Does your website even belong to you? Tips for managing your cyber business.

So, you aren’t that web-media savvy–but you know a guy who knows a guy.  Or maybe, a vendor built your website for you at no cost because you are such a great customer.  You even may have invested in building a custom site made for your company.  Regardless of how you create your Internet presence and regardless of what you use it for, there are a few things you need to think about as soon as possible.

Websites are no longer optional in our modern business climate.  Yet few small businesses give them much thought—especially once they are up and running.  But whether you use your business’ site to merely inform prospective clients about what you do or actually use it to interact with them, failing to understand just a few basics is a dangerous practice.

Given the amount of business likely coming to you through Google searches and e-mail or text message referrals of links to your site and the monetary investment your business routinely makes to market your domain to ensure they keep coming, it is self-evident that you should actively work to protect yourself from losing control or even ownership of that domain name.

But how?

Step 1: Find out who really owns your Domain Name.

Before we go any further, there are some basic concepts you need to know about how this stuff works.  You likely should know what Domain Name is by now.  It’s at least a part of the website address before the “.com,” “.org,” “.gov,” or hundreds of other “.”s available today.  I say, “at least a part” because other things can also appear before the “.”, for example “subdomains” like “attorney.southernbizlaw.com” (<–the word “attorney” in the example is not a real subdomain).  But the part you should concern yourself with as your virtual real estate is mainly just the Domain.

Why is that?  It’s because we have to “register” our domain names with one of a handful of Domain Name Registrars, like GoDaddy.  (I will mainly talk about GoDaddy, because that is the one I know best.)   For a quick guide to Who’s Who in Domain Name registration we turn to the folks in charge of regulating registration, ICANN, which provides this helpful chart:

Courtesy of ICANN. https://whois.icann.org/en/domain-name-registration-process

So, what does all of this mean?  When you “own” an Internet Domain Name, you actually are paying an annual fee to “rent” that virtual real estate for as long as they like (right after you create it for the first time).  That makes you the “Registrant” on the chart above.

After you, as Registrant, decide you no longer want the Domain (or if you forget to pay the rent), the Domain is either released back to the Registrar (who usually then tries to re-rent it to someone else) or the Registrant can give or auction it to someone else.  That new person will become the “Registrant.”

When the Domain is sold, given, or auctioned, the process used is called, “Assignment.”  The Assignment process used is much the same from Registrar to Registrar, but always involves a kind of “transfer of title” undertaken by the Registrant that releases that his, her, or its claim to the Domain and makes somebody else the Domain’s new Registrant.

Oh, and just for completeness, a “Website Host” can be a service entirely different from a Domain Registrar, but most Hosting companies also resell Domains.  Whether your Registrar and Host are the same business or totally different businesses, however, the process for making your website actually show up when someone types in your domain name works the same:

  1. You (including your website builder) (a) put a bunch of data together that will constitute your finished Website, and (b) upload that Website data to your Host.
  2. You host will give you some information that uniquely identifies itself to the Registrar, and you give that to the Registrar.
  3. The Registrar then sends all requests for that Domain Name to your Website when someone types your Domain into the address area at the top of their web browser (such as Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Internet Explorer).

Many people assume that they own their Domain because they paid someone for it or because a vendor gave them a free site with purchase.  Unfortunately, many people learn later that the web-builder or the vendor are the real owner of the Domain they have been marketing, and that now that web-builder or vendor will only allow the small business to have the Domain if they pay an additional fee.  (Not unlike a ransom, only completely legal.)

So, who owns your Domain?  Confirm NOW that you are the legal owner of your Internet presence rather than learning too late that the valuable asset you assume you are creating for your business really belongs to someone else.  Then, check it from time-to-time by searching the WHOIS database through the official link at: https://whois.icann.org/en.

Assuming that you have checked and you really are listed as owner of your Domain, you still must make sure you know how to hang on to that ownership.

Step 2:  Always Treat Your Domain as Virtual Real Estate.

Just as you would never sign any agreement dealing with your land or building without carefully understanding how it affects your rights to use or own it, you never given anyone your password and username with your Domain Registrant nor should you ever sign any agreement to build or modify a website without careful understanding of how it will affect your Domain.

Most Registrants now offer a way to keep control of your account and yet allow your technical staff or webmaster only those limited rights they need to do their work on your website.  It is absolutely critical that you learn how to give only limited rights to those who need it and not all of the rights to control your account.

This process may be subtler if the Domain Registrar is also your webhosting company, but you should still educate yourself about your Registrar’s assignment process and take all necessary steps to ensure your Domain cannot be assigned without your permission by or to anyone.

In addition to the above, you should also learn (1) how you would go about changing your Domain Name to a different Registrant should you ever need to, and (2) basics about how Domain Name registration and web-hosting are different and how the two services interact in connecting the word a person types in the web address area of their browser to the content you have created that constitutes your actual site.

In conclusion, it may take a little effort but with you website constituting a greater and great part of the value of your business, learning some Internet basics for yourself is time well spent.

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