Domain Names – Who controls yours?

This subject is probably the most important thing I cover in my seminars and after what I just went through this morning with one of my own clients, it bears repeating again.

Just so we’re all on the same page – a domain name is the address of your website. This site’s domain is You can tell because at the top of your browser in the address bar, that’s what comes after the http://.  The Domain is just the address. Hosting is the service you paid for to hold the files of your website. A domain name and hosting are often bought together, but don’t need to be and can be purchased separately. They will often have separate login information, so it’s important to know the difference.

domain name
Domain name in browser

Every website starts with the domain name, without that you do not have a site. More importantly, if you as the business owner do not have control over this name, then you do not have control over your site. If you had your designer “take care of” the purchasing of your domain name and hosting at the beginning and the billing goes to their email address, you have left yourself open to a lot of damage.

Beyond malicious things, without the login information for the domain and the hosting, you can never have someone else take care of your site for you. I do a lot of maintenance work for my clients on sites I didn’t design and without the basic login information, I can’t get to the hosted files to make changes. I have unfortunately heard many horror stories about designers who left town, got sick, didn’t pay renewal bills, or were holding the owner in some way hostage. If the owners had had their own information and the bills had been sent to them, a lot of grief would have been avoided.

Take Control

Here are the steps every site owner should take to ensure that they have control of their site.

  1. Go to, type in your domain name and see who comes up as the owner. Not you?! Now you know who is being listed as owner and that tells you where to go next. This listing also tells you something extremely valuable – when the domain expires. This date should go on your calendar. If you haven’t gotten a bill at least a month in advance of this, then something is wrong. Paying attention to it a month early gives you time to correct the issue.
  2. Go to my Login Information page and download a blank form. Print it out and as you do your investigating, (you did keep all the emails from the registrar and hosting company right?) write down the important information. Then store that file somewhere safe and fireproof. That means get it off the top of your desk!
  3. If the owner that was listed was your designer and you’re on good terms with them, you’re in luck. Contact them and ask them to send you all the information on the login sheet. If this person gives you any grief about this request or hesitates in any way, that is a warning sign. Once you have it, test it to make sure it works. A good designer will give you instructions on how to do this. If you’re still not sure, contact the registrar/host company and get help from them. If you change the password – be sure and document it!!
  4. If the owner listed is someone you don’t know and/or are not in good contact with, you may have more of a pain on your hands. Start with the registrar company (listed at the bottom of that whois page) and find out what your options are. Changing control can be very difficult, registrars do that on purpose to avoid fraud. They may want faxed and notarized documents proving your ownership.

(Clarification – Domain names are like postage meters, you never OWN them. You lease them for a year or more at a time.)

Keep Track

This is what happened to my client this morning. She never got a bill, so never paid the $9.95 for her yearly domain name renewal and it expired. With the domain name expired, the site disappeared and was replaced by a placeholder page. She panicked and I got a call way too early in the morning. I made sure a year ago that the billing information was in her name and her email address. Then she changed providers and got a new email address. No bill, no pay, site goes bye bye. Fortunately in this case, the registrar kept control of the name instead of releasing it back to the public. With a few phone calls, she was able to get the bill paid. Once that was done, I was able to re-direct the DNS (domain name server) to the correct host and voila the site was back up. I also updated her billing email address.

Lesson learned? She now has a reminder in her calendar a month ahead of the bill due date to make sure she got the bill and it was paid. And I made sure that she has all the login information she may need. Do you?

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