I’ve been asked this question repeatedly, when I am talking with local small business owners who have decided that it’s time to update their company website. People say something like, “My website was set up by someone who no longer responds to messages, or is otherwise unavailable.” And they ask me, what can they do in this situation? It’s a complicated question, and no single answer is going to be appropriate for every situation.
How was the website set up? Your response to the “case of the missing web designer” situation will depend on who originally set up your website, and how. Who registered the domain name? Who set up the website hosting account? Who installed WordPress (or the CMS of your choice, if any) on that hosting account?
If you set it up. If the answer to all of the above is you, or if you have currently valid login credentials to the service provider(s) for all of the above, then you’re golden. Even if someone else performed the original web page creation, you already have all the information you require to make ongoing changes to your website. (If the task looks too complicated or time-consuming, give us a call!)
If someone else set it up. Sometimes the website was originally set up by a friend or family member who just doesn’t have time to be involved in the project anymore. Sometimes the website was created by a freelancer; and the freelancer is the only person who has access to the domain name registration, website hosting account, and/or CMS login. And sometimes the old website design service provider is a major corporation; for example, a directory listing service, who registered the domain name on your behalf. In these cases, you will probably need to begin by contacting the person who originally built the website for you.
Not a big deal
Approach the situation with as relaxed an attitude as you can muster. It’s been my experience that most of the time, the other person is just busy, and they may not even realize you have grown impatient with the delay in their reply.
Contact your former designer directly, by phone if you can, or even using multiple channels if you truly have trouble reaching this person. Calmly tell them that if they’re unable or unwilling to make ongoing website changes on your behalf, then you require them to transfer ownership or control of the domain name registration, website hosting account, or CMS installation, to you. Most of the time, this direct approach will get a prompt response.
What you will need
The pieces of information required for total control of your website are the administrative login credentials for your domain name registration, website hosting, and your content management system (such as WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, etc.). The domain name is usually registered with the same company that hosts the website (but not necessarily). Many sites do not use a content management system; and some sites still use the hosting provider’s legacy drag-and-drop page builder, ouch!
Transfer the domain name. As a convenience, most website designers will register your domain name under their own account. This simplifies the process for them, and protects you from a certain category of spam email; so it’s generally beneficial to you. However, the person who controls the DNS settings ultimately controls the website: so if you are now taking over control of the website, you will need to begin by obtaining ownership of the domain name. To transfer ownership of a domain name to you, the seller will need to release the “registrar lock” and obtain an “EPP” (also known as “Domain transfer”) code. You will supply the domain name and that EPP authorization code to your own new domain name registrar. Few of the registrars have streamlined this process; you will probably have to open a support ticket with the domain name registrar of your choice.
Note: If you only paid a low flat rate for the website, and you now want to take control of it, the original designer may ask you to pay some sort of buyout fee, early termination fee, or expensive domain name transfer fee. If this is the case, your options are to a. pay the fee, or b. create a new website at a different domain name. In most cases, paying the fee is probably the simplest course. (If you choose to build a different website instead, be sure to abide by copyright laws and the terms of your legal contract with the original designer.)
Consider moving to a better website host. In most cases, I recommend upgrading your hosting environment. The convenience of staying with your legacy low-cost shared website hosting provider is far outweighed by the performance benefits of a managed VPS. But it’s your business! (Most of the people I talk to seem to prefer the slow web server they know, to the unknown pain of moving their hosting account to a more expensive web host.)
In the event that you have control of the domain name registration but you can’t obtain other administrative access information from the original setup person, then moving to a different web host is your best bet. Establish an account with the new host for your existing domain name. Log into your domain name registrar interface, and point the DNS to the new web host’s nameservers. Your domain name now points to the new server. Note that this change makes the old site inaccessible; so for best results, you will probably want to post something to the new server, before you change the DNS.
What’s really going on here?
This question raises other questions.
You didn’t think I would hack it for you, did you? I’m never really certain what people are hoping I will tell them, when they ask me what I can do for them in circumstances like this. It always makes me wonder if they are secretly hoping I will tell them I can hack my way into the website for them, using illegal techniques to obtain unauthorized access. If so, they must be real disappointed by my answer. Yes, it’s true that if they have full administrative access to the hosting account on the server and they’ve only lost their WordPress login, it’s technically possible to simply insert a new user record directly into the database, and assign the new user full administrative privileges within the CMS. But that is not the answer I give them. And the reason I don’t give them this answer, is because I often find myself wondering, where did the original designer go?
Where did the original designer go?
As a web designer, if someone tells me that their former website designer has disappeared, I always find myself wondering, “why?” There are two sides to every story. Why is it that you are no longer able to obtain services from the original designer? This will depend on your situation. Let’s consider a few common scenarios.
