11 ways to not get screwed: Your guide to working with a web pro

Ian Lurie

rusty screws
90% of web marketers, designers, developers, SEOs and such are going to screw you.
Actually, I’m being charitable. It’s closer to 99%.
Since the first copy of Microsoft Frontpage appeared on the shelves at Toys R Us, everyone who can type has assumed they’re fully-qualified internet marketers. They’ll nod vigorously, tell you they can do x and y, take your money, and then poof. You’re knee-deep in crap with an uneditable, unproductive web site.
Now you have 3 choices.

  1. You can blame the Universe, assume that 100% of web marketers are hell-bent on cheating you, and give up. The internet’s just a fad anyway. Stick with your fliers, direct mail and radio spots and you’ll be fiiiine.
  2. You can try to become an internet marketing expert, since you have nothing else to do.
  3. Or, you can become a smart consumer of internet marketing services, the same way you become a smart consumer of clothing, or food: You learn what to ask for, and how to tell when something feels cheap.

I vote for the last option. If you agree, here’s a list of tricks and tips to help you get there:

1: Own your site

When you hire someone to build or modify your site, make sure your contract includes something like this:
All design, code, content and other work performed as part of this contract is a work for hire owned by the Client.
The ‘Client’ is you. If your contract doesn’t include something like this, add it. If your contractor or agency won’t add it, move on. They’re going to cheat you.

2: Know where your site lives

Make sure web site designer/developer sends you an e-mail that includes:

  • The name of your web site hosting company.
  • The contact information for that company.
  • The control panel address, username and password for your site, if there is one.
  • Your FTP server name, address, username and password.
  • The server language used to build your site, if your site is dynamic in any way.
  • Any prepackaged software used on your site, like a prebuilt shopping cart or content management system.
  • Login address, username and password for your shopping cart, blog, content management system or any other software.
  • Database access information – address, username, password, database type – for your site database if there is one.
  • Analytics access information.

That way, if your webmaster flakes, you won’t have to send some stranger your birth certificate and fingerprints just to access your own web site.

3: Own your domain

At least 3 times in the last 2 years, I’ve had to tell a new client to get a new domain name. Why? Their last internet geek bought their current domain. When he got fired, he took down the site and posted photos of his pet tarantula instead. Short of a lawsuit or a WIPO claim, the client had no recourse.
If someone else buys your domain (your web address) for you, make sure you know the name of the registrar where it’s registered, and that you have your own account to access and change the settings for that domain.

4: Own your PPC campaigns

While we’re at it, make sure you control your pay per click campaigns, too.
If you hire a PPC pro, again, make sure your campaign will be carried out in a separate account that you own. Otherwise, you may pay them to set up and manage your campaign, then have to start over again when they move on.
Save yourself the heartbreak. Make sure your agency gives you your own PPC account on each search engine where they’re buying ads for you.

I said account. Having your own ‘campaign’ or ‘ad group’ is like owning a condo versus a house. You still have a mortgage, but if the building collapses, you’re still screwed.

5: Own your analytics data

Hoooo boy. I’ve seen this one bite a lot of folks on the ass in the last few years. Jane hires agency. Agency sets up Google Analytics reports under the agency’s account. Jane fires agency. Agency analyst ‘accidentally’ deletes 2 years of priceless data.
Once it’s gone, you cannot. get. it. back.
If you’re using a service like Google Analytics, make sure all analytics data is stored in your own separate account, and that you are the only person with the power to delete it!
Failing that, regularly export your data. Every major analytics toolset lets you do a daily, weekly or monthly export of critical numbers in PDF or Excel format. You can even do these automatically and receive the results via e-mail. Worst case, you lose the account but still have the data. Then you can smile as you use the All in One Desk Reference beat your previous agency’s rep to a bloody pulp.

6: Verify backups

Ask your web firm/person: Do you back up my site? If so, how often? What do you include? Most important:
If some nubwit brings lighter fluid into the server room and lights my server on fire, can you get me back up-and-running in 24 hours, without charging me for recoding/redesigning/rewriting anything?

It’s perfectly reasonable to pay for the time spent bringing a site back up. Hell, I’d charge you. But if I didn’t run a decent backup system, that’s my problem, not yours.

