In (nearly) twenty years of working with clients and their web projects I have seen my fair share of poor website and business decisions. But the one that is most guaranteed to bring tears, delays, headaches, and agita is the thorny subject of domain name ownership. (I know what you’re thinking: surely it’s websites where music plays automatically … thankfully, that itch has been scratched).

Early on in the web development process, we will always ask the question “ … and do you have ownership of / control over the domain name relevant to this project?”. Responses tend to fall into one of two camps: absolute certainty, or confused anxiety.

To be clear, the only correct response to this question is “yes, absolutely”. Anything else is a stomach-dropping admission that you’re not in control of your website. For those who fall into the ‘confused anxiety’ group, this is how the response normally goes:

“I think our previous developer has that …”
“oh, that person who left the company three years ago used to take care of that – not sure where it is now …”
“the what?”

As a business owner, it is your responsibility to make sure you own your domain name. Or, at the very least, have full control over it. But there are many reasons why you might not – the two most common are that you asked your developer to register it for you (because it seems like something your developer should do), or you have been asked to transfer the ownership of the domain name to a developer or vendor so that they can make changes to it. The second is more nefarious than the first.

Full Disclosure Here:

I own domain names that I shouldn’t. I have registered domain names on behalf of clients before I knew any better – thinking that I was providing a helpful service to businesses. Pah! I don’t do it anymore.

Instead, here’s what happens when a client asks me to register a domain name for them:

“I can do that for you, no problem – and when we’re done and the project is completed, we’ll open an account for you and transfer the domain name into your ownership”

Perfect. The fact is that the developer will need to make edits to the domain name (technically, to the zone file that goes with the domain name, or to the nameservers that the domain name points to). And in some cases – to keep the project moving, or to avoid a frustrating delay just as a project is set to go live – it makes sense for the developer or agency to register the domain name in their own account. I get it – it’s easier and it feels like something techy that your developer should take care of.

But once that project is live, make sure that the domain name gets transferred into your name and into an account that you have access to.

web domain ownership

If your agency or developer does not offer to do that or explain why you should – it’s an issue. If an agency is simply saying ‘we’ll register the domain name for you, no problem’ or ‘you need to transfer the domain name into our name so we can make changes to it’ … that’s a red flag. There’s no reason for them to do it – it would be like signing over the deed to your house to a builder so that they can remodel your kitchen.

So, your agency says ‘we’ll register your domain name’ and they make a plan with you to transfer ownership at the appropriate time. Perfect. Make sure, also, your agency explains to you what is involved – when it is going to renew, what email address renewal notices will be sent to, and not to ignore them. (More than once, I’ve had clients ignore ‘renew your domain name’ notices because they thought it was spam. And it’s true, notices can look spammy – or they’re easy to fake. But by knowing who the domain name is registered with, and when it will renew, you can minimise the impact of these emails).

The key takeaways here: if you do not know how to administer your domain name, if you’re unsure who has access to it, or unsure about anything to do with your domain name ownership … get it sorted now, and not when the domain name is due to expire.

[okay, so this has been a post written out of frustration as it has happened to me just this past week – and the headaches … my god, it’s a nightmare. The project remains on hold until the client gets control over their domain name.]