Do you rent or own?
When you hear this question, what’s the first thing you think of? If you’re like most people, it’s likely either real estate or a vehicle. But did you know that it could actually be referring to your website?
That’s right; just because your domain is yourcompanyname.com and the site features your branding, content, products and services, it doesn’t mean you have complete ownership of it. Certain aspects of websites can never be owned permanently. Ownership of other aspects depends on the platform on which the website was built, as well as the contract between your business and your website design company if you didn’t build the site yourself.
If your website is built with open source technology, like WordPress, Drupal, Magento, Joomla, Microweber and OpenCms, you can stake more of an ownership claim. However, if it’s built using proprietary technology, like Wix, Squarespace, Shopify, Weebly, GoDaddy and Zyro, you’re essentially renting it.
At Adventure Marketing Solutions, we’ve built, updated and managed websites for numerous clients over the years. Something that’s apparent is that many businesses have minimal knowledge of the technical aspects of their sites and the ownership details of their site properties. It’s understandable. There’s a reason they turned to a marketing agency or web design company for help.
The problem that sometimes is discovered when a business switches website vendors is that the lack of website ownership can delay work on a project, if not change its scope entirely. In some cases, the only option is to start over and rebuild a site from scratch, even if the original preference was to update the existing site. This, of course, extends the project timeline and increases costs.
For these reasons, we wanted to highlight the importance of owning your website. In this article, we’ll discuss the parts of your website you should own and the parts you should have control of (even if you can’t own them). We’ll also touch on open source vs. proprietary technology and explain its impact on website ownership. Finally, we’ll explain how you can determine who actually owns your website if you’re not sure and discuss your options if you discover that it’s not you.
Website Aspects You Should Own
A quick disclaimer before we get too far into it: Website ownership isn’t the same as car ownership or home ownership. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. With a car or a house, once it’s paid off, you own it in full — every piece and part that comprises it. However, you can’t claim ownership of every component of your website.
For example, the existence of your website is dependent on a host like GoDaddy and connection to the internet. You don’t own GoDaddy or the internet, yet you need them for your website to exist. If either of those things goes down, so does your site.
With that said, here are the elements of your website you can own:
- Content – You own the original copy and photos used on your site. Even if you hire your designer/agency to create content for you, it’s reasonable to expect that they will transfer ownership to your company once the project is completed. If it’s not included in your contract, get it added before signing it.
- Design – See the content bullet point above. The same logic applies here.
- Domain – This is a bit of a gray area in that it comes with a contingency. That is, you own your domain as long as you continue to pay your hosting provider for it. So, in a sense, you are renting it, but you can consider your domain owned if the bill has been paid for that term. If you are using a designer or agency, just make sure the domain is purchased under your company and not theirs. Unfortunately, some developers own the domain unbeknownst to their customer until the day the customer decides to cut ties. At that time, if the developer refuses to transfer ownership of the domain, the now-former customer will have no choice but to get a new domain, which is a terrible situation to be in. Not only do people know the current domain and that familiarity will be lost, but all sales and marketing collateral will also need to be updated with the new URL.
Website Aspects You Should Control
There are certain aspects of your website that you can’t claim ownership of but can expect to have control of… to a degree (we’ll explain below). They include:
- Source code – While you can’t own the foundational elements of source code that are open building blocks for most websites, you can expect to at least have control of files and custom programming associated with your site’s code.
Content Management System (CMS) – It’s perfectly reasonable to want to have a say in which CMS is used for your site in order to have future flexibility. The amount of freedom you have to customize your website depends on the CMS used to create it. It’s important to know that you will have more flexibility with certain CMS types than others. For example, with WordPress being an open source CMS, you can change how it works (edit the source code) to make it function ideally for your situation. However, the WordPress plug-in Elementor, which is also open source, cannot have its source code edited. So, you wouldn’t have total control over the CMS in that case. And with a proprietary CMS provider, you don’t have the freedom to edit the source code to change how the CMS works. You’ve got to use what is provided.
Open Source vs. Proprietary Technology
Websites are built using either open source or proprietary technology. As you’ll gather from the comparison below, the option that is used impacts the level of ownership and control of the site.
Open Source Technology
- Free for anyone. You just need to pay for hosting or to set up your server
- Community-maintained updates
- Code can be used and modified as needed
- Troubleshooting via community forums and documentation. Hiring a developer for help is another option
- Total control: You can change the code, own the system and control who has access to it
- Customization: It’s flexible. You can customize as much or as little as you choose
- It’s free: The only costs are for hosting and the personnel needed to build and maintain it
- Requires a purchased license to use
- Regular updates from software companies
- Code likely can’t be modified, and users and transactions may be limited
- Troubleshooting via software company support teams
- Turnkey: Easy to use because of established templates/building blocks
- Professional support: Quality support from a dedicated, professionally trained team
- All-inclusive: Hosting and everything else needed is included in the price (except perhaps domain registration)
How to Determine Website Ownership
After reading this, are you now wondering about the ownership of your website, perhaps questioning whether it’s actually owned by you or your designer/agency? There are a few things you can do to check and also get an idea of the technical details of the site if you’re not familiar with them.
You can start by utilizing a domain lookup tool like the one from GoDaddy. Submit your domain and see who is listed as the registrant contact. If it’s your designer/agency and not you, it could be a sign that you don’t own the rights to your domain. This is something you’ll want to address as soon as possible.
If your current website launched before you joined your organization or if you weren’t involved with the website-building process, it can also be helpful to get an idea of its technical makeup. A website analysis tool like BuiltWith can show you what your CMS is, which widgets are being used, which analytics and tracking tools are being used, etc. So, for example, if you discover that your CMS is from an open source provider like WordPress, you’ll know that it’s potentially a better situation with regard to owning your website than if it’s a proprietary provider like Wix.
You can also get all the fine details, including those related to ownership, by reading the terms and conditions of the contract (or having your lawyer do it). Certain buzzwords or phrases can signal that owning your website either won’t be possible at all or, in the best case, can only happen with limitations after a waiting period and/or jumping through hoops. These terms can include:
- Propriety platform
- Proprietary technology
- Ownership condition date
- Lease to own
- Low monthly price
- Start for free
What Happens if You Don’t Own Your Website?
Not owning your website certainly isn’t ideal. However, if you don’t, it’s not the end of the world.
If your site is open source but owned by your designer/agency, you can see if they’re willing to rework your agreement to give you ownership. If they’re not or if your site comes from a proprietary source, you have options when you’re ready to find a new provider.
One is to have another designer or agency rebuild your site using the content and whatever other assets you do own. The other is to start over and have a completely new site built from scratch. Keep your existing site active until your new site is ready to launch to avoid disruption to your business.
It’s important to note that transitioning to a new website could mean the loss of a couple things:
- Historical analytical data – Your previous website vendor may choose to withhold data from your old website once you leave them. Or, the data may simply be gone once the old website is taken down.
- SEO rankings & authority – All of the rankings and authority established on your old website can’t simply be transitioned to your new site.
When selecting a new website vendor, it can be very helpful to choose one that is not only a designer/developer but also has SEO knowledge. They may be able to help you minimize the SEO impact of moving to a new site and could even help you strengthen your presence after your new site launches.
When you are starting fresh, don’t repeat your past mistakes. Be proactive and diligent to ensure you own your new website to the greatest extent possible. This includes doing the following:
- Utilizing open source technology
- Discussing site ownership with the vendor before agreeing to anything
- Carefully reading the contract (your lawyer can help) and looking for red flags before signing
Disclaimer: The information in this article is intended solely for general information purposes. For legal advice related to the ownership of your website, consult with a qualified legal professional.