fee just like the larger web hosting company does. This can also sometimes present problems when a small business owner chooses to work with someone else because all of their website files reside on the server that they might not have access to.
As I mentioned above, your website files are all residing on a web server (the web hosting). Depending on how your website was programmed, there may be many different files types and even a database. There also may be original design files, stock photography, illustration or other files that you’ll probably want to take with you when you move on from your current web developer.
When you’re ready to move on …
Whatever the reason, you might be ready to move on from the company who originally developed your site. This 4 step checklist should help uncover how difficult the process for moving on might be.
- Step 1: Review any agreements you had with the web development company. You’ll want to review whether you’re in an active agreement or not (and if so, what the terms of ending that agreement are).
- Step 2: If you did not purchase your domain name yourself or can’t remember whether it was you or the web development company, you can try going to https://whois.domaintools.com/, then type in your domain name. If there is no special privacy settings on your domain name, it should show the owner. If you do control the domain name, you will still need to obtain login access for it with the company you purchased it from. Usually, a quick phone call to that company can sort this out. If it was the web development company who purchased your domain, you’ll need to request that they transfer the domain to you so that it is in your name. This can be a technical process so it would be super helpful if you have a new company you would like to work with help you through this process. It involves having the company who owns the domain unlock it and initiate a transfer to the new domain registrar company (ex: Cloudflare), then approving the transfer and setting it up with the new registrar.
- Step 3: If you have to contact the web development company for Step 2, then it’s likely they would also have information about your web hosting (if you did not set that up on your own).
You may need to ask them if they are hosting your site or if someone else is. If they are hosting it, ask what the procedure is when you terminate an agreement with them and how you can obtain all of your website files and Database (if applicable). Again, if you’ve lined another company up, they could step in and help to handle the technical transfer here.
- Step 4: Request any files the developer might have for your website, including any design files. Some web developers will freely do this, and some may charge a fee for original design files. This could be an item to look for in the original agreement you signed with them (specifically, check if it was a “work for hire”, meaning you own the rights to the original work they did for you). Special note on stock photography: If stock photography is part of your original design or website, find out if the rights to those images are transferable to you or if they remain with the original web developer. This is an important step because using stock images that you do not have the rights for could result in hefty fines from stock companies such as Getty Images.
Next steps …
It’s a good idea to know where your website is going before you terminate an agreement with your existing web development company. If you’re in need of some help on how to find a new web design company to work for, grab our 20 Questions to Ask a Web Developer. The new company should be able to help you navigate some of the more technical procedures in the 4 steps above. This is also important if you want to avoid downtime of your website.
If you’re truly dealing with a more unscrupulous web developer who is unwilling to release your domain name or your files, you may have to start over if there is nothing in the agreement you signed with them to protect you (sadly, I have seen this happen). Many small business owners do not have the means or time to go through an extended legal battle, but that could be a last resort (happily, I’ve not seen this). It’s always best to try to come to an agreement with the previous web developer.
Don’t beat yourself up. I’ve talked to many small business owners who come down on themselves for not knowing the more technical aspects of their websites (domains, hosting, etc.) or when they feel like they have been taken advantage of. Remember, you’re the expert of your business, but you just may not know all the technical aspects involved with websites. This is why you hired someone else after all. Business relationships don’t always work out (or work out for the long term) and it’s perfectly okay to want to move on for many reasons. Sadly, some web development companies make that difficult, while for many others, it’s an easy and professional process.
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