7: Control your content

Assuming you’re serious about your online presence, you can get a great site that you can edit without intervention by a web designer. ‘Serious’ means you don’t expect a great site for $500 – if you do, you don’t need a designer. You need a therapist.
Get your site built on a simple CMS like WordPress, Joomla! or Drupal.
Most important, tell your designer that:

  • You want all text to be html text, not graphics.
  • You want to be able to edit all of it.
  • If you add a new category or page, it must show up in the site navigation automatically.

Then you’ll control your content.

8: Know what you’re getting

SEO: Just because a web designer says they’ll build your site ‘with SEO’ (wtf does that mean, anyway?!) doesn’t mean they will. In fact, it usually means that their idea of SEO is a META ROBOTS tag on each page. Get specifics: A list of the things they’ll do to make sure your site is SEO-friendly and SEO-ready.
Design: If you see the first design sample and vomit, how many more will they do for you? I always tell clients we’ll keep at it until we have what they want. I’m betting we can get there before a project goes into the red. I also charge a premium. But this is why.
Reporting: What kind of project status reports will you get, and how often? A weekly 2-line e-mail may be sufficient. The silent treatment is not.

9: Define what ‘good’ is

Force your internet marketing person/mob/agency to define what ‘good’ is.
When will the site be ready for launch? What problems can wait until after launch, so you can get your business up and running online?
What will make your PPC advertising program a success? A 3:1 return on investment? 2:1?
How are you going to measure SEO success? Rankings? ‘Cause rankings don’t put money in your cash register.

10: Ensure support

How fast does your agency have to respond to your requests? At what point do those requests cost money? What potential screw-ups do they have to own?
Don’t expect your vendor to define 100% of potential problems and costs. It’s impossible, and some jerks like me will punt you out the door for a demand like that.
But it’s nice to have some rough idea what kind of help you’ll get if/when something goes wrong. And it’s for me to know when I can ignore the 3 AM cell phone call, and when I can’t.

11: Tune your bullshit detector

You don’t have to be a proctologist to know when someone’s full of crap.
Look at your vendor’s web site. Does it have broken links? Does it look like it was built in 1997? Can you find useful stuff on it?
Look at sites they’ve created. Same questions.
Talk to the folks who will be doing the work, or to the person who will lead the team.

Trust your instincts

Trust your instincts. If you own a business or head up a marketing department, you’re a good judge of character. Or you’re going to hire so many morons you’ll soon be out of a job anyway, so you don’t need to worry about it.


Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (that's more than 25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team, training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at www.ianlurie.com

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  1. Great article. People seem to have inate trust that their web pro will always look after them, rather than making sure they have access to their Analytics, Domain registration, PPC account like you suggested. Definately worth re-tweeting!

  2. Great article, I’ve been experiencing some of the issues here as a freelancer, having to redo stuff that another guy messed up 🙂

  3. There is certainly no shortage of self-proclaimed experts, nor is there a shortage of bad templates from which some create poor-quality sites. This can sometimes make life difficult for those who take their work seriously. Some designers make “economically priced” work that is naturally low-quality. Quite often the client doesn’t know any better, and gets the cheaper service. It’s good, then, to make people aware of this problem.

  4. I agree with almost everything you say AND I also know that paying >$500 for web design doesn’t guarantee quality either.
    I’ve seen too many small biz owners sink thousands of dollars into web design before they test their ideas and see if they even have a marketable product/service.
    I think good market research has to proceed web design. And a professional looking WordPress site to use for that testing doesn’t have to cost anywhere near $ 500.

  5. @Sheryl I heartily agree, assuming that the average business owner is going to conduct marketing testing, and use WordPress on their own.
    I’ve not seen either of those all that often.

  6. Thanks so much for this article! I just started business creating blogs for other small businesses. I hate seeing people pay way too much money for a website that has very low ROI.
    My business plan is to go for the market that wants to control their own website and content but has very little, if any, technical knowledge. It’s a small niche, for sure, but hopefully, I can help them get started with a simple WordPress blog that suits their needs, make a little money myself and save them big money in the process. You’ve given me some great guidelines I can use to provide my clients with good customer service.

  7. This is an area that I think all of us non-techies may overlook. I am fortunate to have an in-house web master, but many of my clients are at the mercy of others. Thank you for the information on exactly what to ask for. This is valuable content.

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