Are you being held hostage by your web developer?

Handcuff We just guided a new (pro bono) client through an absolute nightmare.  They were being held hostage by their web developer/IT provider.  I wouldn't wish what they went through on my worst enemy so here are some warning signs and tips.

Who registers/owns the domain name?  Whoever controls your domain name, controls your site.  Be sure the domain is registered in your name.  You want to own your own domain.

Is it built so you can update your own content?  With all the software solutions out there, there's no reason in the world (unless you have more money than time) to pay a web developer to update your content, once your site is complete.  That doesn't mean you have to. Many businesses choose to retain their web developer to modify content.  The question is — could you if you wanted to?

Is the site built on proprietary software?  If you count on your site and get sideways with your web developer, what happens?  Could you move your site?  How about your databases?  Could you do it even if the web developer shut you out?

Software and technology has completely changed the way websites and blogs are built. In the olden days (late 80s and early 90's) no one but the web gurus understood coding and the like.

But the world has changed and now you can control your own destiny.

The good news — most web developers are completely above board and honest.  The problem is that the people hiring web developers that glaze over as soon as they hear HTML or WYSIWYG are the ones who are least equipped to pick out the good guys from the bad.

So let's help them out.  Come on – add to my list.  What else should neophytes know or watch out for when looking for some help with a web presence?

Related posts:

Questions to ask BEFORE you hire a web developer

It's not art, it's a website

What's the matter with you people?  You're supposed to be marketers!

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18 comments on “Are you being held hostage by your web developer?

  1. Patrick says:

    One of the services my business offers is web development in addition to print design services as well as portable media. while I admit we often register the domains for the customers as a matter of management but not control. If I customer wants full control over their domain account we will gladly hand it over as soon as we can. We have however had instances where the customer controled the domain apart from us and they forgot to renew it. It’s our job to make sure those things are kept up and paid on time as well as other technical issues.

    We currently built all our sites with a content management backend however more often than not we still get paid to update the content of sites despite giving the customers a way to update their site. A lot of them “just don’t have the time” despite the fact updating basic content on a web site is not much different from accessing web mail and using that.

    We are totally committed to using open source solutions as well using a hosting service where we at least have a “virtual private server” in other words we are able to get to a “root” level, install in software packages, databases, etc. Another thing we offer is dedicated I.P. addresses because of recent issues with shared I.P. addresses and others under the same I.P. getting their I.P. blacklisted by spam-blocking services.

    Finally I would list to suggest to anyone looking for a web developer to look for a company committed to both Design and Development. Some companies do a really good job of creating a great looking or flashy site but it has limited backend functionality. A lot of people are tempted to go with a service because of the “look” they can provide. The most important aspect of “design” is usability across platforms and devices.

    Look for a company who is committed to good programming practices that can accommodate future changes and security concerns. We are big believers in giving in giving our clients RSS functionality so their message can go to their customer/reader base instead of making them go to their site manually ever time.

  2. Char says:

    Drew – excellent reminders for all! I have been designing, developing and maintaining websites for 11 years and have helped more than one client out of this same situation.

    The one thing I will NOT do for any client is register their domain name. I will gladly help them, but I want to be sure the domain is in their name.

    You should always get the FTP information, user name, password and hosting information in writing. Put it away somewhere safe.

    I also provide clients with a CD back up of their site at least once a year or more frequently if they want one.

  3. Drew, A very timely message. I’m actually helping a friend redo her website, and her former hosting company is trying to hold onto her. When she called to talk to them about switching, they told her that she was getting over 250 spam messages a day. Interestingly, this has NEVER come up before!

    She has a very small business and a small footprint on the web, so the only way she’s getting all this spam is because her current website is plastered with her email address. But her company never told her this before, or advised her about how to prevent spam–despite the fact that her spam is incredibly high for what she does on the web–they happily let her get deeper and deeper into spam-hell.

    And now that she wants to switch, they’re trying to frighten her into staying. Very frustrating!

  4. Make sure you have someone in-house who can update, manage, and add content to the site. There’s nothing worse than having to rely on external sources for something you could easily do yourself.

    Get educated on how to edit your site while you’re still working with the developer. It’s a lot easier to write from the heart when you can do it yourself. In turn, customers will notice the passion and authenticity when the writing comes from people within the organization.

  5. Patrick,

    I think you used the key word early in your comment. “Choose.” You let your clients choose. So, if they want to register their own domain name, they can. If they want to edit their own content — they can.

    That’s what sets you a part from the web developers who are holding their clients hostage. Choice.

    I also wholeheartedly agree with you on find a developer who doesn’t just do pretty sites. Make sure the back end of the site is actually going to do what you need it to do.


  6. Char,

    And yet — you are able to still function and build their site. Amazing.

