From time to time, I get emails from potential clients asking me if it’s possible to move their website from an errant web designer or a bad web host without the cooperation of that person or company. This may happen because the web developer or web host has refused to relinquish control of the site when asked to. For example, they may not have given the owner his/her login and password so that the latter can access the site to update it themselves.

Before I continue, let me explain the initial web hosting process here at Mediagin. We do not offer website hosting services. You, as the client, are required to purchase your domain name and hosting provider before work is started. This way, you own everything and we’re just working on it for you (much like your car in for a new paint job). Once you have ownership of domain name and hosting service, work can begin after you have shared the appropriate access the needed areas. We think any other scenario puts you in line for difficulty later.

The people who ask me moving their site usually have slightly different circumstances. The most common scenario is that they have hired a web designer to create and maintain a website for them, and that designer has ignored their requests for the site to be updated. And when they ask the designer to return the website to them, they meet a wall of silence. Another common scenario is where their web host has gone bad in some way (or even missing), and they want to move their site elsewhere.

Before you take the following steps, consider if there’s no misunderstanding between you and your designer as to the scope of their duties? Re-read your contract with that person. Does it specify that he/she update your website or does the fee you paid only include the initial design work? Maintenance work (that is, updating of your website) usually involves a monthly (or annual) fee, over and above the monthly (or annual) web hosting fees. If you only made a one-time payment, chances are that it only covers the initial creation of the site. (You didn’t think that a small one-time fee paid at the beginning was going to commit your designer to maintaining your site for the rest of his/her natural life, did you?)

Do not use this procedure as a means of solving your dispute with your web designers. That is, if you have withheld payment from them for some reason, and they’re ignoring you because you’ve not paid up, this article will not solve your problem. Your designers will probably just haul you to court for breach of contract (for failing to pay up). If you have a legal dispute with your current designer, get help from a lawyer, not from some random website on the Internet (like this one). This article does NOT discuss contract disputes and legal remedies. It merely discusses the technical means that you can use to reclaim a website that legally and rightfully belongs to you. And it assumes that you no longer have access to your web hosting account: that is, you cannot log into your account to download a copy of all your files (via FTP or through your web host’s control panel), nor are you able to modify your website’s files.

Your Domain Name is the Key

Ultimately, where technical means are concerned, everything hinges on whether you have control over your domain name. A domain name is a name like “mediagin.com”. It is the means by which visitors reach your website. For example, if you type “mediagin.com” into your web browser right now, you will arrive at the front page of this website. When you or the person you hired started your site, one of the first things that would have been done is to register a domain name. This typically involves the payment of a small annual fee to a company called a domain name registrar. In exchange for this fee, you get the right to use the domain name for as long as you keep up the annual payments.

The domain name is not the same thing as your website. It’s just a name. It’s like registering a business name for your company in the physical world. Getting a domain name does not automatically get you a website any more than registering a business name get you shop premises in the brick and mortar world. Your domain name points to a particular web server and a particular place on that server and it’s much better than using the address your computer needs, like “192.16.0.192” for example. What you or your web designers did when your website was created was to attach your domain name to the set of documents (pages) they created. When your visitors enter your domain name in their web browser, they see the set of your documents.

What happens if, in the physical world, you decide to move your shop to a new building? You basically need to rent shop premises in the new building, move your goods there, and attach your business name (and sign) to that new shop. When you do that, your shop will continue to function, with the same name, albeit in a new location. You will need to advertise that new location so folks can find you again.

When moving a website, you will need a new web host, put up your documents on that new web host, and point your domain name there. Once you complete that, you’ll have moved your site. The difference is that in the virtual world, your website will still have the same web address and you don’t need to tell your customers that you’ve moved.

Without the account name and password for your domain at your registrar, you cannot easily wrestle your site away from whoever is currently holding it hostage. As mentioned at the beginning of this section, everything hinges on your having control of your own account at the domain registrar.

This is why we require all clients to register their domain name and hosting first. When you sign up for these things yourself, you’ll not only be properly registered as the owner of your own domain, you’ll also be considered by those companies (the domain registrar and the web host) as their customer. In such a case, even if you forget your account name and password, you can easily contact those companies to get the information and help you need.

On the other hand, if you have given all your responsibilities to your web designer, and you have an unscrupulous designer, all the contact and ownership information held by your web host and domain name registrar may well point to him/her. Your web host and registrar will, in this case, not give you any information at all (since you’re not their customer; the designer is). Your only recourse in such a case is to negotiate with your designer, if you can still reach him/her. Or, you can get a lawyer.

For Those Who Signed Up with Their Web Host Themselves

If you are one of the people who actually got a designer after you’ve personally signed up for a domain name and a web host, and you’re paying the bills directly to your registrar and web host, you probably don’t need to do the things mentioned here.

Even if your web developer has changed the password for your web hosting account to lock you out, you can get it back. Simply contact your web host and explain the situation. You may have to verify that you’re the real owner, but that’s usually quite easy to do if you’re their customer on record and are paying the bills directly to them. Your web host will probably just change the password to a new one of your choosing, and you’ll have regained control of your site.

Of course if your web host and your web designer are one and the same, this won’t work for you.

Steps to Take to Regain Control of Your Website

There’s no point carrying out any of the steps below if you cannot log into your domain registrar. If you don’t even know what a domain name registrar is, or you don’t know which registrar you used to get a domain name, chances are strong that you won’t know your user name and password either. In such a case, you won’t be able to do use the steps below to get your site back.

Since you want to move your website away from your current designer’s control or from your existing web host, you’ll need to sign up with a new web host. Once your new web hosting account is set up, you’ll need to make your domain name redirect to that new location. The transfer process can take as long as two to six days to complete. You will need to be able to log into your domain registrar’s account to do this and/or the company you choose to go with can likely help you with this transition. This is the key step that wrestles your website out from under your old web designer’s or web host’s control. Once you do this, your old site will no longer be accessible to you using a web browser. So if you want a copy of your old website’s pages, make sure you save them before you take this step.

Next, you’ll need to publish your website to your new web host. Alternatively, you can hire another web designer (hopefully, an honest one this time) to do the redesign. For clients that have chosen me to help with this, I’ve made a copy of their current site and published it to their new server so that it appears in both locations while the transfer process takes place.

If you are the owner of a company and are not very computer-savvy, you may not want to waste a lot of time dealing with all the nitty gritty of setting up a website, especially if the website is just a small part of your overall business. You may prefer to simply hire someone to take care of that end of things, and concentrate on your real work. If you decide this, please understand that the number of options available to you when you face problems with your web designer is proportional to the extent of your involvement at the initial stages of the creation of your site.

It’s sad that I actually have to speak on this, where it’s necessary for someone to need to rescue their site away from the clutches of a bad web designer or web host. In any case, for those who have control of their own domain, this method of directing your domain name elsewhere is an effective solution to the problem.

Portions of this article first appeared on: http://www.thesitewizard.com/domain/reclaim-website-from-bad-web-designer-host.shtml.