The website was originally set up by a large corporation. I once had a client who found themselves in this position. They signed up for a directory listing service, and the company offered them a super-cheap website as something of a freebie add-on. The client said, “Yeah, sure, why not: we need a website!” without realizing the level of service that would be provided. The so called “web design” service turned out to involve little more than the customization of some stock text content, set up in a template. Change requests had to be submitted to an operator at a call center. The client was never able to speak to the designer directly, and each round of change requests was handled by a different designer; with the result that the client felt there was no consistency, no direction, and nobody listening to them when they tried to explain what they wanted. The client was unhappy with the result, but they were locked into a contract with this directory listing company; and the directory company had registered the client’s domain name, so now it was the domain name owner. The directory company wanted a large buyout fee, if the client wanted to obtain direct control of the existing domain name. The client did not have a lot of options. They continued to make payments on the directory advertising contract that included the website they didn’t want; and, rather than also pay a bunch of money to that same company just to transfer the existing domain name, they simply bought a new domain name, and applied the money towards the development of a better website instead.
The website was originally set up by a friend or family member who no longer has time to work on the project. This is a common lament. Say, for example, maybe your teenage nephew built your company website in his free time while he was in high school; but now he is in college, or out in the world, and your project is not a high priority for him. Or perhaps your brother-in-law built your company website four or five years ago when he was between jobs and thought he might try his hand at being a website designer; but now he has a regular job and never answers your emails when you ask him to help you with website stuff. This is an instance where gentle persistence may eventually pay off. If you’ve already asked for the login information and haven’t received a reply, there’s a good chance that your nephew or brother-in-law hasn’t yet replied because he doesn’t remember what the old credentials are. If he wrote the password down on a scrap of paper and lost it, he may need to go through a password reset with the service provider before transferring access to you. And doing that probably seems like a hassle to him (or her). But you’re still a friend-or-family-member, and the other person wants to maintain a good relationship with you; so be nice, and eventually they will probably find a way to help you out.
The website was originally built by a local design firm that has now gone out of business. Incidentally, the most common reason website design companies go out of business, is because they don’t charge enough money for their services. Your business benefits from sustainable partnerships with reliable vendors; so try to keep this in mind when haggling over price. But none of this helps you solve your problem now.
Legal remedies. Generally, if someone else set up your website and never gave you the access codes, then they own it and you don’t, even if it is a website representing your company. In most cases, I would strongly advise against pursuing litigation to retake control of the website. There is almost certainly a better way to resolve the matter. However, in the limited scenario where you are unable to obtain administrative control from the original company because they have gone out of business, then you should obtain the assistance of a lawyer. You may be able to pursue some sort of bankruptcy-court-related intellectual property claim. However, this gets beyond my area of expertise. I know there’s a mechanism through top-level domain name registrar ICANN that allows brand owners to claim a website property that appears to reference their brand; but this mechanism is intended for use by multinationals to foil counterfeiting websites: it’s unlikely you will be able to successfully invoke this rule under the present circumstances.
The website was originally set up by a low-cost freelancer or local design firm. Let’s face it: People who paid a lot of money for their websites never ask why they can’t get ahold of their designer anymore. If you find yourself asking what to do because you cannot contact your web designer, then your website was, by definition, built on a budget. There’s no shame in that! There are tens of millions of websites on the Internet, and only a small fraction of them cost more than a couple thousand dollars to build. (Of course, of those more expensive sites, development costs can run into the tens of millions of dollars or more; but that’s a topic for a different post.)
I think freelancers get a bad rap. They do a lot of work for not very much money. Because web design looks easy from the outside, new freelancers are constantly entering the field, willing to undercut the competition on price if it will land them their first paid project. Often these newcomers don’t recognize all that’s required during the course of a project of this type; and frequently these newcomers don’t yet have the skills to manage client expectations and rein in a project that’s suffering from scope creep. Heck, many of us who have been in the business for years are still working on perfecting these project management skills. So if you hire a freelancer, you should expect that part of the reason they are working for so cheap, is because they are still developing these skills. For example, they may not recognize that the project they just agreed to take on will take them 50 hours to complete. They might think they can finish the project in a tenth of that time. And discovering that discrepancy may lead to missed deadlines and blown budgets: two of the leading sources of friction between business owners and freelancers.
So when people start bad-mouthing their former freelance designer, I try to gently move the conversation on to a new topic. You may feel like you paid them a lot; but they probably feel like they did a lot more work on your project than they originally expected to do, and your last payment was a very long time ago. No machine will run forever on a single fueling. If you want it to keep going, you have to put more in. The same is true of your freelancer. Build strong and sustainable partnerships with the people in your networks and communities by resolving any outstanding accounts.
Mardesco: the trusted solutions provider
Are you unable to get a response from your former website designer? You may be ready to upgrade to a more professional service. Ask Mardesco to manage your website upgrade project.
At Mardesco, we are a trusted solutions provider, building websites since 2003 and serving the Salem area since 2012. We are a team, with the experience and the expertise to manage your project effectively and deliver the appropriate technology solution on time and on budget. View our portfolio to start dreaming about what we can do for you.