Site owners should have ownership of their websites

I think it is important that companies/people have a certain level of control and ownership over their own websites, at least to the extent that they have the details that allow them access to their own code, data and DNS. Website development continuity is a key component of the website life-cycle.

Introduction

For small companies or endeavours a website is an increasingly important (often essential) element of business, over time more and more is expected by default from a web presence and where a fairly static (brochure site) was once acceptable that is usually not now the case.

Websites are expected to do more and more (even at the cheaper end of the scale) content needs to be updated, media added, social network integration arranged. Changes in technology, third-party services, operating systems, security threats, legislation, fashion etc. can all quickly leave a site broken, obsolete or simply an embarrassment.

In many cases now a website or web-application is integrating and implementing business processes and workflow, incorporating social networking and hooking into CRM systems etc.

If you do not have the knowledge or permanent technical staff to keep your site updated, fixed, secure and fashionable; then you will need to periodically hire or contract people to do it for you, these people may not have history with your site and probably are not the people that originally created it for you.

Based on my experience the following advice may overcome some of the pitfalls that are commonly encountered.

Know what your site is supposed to do

It may come as a surprise (unless you take the time to think from an outsider perspective) that a developer most likely cannot work out how your site is supposed to function merely by glancing at the source code and configuration, even more so if the site code is not documented and/or the functionality is implemented in a non-standard way.

It is crucial that you take ownership of what your site does, if you could not afford full documentation of your site when you had it developed (or if that was not an option) then you as the owner of it can take some control, by simply writing out in words what your site does and how, include any odd little bits of functionality (such as the carousel refreshes every Monday or similar).

Having this documentation to hand can be really useful and a significant time-saver if you engage somebody new to work on the site.

Know what your site does not do

Increasingly over time bits of your site may stop working or you may discover that some functionality you thought you had has never worked (or only fails to work on a Monday). Even if your website was in a good state originally like a house it will decay without maintenance (only much faster). Changing fashions, web-standards, devices, security threats etc. etc. are all conspiring against you.

As well as the overhead of working out what your site is supposed to do (see above), a new developer (or one returning after a long period of time) can waste a lot of time (your time if you are paying for it), finding and diagnosing things that currently do not work. Much more unpleasant is when a developer has done some work on one area of your site and some problem is found broken in another area (is the problem related to something they have done or was it already there?).

Do track the things that don’t work on your site as you find them; a simple spreadsheet or document is better than nothing although learning to use something more sophisticated (have a look at trello.com) for example can really smooth the process on more complex sites. Developers love to know whether a problem is repeatable or intermittent and whether it is a problem that affects everybody or just a particular browser or device.

Developers will find it very difficult to trawl through a forwarded chain of emails to try to find out what needs to be done (the one in the middle from a Director that says ‘I disagree, do it my way’ is easy to miss), if you can’t concisely describe the problem then you are effectively paying a developer to investigate and do that for you (your time if you are paying for it).

Understand how your hosting works

Website hosting can be confusing, it is best if if you have control (and at least a basic understanding) over this yourself, or at the very least full details that you can lay your hands on. Many projects or remedial works can stall whilst previous developers or agencies are tracked down. Often the login that you use to add content yourself is not enough for a developer to add functionality or fix problems.

If you don’t have these details then the next time you are working with somebody, get all the details you need. A good developer or agency will be able to advise you on hosting and ideally help you to set it up and give them access to make/move your site. For most requirements hosting can be as little as $10 -$20 per month. Managing your own hosting (under advice) is likely to be cheaper and much more flexible as your needs develop.

You should aim to be in a position where you can quickly provide access to another developer/agency (and if needed update access details so that a long chain of people who have previously worked on your site over many years no longer have access).

I have seen a vital fix wait for over a week simply because a previous developer is on holiday and nobody knows how to gain access to update a site.

Understand and control your domain names and email

Some agencies, developers or hosting solutions will offer to control your domain names for you, (the process that links your website address to your website code) if possible take control of this yourself, or at the very least have full details of how this is set-up.

A very common cause of delay it when you wish to move to new hosting or add functionality on a new sub-domain (eg. newdomain.yourwebsite.com) and suddenly it becomes apparent that no-body has the details to hand or that somebody in the current chain has a lead-time of days before they will action your change.

Particularly important is to understand how your email works (any email that goes to addresses at your site domain), email may or may not be tied into your current hosting.

Continuity

Continuity of vision is important, if progression of a site is being handled by a variety of developers and agencies a continuous and progressive vision is needed, the key elements of that vision need to understood by the site owner.

There is a danger that each new pair of eyes introduced will want to bend things to their way, their own favourite methods and technologies, this is not always a bad thing but there needs to be some sort of understanding and context to judge them against.

Wrap up

I haven’t offered any specifics here as best advice for hosting, DNS management, email etc. may change over time and be dependant on exact requirements. Hopefully I have shown how a little bit of research, preparation and organisation may vastly improve the outcomes for you next time you need work done on your website.

Comments

Agreed, there used to be a time when as a freelance dev, offering these services (email, hosting etc.) made sense and was even profitable. now however I prefer advising on where to get them.

By Sebastian on 10 Nov 2014

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