You finally got your website done you love how it turned out. You have a new book out and you want it updated to the site but your developer has disappeared. You’ve emailed her. You’ve left voicemail messages on her phone. You’ve even stalked her on Facebook and Google to see if you can find her street address, but no luck.
You’re stuck. What do you do now?
This scenario and other horror author website situations can be avoided if you know what to ask in the beginning.
A lot of web developers will have you sign a contract, but when you know the right questions to ask, it gives you a different understanding of the process and of any agreements you may put your signature to.
And taking legal action for breach of contract is so much work, and time, and money. Best to avoid it.
Here are some questions you need to have answers for regarding your website:
Who owns my domain name?
A lot of times, because technology is this huge, hairy monster, we don’t want to know the details. We just want a web developer to produce a beautiful website that showcases us in our best light.
And developers are people. They want to do things the easiest way. Sometimes, without malice intended, they will take actions that may negatively affect both you and them down the road.
A common one is when a developer registers an author’s domain name using their own domain registrar account. Many domain registration services will let you use the default domain ownership details that you have saved to speed up the process, much like how Amazon will let you set up a default shipping address for all your purchases so you don’t have to enter it every time.
This may mean that technically, your web developer owns your domain. This won’t be an obvious problem to you, or them, maybe even for years. And then one day, you want to move your website to another developer. Or maybe this developer is suddenly inaccessible, or passes away, or you have a falling out with them.
Where will my domain be registered?
There are many domain registrars (companies that register and maintain domain registrations and records) out there. Examples are Enom, Namecheap, and even hosting companies like Bluehost, GoDaddy, and Siteground offer domain registration services.
Ask your developer where they will be registering your domain, so you have it in your records.
Where will my website be hosted?
Most domain registrars also offer hosting services (hosting means they have the actual website on their computers and make it available on the Internet), but you can register a domain with one service and host the website with another.
For instance, you can register a domain with Namecheap and host the site on Porkbun by simply changing the settings for your domain that say where the site is hosted (these settings are known as DNS records). ‘Why would anyone do this?’ You wonder. Because some services are really good registrars but not so awesome with hosting and some people don’t want to have all their eggs in one basket.
Some domain registrars also offer really good domain prices but may have expensive hosting.
Ideally, you want to find a really good, affordable hosting service and register your domain with them too so that you are dealing with one service. It simplifies things, and since you are not in the business of registering lots of domains, it’s ok to have them both under one provider.
Can you set up a hosting account in my name and give me admin access?
Following on from the previous two points, one sure way to make sure that you have access to your domain and website files even if the developer goes awol is to have them set up the hosting (and domain registration) account in your name and to share the details with you. You could even set up the account yourself, with minimal technical skill, and then share the details with your web developer so that they can access it and develop your site.
Note that on some shared servers this is not always possible as this would give you access to other websites on that server.
Is my domain set to auto-renew?
Registering a .com domain costs about $10-15 per year on average. Other domain extensions (e.g. .org, .net, .io, .biz, .club – there are hundreds of them) vary in price, from about $2 for domains on special to thousands of dollars for premium domains. Certain premium domain names (e.g. in-demand domain names, like writer.com) will also be more expensive.
You can register a domain for up to ten years at a time, but most people will register their domains for a year, or two years – simply because it’s cheaper.
When a domain expires your website becomes inaccessible and any other services tied to the domain, e.g. email, stop working. Upon expiry, the domain goes into a period called the Renewal Grace Period. This is a maximum of 45 days. During this time, the domain owner can renew it at the normal price.
After the Renewal Grace Period, the domain goes into the Redemption Period, which varies in length depending on the registrar, but can be up to 30 days. During the redemption period, you can still renew the domain, but it will cost you more. Once again, the amount depends on the registrar. It could be $70. It could be $300. It could be more.
If you do not re-register your domain before the end of the grace period, it goes into the Pre-deletion Period, which is about 5 days. During this time, even if you decide you want it back, you can’t do anything about it. You have to wait and hope to be able to re-register it when it is deleted.
When pre-deletion is over, the domain is deleted from the registrar’s records and becomes available for anyone in the world to register again, which absolutely sucks because there are people who make it their business to re-register domains that have recently expired – as soon as they are deleted – so they can take advantage of the traffic that those domains were attracting.
