This is part 2 of a 4-part series explaining the importance of maintaining ownership of your various web properties and how to keep them under your control. This section will focus on your site files, databases, and hosting account.

Want to read from the beginning? Read the intro here.

What are these things that you speak of?

Site Files – These are the files and folders that make up your website. They can include templates for the structure of the site, images, stylesheets, possibly content (depending on how your site is set up), and many other types of files.

Databases – A database is sort of like a spreadsheet. It is a collection of data and content for your site. Not every site has a database, but if your site uses a content management system (CMS), such as WordPress or Joomla, than you can be sure that it does have one. Databases for these and other common CMSs are typically managed through MySQL and PHPmyadmin.

File Transfer Protocol (FTP) or Secure File Transfer Protocol (SFTP) – These are common methods of transferring files between your computer and a server hosted online. You can use your FTP login information in conjunction with an FTP client such as Filezilla to access the files on your site or add new files.

Hosting – Your hosting account is where your site is stored, like a lot where you build a house. Your domain name is pointed to your hosting account. It is usually relatively easy to move a site from one hosting account to another if necessary. There are many different companies that offer hosting, such as HostGator or BlueHost. Personally, I recommend choosing a hosting company that has cPanel installed, which is one of the main reasons why I do not recommend GoDaddy for hosting.

Email Hosting – This is where your email accounts are hosted. It is possible to host your website and your email on one account, but I don’t recommend it. We’ll talk more about this later.

Do I need to own ALL of them? What does it even mean to own these things?

Site Files & Database (if applicable)

YES, you definitely need to own these. If you are not the owner of your website – for example, if the company that built your site owns it – you are bound to that company. If you ever tried to end your relationship with that company, you would have to start over entirely with your site content and design, and the company that built your website could then sell it to someone else – possibly one of your competitors! If that company owns your domain name as well, you have essentially signed away your entire brand.

You do not necessarily need to have a copy of the files and database on your own computer (although it never hurts to have a backup on hand). In this case, ownership has more to do with entitlement than possession.

Most other companies we have worked with have been willing to share the necessary login credentials with us to work on our mutual client’s site; however, if your site is hosted by another company, they may not be willing, or at least not eager, to give you access to the FTP or PHPmyadmin, for fear of you accidentally causing major damage to the site if you are not an expert. While this is certainly inconvenient, it is not completely unreasonable. However, if you own your website, the company should be willing to give you a copy of all site files as well as the database upon request.

Website Hosting

You need to own this in the sense that it’s a necessary component which you will have to pay for, but I do not personally think that you necessarily need to manage your hosting account yourself. As long as you are able to access your site files and databases whenever you need them, I think it’s ok to let your web company manage the hosting of your website, assuming that they run a reputable business. However, for complete control over your web properties, you should set up the hosting account in your own name.

Email Hosting

While you should certainly be in control of your email hosting, I do NOT recommend managing this yourself. Email hosting is, quite frankly, a pain. If your email is hosted on the same server as your website and there is a problem with the server, this could leave potential customers completely unable to contact you. Not a good scenario.

Email is down

I also do not recommend having your web company manage your email hosting, since it is both so essential and so demanding, in terms of resources. I would leave this to the pros and invest in Microsoft Exchange or Google Apps. Either should suit the needs of most small- or medium-sized businesses.

How do I make sure that I own my site files? What about hosting?

The first thing you need to consider is the contract between you and the company that is going to develop your site. (Of course, if you are developing your site yourself, problem solved, but this is not usually the case!) Make sure that the contract clearly states that you will be the owner of your website and all associated files. If this is not the way the other company typically does business, they may request that you pay more in this scenario. If, for some reason, they are not at all willing to accommodate this request, then I would look for another company to do business with.

Even if they are willing to grant your ownership at a higher price, I would recommend looking around at some other companies. I’m sure there are exceptions, but in my experience, the companies I’ve seen with this business model have tended to been rather shady.

To have your website hosted under your own control, you first need to set up an account with a hosting company. If your site is currently hosted by someone else, request a complete backup of the site in order to move it. Your new hosting company may be willing to help you set up your site on the new account from the backup. If it is a new site, inform the developers that the site is to be built on this hosting account. When you are ready, point the domain to this hosting account (this is usually done by changing the nameservers – your hosting company can help you find out what your nameservers are if you are not sure).

What other files should I ask for?

It is a good idea to request editable versions of files that are associated with your brand or website from the company responsible for the design of these elements. Here are a few examples:

Adobe Illustrator files (.ai) – You should be sure to request a copy of your logo as an .ai file

Adobe Photoshop files (.psd) – Your logo could also be a psd file. Any graphics with text on your website that you may later want to change would also likely be a psd file.

Adobe Dreamweaver template files (.dwt) – Your site may not have these; they are only for websites built with templates in Dreamweaver. If your site has a CMS, don’t worry about this; if not, it’s worth asking about.

Adobe Flash project files (.fla) – These are not the same as .swf or .flv files, which cannot be easily edited. You will need the .fla project file in order to edit any Flash components on your website in the future.

CMS or FTP passwords – You should add these to a master list (which should itself be password protected) of usernames and passwords for your various web properties, such as your domain registrar, hosting (if you are managing your own website hosting), and other accounts.

What if I am not the owner of my site files?

If your website has already been designed and developed by another company, you should check the contract to see if there is any statement regarding who owns the site design and files. If the contract states that the web development company owns these properties, then they do not have to give you access to these files. If you stop working with them, they are free to delete your site entirely or sell it to another company. You can try asking to renegotiate the contract so that you can gain ownership – in my experience, this is where the other company will demand that you pay them some absurdly high fee (in the thousands) in order to liberate your website from their control.

So what do you do at this point? Well, if you own your domain name and you don’t mind losing your existing site design, you may be better off paying a more honest company to build you a brand new website instead of paying the fee to your previous company.

But what if your domain name was registered, not by you, but by the company currently holding your website hostage? Unfortunately, in this case, if the contract defends their ownership of your site design, your choices are either to pay the price, retain their services, or say goodbye to your hard-earned brand.

Be sure to check back next week for part 3, in which I discuss Google Analytics.