Saturday, June 20, 2009

HIring someone to do your website? Beware!

Recently I was asked, and agreed, to help a company update and improve their websites. They were unhappy with the designer they'd hired. He wasn't responsive to their requests for updates on the website, they didn't like the design on one of them and they weren't getting the traffic they wanted. All good reasons to move.

It should have been a simple thing. Contact the designer, let them know, make the appropriate changes and voila, new designer. If all had gone well, I would have had time to go in and update the sites then re-design them over time.

Unfortunately, the designer didn't want to let go of the websites. Both have e-commerce storefronts through a 3rd party, which made it critical to get the back-end more so than the design.

When the designer refused to let go of the sites, saying he'd designed them and owned the design, including the back-end e-commerce portion of the site, it turned into a BIG deal.

I'll call the company I'm working with LTD just to try and make this easier to understand. The designer shall be BTTB, as in bad to the bone. His host, CITM (caught in the middle).

LTD had paid thousands to and through BTTB to get the sites set up. Luckily LTD paid with credit card and luckily the BTTB wasn't initially able to build the main site himself and had the e-commerce company build it. As it turned out LTD paid them directly for what the designer said was / billed as software but turned out to be the initial design. Proof of ownership existed!

BTTB held LTD hostage. BTTB got his feelings hurt, sent a nasty letter saying he wasn't going to do any updates, the cost of hosting was going up and if LTD wanted the design they'd have to pay close to $4,000 and they'd charge $400 an hour to work with someone to get the e-commerce site transitioned.

I contacted the CITM trying to get around the designer to get the e-commerce info and design. No dice, they had an agreement with BTTB, had to have his authorization to release the design, even though we had proof we owned it. Understandable - it was the designer's name on everything. They'd have released it if we'd sued and had legal documents, but we didn't really want to go that route.

Bottom line, we spent countless hours on the phone, working this way and that way to try and resolve the issue in a way that 1) didn't cost a ridiculous amount, 2) was seamless to the LTD customers and 3) kept all of LTD's customer info intact.

We finally get one of the sites simply because BTTB wasn't quite as smart as he'd tried to portray himself when he sold his services to LTD. Because BTTB didn't know how to do an e-commerce site and had the e-commerce company design the first site as I mentioned above, they had a back-up copy. BTTB had started out right by putting LTD's company name on the bottom line at the e-commerce company (although all the contact info was his...), so they were willing and legally able to help.

We had to design the 2nd site from scratch as BTTB cobbled together a simple working site himself.

Another good thing: LTD had purchased the domain names prior to hiring the designer. BTTB had gone in and put his name and contact info on everything, but luckily hadn't changed passwords. We were able to fix that and change the passwords before moving the sites over without his knowledge.

We moved to a new host who turned out to be excellent. They coordinated with the e-commerce people and us to help get everything set up and running behind the scenes. I wish I could tell you the real names in here because I would highly recommend the e-commerce group and the host. They were stellar, outstanding, went way above and beyond to help. More than anything I wish I could tell you the name of BTTB, but he's rather nasty and I'd just as soon not tangle with him any further!

During the debacle, over and over I was told that this kind of hostage situation was not an uncommon occurrence. I did not talk to one tech support person, one potential host while searching for a new one, one e-commerce person who had not already dealt with something similar. I found that disconcerting.

Here's what I'd suggest to ensure you have ownership of your site:

1. Have a contract. LTD didn't have one. They trusted the guy as he sounded good, was a friend of a friend or something... Contracts don't help much unless you decide to sue, but you need to be sure everything is spelled out clearly when entering into a partnership with a designer. Include charges for updates, frequency of updates, time frame for making updates among other things. Read any contract provided by the designer carefully and completely.

2. Make sure YOU register your domain name unless you know and trust the company doing your site.

3. Do your homework. Make sure the designer you're hiring is a legitimate company with a good track record. Get references. Check out their other websites. (When I took a look at BTTB's own website, it hadn't been updated for over five years. The websites BTTB listed as references were mostly out of business or one page horrors.)

4. Stay involved, especially if you have a storefront. The data on the storefront is private and critical. Customer data and relationships are involved. Your livelihood is at risk. Make sure you check to ensure that your company name is on any contract, any ownership information before you pay a bill.

5. Use a credit card so you have proof of what you paid for each step of the way.

6. Make sure you have passwords to your e-commerce site and that one of your staff learns the ins and outs. Usually that's a given as you'll have to have the ability to batch and grab data, but some companies hire the designer / others to do it for them. If you don't have staff and are dependent on a third party, number 3 in this list is critical.

7. If the designer doesn't respond, doesn't make the changes you request in a timely manner, move quick. Everyone has an occasional problem so I'm not suggesting that you jump ship the first time your change isn't made in a specific time frame! Be reasonable but don't let it get to be a chronic problem.

I'm sure there are other safeguards and suggestions out there in cyber-land. Let me know if you've had problems or if you have suggestions for the novice who's looking to set up a website (with or without 3rd party e-commerce).

I'm loving the e-commerce company and LTD is extremely pleased with the design I did for both sites. We have everything updated and running smoothly now and the sites are being updated regularly.

I really got a kick out of one day swooping in, moving the hosting, redirecting the IP address, removing all the old designer's contact info from everything... It's been a time-consuming pill to get this all done, but knowing that I was working to thwart an unscrupulous designer motivated me mightily. Creeps like that give all of us a bad name and hurt the industry.

Ah, and one more thing... turned out the designer didn't have any SEO (search engine optimization) knowledge. He used graphics instead of text, no alt tags. He didn't have any META key words or descriptions on any of the pages. I could bore you to tears with the problems I found on the sites, SEO related and design related. Since taking over the sites I've already managed to do things that more than quadrupled traffic to both sites. Basic stuff that your novice designer should know. Not sure whether the guy was lazy or ignorant. Either way, LTD lost money and potential customers.

Be sure you're getting someone who has SEO knowledge. It's critical these days.

Here's a suggestion for you on your designer: If you can find one who'll work for a percentage of storefront sales instead of a flat fee, you'll have someone who does everything in their power to make your site profitable. The more they earn for you, the more they earn for themselves. If you do that, please make sure you have an airtight contract that spells out terms. Most importantly, be sure you trust whoever you choose and that they have a good reputation.

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