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Domains Held Hostage
For some companies, web sites are a nicety—they exist as a brochure but don’t really drive business. Other companies depend upon their web sites for sales and new client generation to such a large degree that their livelihood is dependent upon their web site.
Over the past five years, I have helped rescue scores of domains for helpless consumers to whom the Internet and their web sites are somewhat of a mystery. I still receive frequent calls that range from “my domain is registered in the web design company’s name” to “the registrar says I have to pay $180 to transfer my domain.” Registration is the very foundation of your web site lifecycle, so it’s important to choose wisely.
Much like me going to a dishonest auto mechanic, many customers can be easily tricked by unscrupulous web designers and feigned domain registrars, or simply left in trouble if a company in their link of site ownership becomes unstable. This article should help you make sure that your company’s web site is not in jeopardy of being held hostage.
Hosting Is Not Domain Registration
Many consumers make the mistake of only searching tools like www.findmyhost.com to locate and engage a domain registrar. This site and others like it relate to hosting your site and do not specialize in domain registration.
Hosting service is the provision of storage space (like your hard drive) on the Internet. It is the second layer of launching a web site, built upon the foundation of domain registration. So, registration and hosting are two separate functions—don’t get them confused. For the most part, hosting companies are middlemen. The problem with using a middleman—a third party that performs bulk registrations through an official registrar—is that accounts are generally set up in the third party’s name, giving you no direct access to your domain record. These firms use accredited ICANN registrars to process your order, but do so behind a closed curtain so the transaction is hidden from you. The hosting company has generally become an affiliate to the registrar, meaning that they get some type of reward for setting your domain up with that registrar. I’m not saying affiliate programs are wrong, but the reward structure can sometimes motivate hosting companies to choose the wrong registrar.
Use Legitimate Domain Registrars
Not every company offering $5.00/year domain registration is an official ICANN registrar. ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is a non-profit, public interest group that oversees the global domain name service. In ICANN’s own words, it is “responsible for managing and coordinating the Domain Name System (DNS) to ensure that every address is unique and that all users of the Internet can find all valid addresses. It does this by overseeing the distribution of unique IP addresses and domain names. It also ensures that each domain name maps to the correct IP address.
“ICANN is also responsible for accrediting the domain name registrars. ‘Accredit’ means to identify and set minimum standards for the performance of registration functions, to recognize persons or entities meeting those standards, and to enter into an accreditation agreement that sets forth the rules and procedures applicable to the provision of Registrar Services.”* Say what?
Basically, they are the ones who make sure that companies are playing by the rules in terms of making the Internet continue to work as we expect. They also make sure that TCP/IP (the protocol of the Internet) addresses are not duplicated.
ICANN is the place to which end users can present claims of misbehavior for those registrars who have official ICANN accreditation. Business news is fraught with accounts of misbehavior, such as requiring additional, undocumented funds for transfers or disallowing the modification of the domain record.
Before you or your consultant registers a domain, go to www.internic.net/origin.html to see a list of accredited registrars by country. It is a good idea to register in the country in which your business is located. You should also perform some Internet research to find out any existing user claims against your selected registrar, but do so with caution. Some end users “flame” a vendor when they themselves may be using a wrong approach.
When you are evaluating domain registrars, be sure to choose one that provides full contact information (including a phone number) and a documented escalation procedure. About half the time you need support from your domain registrar, it will be an emergency situation. You don’t want that to be the time to figure out that there is a 24-hour response time on support requests or that their support is only available between the hours of 10:00am and 4:00pm PST. Know before you buy.
We use GoDaddy.com, which has been flamed by many past users. Our experience is that over the last 5 years, they have proven a reliable, fully compliant, accredited registrar with excellent support and business practices. Additionally, they maintain a reasonable price structure for domain registration and a great tool for managing multiple domains. And, no, my company is not an affiliate!
Own Your Domain
One of the perils of “knowing enough to be dangerous” is that it may appear that your domain is registered to you when it is actually registered to your hosting company or the web design company you’ve hired. To promote the concept of domain ownership with our clients, we typically walk them through the process of purchasing their domain name. We take the opportunity to answer questions and make sure the tremendous amount of up sell information does not mask legitimate registration options.
A credit card must be used with most registrars and it is important for you to use your own credit card so you know when and what charges are made in relation to domain registration. Once the process is completed, you will be sent an e-mail receipt and confirmation of the registration information, including your account name, so it’s important that your e-mail address is documented in the registrant section. These are important documents that should be retained as permanent records. Be sure to include the password you selected for your account as well.
No matter how busy you are, knowing that you own your domain is one of the most important steps to launching a successful site and maintaining control over what might be one of your most valuable assets. You should have a URL, a username, and a password that allows you to make any necessary changes to your own domain. You may leave this to your trusted consultant, but you should always know that you have access to this information…just in case. If you maintain control of this information, you will significantly reduce the possibility of being held hostage.
To check ownership of your site, go to www.whois.com and enter your domain name. Even if the site is privately listed (so ownership information is hidden), the registrar of the site should be listed. Alternately, if you go to www.godaddy.com, type your domain name in the domain search, then click the “more info” button.
There is a delicate balance between registering your domain for permanence and flexibility. Unless you know that a domain will not remain a permanent asset, always register for at least two years. The best registrar today may not be the best registrar tomorrow, such as was the case with RegisterFly.com.Your ICANN-accredited registrar will notify you when your domain is about to expire, so you have the opportunity to evaluate if they were the right choice for you. If so, re-up for two more years. If not, go to your newly selected registrar and start the domain transfer process.
How Do I Ransom My Domain?
If you are in a situation where a hosting company or a past consultant has left you powerless over your domain, you should start with finding out where the site is registered (see above “who is” steps). Contact the registrar to find out what their specific process is for reclaiming your domain. For many registrars, the process consists of proving that you are a legitimate agent of the company represented on the site—yet another good reason to make sure your site is truly representative of your company. You may not feel comfortable faxing a copy of your driver’s license on official company letterhead to the registrar, but that may be what it takes. Whatever you are asked to send, make sure you know exactly why the registrar requires that information. If other sensitive information on that document is not required, mark it out. Don’t allow a bad situation to turn worse by exposing personal information unnecessarily.Make sure that the registrar changes the registrant e-mail address listed for the domain to match your current address. Sometimes, doing this is all that’s necessary for them to send a password reset that allows you access to your site.
If you decide to transfer your domain to another registrar, make sure that you retain the DNS settings so the hosted portion of your web site is not lost. Another bad-to-worse situation is saving your ransomed domain name only to lose the content of your web site.
If your domain is currently being held hostage, hopefully, these steps will help you free it and become master of your domain. Otherwise, be sure to find a reliable, trustworthy professional who can help you on a web rescue.