So for instance, if your website, hosted at zorawritesagain.com is getting 3,000 visitors a month, and the domain zorawritesagain.com expires, it means that all of a sudden your readers can’t access your website, but it doesn’t stop them from trying. Search engines and social media posts you have made will also still reference your website, and so you will have traffic from there as well all trying to get to your site.
If I register zorawritesagain.com and put up my website there, selling, I don’t know, viagra or some other random thing, I know I have about 3,000 people a month who will see my site. Even if I make say 10 sales before the traffic wanes off or before the site drops in rankings on search engines, it’s worth the $10 investment I have made in registering the domain and whatever hosting fees I am paying.
So you NEVER want your domain to expire. I have learned this the hard way. There was a time when I didn’t have a credit card and relied on other people to process my registrations for me. It was chaos. Domain registrations would lapse while I struggled to find a way to pay for them. Some got picked up by random people and I never got them back.
The way to prevent this from happening is to set your domain to auto-renew, using the settings on the dashboard that your domain registration service gives you. It’s very simple, just a matter of clicking a link. Then make sure that the domain contact is set to you or someone you trust to manage things for you. This person will receive emails about the domain and notifications about pending renewals, expired credit cards, etc.
What CMS are you building my website on?
Every web developer has their preferred website development platform, also known as a content management system. The most common one is WordPress, but there are scores of others. There are also new platforms like GrooveCM, LeadPages, etc, that make it super easy to build a website. The challenge is, some CMSs are proprietary or difficult to find extensions and plugins for so it may be harder down the road to add new features to your website or to find a developer who knows how to work with that platform.
So make sure you find out what CMS your developer is using and how easy it is to:
- Migrate the website to another hosting provider
- Update the site and modify how it looks. For instance, if you wanted to change the main color from blue to orange or change the font, how hard would that be?
- Have someone else work on the site
- Add functionality to the website (mailing list signup, shopping cart, etc)
How much will it cost to run my website each year?
When you get a quote for your website, most times it won’t include the annual running costs for the website. You need to know these.
If they are hosting it, how much will they charge?
Will there be any recurring service costs, e.g. retainer fees?
Will there be recurring costs for any plugins, templates, or subscription services that the website uses?
How easy and expensive will it be to get the site updated?
If you ask your web developer to upload your new book to the site, how much will it cost you?
Would you be able to update the site by yourself without taking a week to learn how it works?
How long will it take them to update the site? Stories abound of developers who do a great job building a website, but consistently take a week or more to do a simple update.
Can I have access to the website admin?
You want to have the access details to your site. If your developer is not available, you still want to be able to update your site or ask someone else to do it.
How often will my site be backed up?
Some hosting providers back up your site automatically. Some don’t. In either case, it’s helpful to have your own backups of your website, Plugins that automate this process are easy to find.
A good backup plugin will back up your site’s files and database in your website folder online and save a copy to a remote service like Dropbox or Google Drive as well. This is important because if your hosting provider is hacked or for some reason becomes unavailable, you want to still have a copy of your site that you can upload to another service and get going again as quickly as possible. Read our article on what a real backup is and why these are crucial.
The frequency of backups is important too because if you update your site every day, but only back it up once a month, you have a problem when your site gets corrupted and you restore a backup that has 30 days of content missing.
What measures will you take to ensure my site is safe?
Websites get hacked all the time. All. The. Time. But by installing a good security plugin, using good passwords, and changing a few default settings in your website’s content management system, you can make it eons less likely to get hacked.
Sometimes developers skip this step because it’s more work and they hope you will never get attacked. Ask them about it. Insist on it.
What happens if my website gets hacked?
Worst case scenario, your website is hacked and the home page is showing jumping green monsters or a sales page for bedroom toys and your book launch is the following day. What is your developer’s response protocol for something like this? Will they charge you to get the site back up? How much will it cost? If they can’t give an exact amount, how about an estimate?
Bear in mind that when a website or computer system is hacked, sometimes there are no quick fix 24hr solutions. Even big companies and government departments sometimes fail to detect hacks and then struggle for weeks or months to get hacked systems back up.