    And I bet you keep most of your clients. Trust is a very valuable element of client retention. And you obviously do all you can to earn that trust.


  7. Katie,

    What we have found is this: Separating a client from an unscrupulous web developer is like pulling off a bandage. You just grit your teeth and pull it off. There is no easy or better way.

    Short term pain for a much longer term gain.


  8. Ryan,

    I think one of the keys is educating yourself enough so that you aren’t at risk of being lied to. Even if you decide you have more money than time and want the web developer to do the work — you need to understand the basics.

    And you need to protect yourself before the relationship goes sour.


  9. For a couple of non-profits, I’ve built sites using hosted (free) WordPress blogging software (some of the templates are nicely set up to create pages/tabs that resemble regular websites). Tied into those sites are Google calendars (free), and storage of files at (free). I’m not a programmer, but with these kind of tools, as long as the web presence is not too extensive as far as information and use of forms, it’s do-able. And, of course, maintenance is a breeze – no need for a programmer, just train the user on how to use the free tools for administration.

  10. sherry Borzo says:

    Great post Drew. I don’t think enough can be said on this topic so thank you for stating some key points people should keep in mind.

    As an auditory learner here would be things I would add.

    1) Ask around… a lot. I almost went with someone who was very nice and very helpful but in the end she realized her work and time might not be a good fit for me. She referred me to Mike Sansone and Sandra Renshaw. I consider that to be entrepreneurial divine intervention. With the right tool and their help, another star is born. Ask around…A LOT!!!

    2) Force yourself to be empowered and learn in little increments. Don’t get overwhelmed by what you don’t know and what you can’t do. Make a point of knowing more about technology and specifically about the tools you’re using each and every day. Just in little bits. You’ll get there. Editing your own site or having someone in house should be a goal for sure.

    3) What is their training like for their customers. Go with someone who is always working to educate their customers.

    Thanks again Drew. Good information.

  11. Drew, I agree. Dragging this out will only make it worse, so it’s better to get everything over as quickly as possible.

  12. ian says:

    I’ve helped a lot of clients through this, too. The problem, in many cases, is they’re afraid to be forceful. That’s usually caused by lack of knowledge.

    Avoid this kind of situation first by checking the reputation of the firm you’re using. The low bidder MIGHT be fine, or they might not. Ask:

    1. How long have they been in business?
    2. Who are some of their other clients?
    3. How do they deal with customer service issues?
    4. What kind of training/information will they provide when the site launches?
    5. Can you select the hosting provider, with their help?

    Make sure that you get a single email or sheet of paper with passwords, FTP information, etc.. Even if it’s gibberish to you, it will be useful to the next web developer you hire if and when you do.

    Also, if a web developer holds your domain hostage, tell them you’re going to contact ICANN. Don’t go to court. ICANN will hear your claim for less than $2k and, if your domain includes your trademark or some other proprietary info, get you the domain back.

  13. Loren Nason says:

    Here is another thing any business owner should have a record of.

    If the said business owner outsources his tech support of the servers and workstations in his office, he should know everything about his network.

    In other words the vendor should supply a notebook of all critial passwords for everything about the network. I am a small shop (3 people) and when we build out a new network we supply all relevant info about their network.

    I have jumped into so many projects where I am cleaning up someone else’s mess. What a hassle.


  14. Debra Murphy says:


    Great post about a topic that needs more attention.

    I always advise folks to make sure that whoever they select to develop their site or blog understands that it’s a marketing tool and should be an element of their marketing plan, not a standalone project. I just got a call from a company (referred to me by a client) to help them understand why their web site wasn’t coming up in the search engines. I took a look at the site and source code and it was very obvious that the site was not designed or developed with search engine marketing in mind (even though they told the client that SEO was part of the project). Now they have a nice site, but it will never place well in the search engine results without an extensive update.

    Had they worked with a marketing person to develop a plan for the site first, understanding the marketing goals for the site, target audience, and how they would drive visitors to the site, they may have prevented the situation they are in now. So many businesses view their site or blog in a vacuum and not as part of the big marketing picture. Thanks for bringing attention to this important topic.

  15. These are all excellent comments. I’m going to do a new post…and pull some of your suggestions up into to post, in case someone doesn’t dive into all of these comments.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your expertise and tough lessons learned!


  16. Scott says:

    A great post and very thought provoking. Seems to me it’s not so much a matter of trusting someone as much as it is about protecting your Web designer and you at the same time.

  17. Scott,

    Much of it is about setting expectations, that’s for sure. But I think the underlying message here is don’t let your ignorance put you in a bad spot. Ask a lot of questions, and do not give away your control.


  18. Sabrina says:

    What should a company do if they are being held hostage by their hosting service? When we tried to change to a new hosting service our current provider told us they would not release our information until we paid them some money. We don’t even owe them any. Where do you go when your host is holding you hostage?

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