Safeguarding Your Domain

Brand identity from a domain name is valuable. Small organizations with volunteer-built websites risk damage to their brand and loss of audience due to misunderstanding the nature of Internet domain names and how to manage them. Those responsible for the Internet presence of such organizations should take pains to understand that domain names are long-term assets to be protected in order to safeguard the organization’s identity on the Internet.

Losing the Asset

One scenario is that a small organization stands up a website and invests in promoting their domain name – to get visitors to their home page – only to lose control over that domain name for one or a combination of reasons:

  • The site is moved to a new provider and the old name is left behind

  • There is a lack of understanding that a name can point to the new site

  • The old provider makes it difficult to assume control of the name

  • The name is not registered and owned by the organization itself

  • No one knows to pay to renew the registration, which is then lost

  • The volunteer who built the website leaves the organization

A non-profit I’ve been assisting recently lost control over a domain name from a combination of these factors. Efforts to regain control involved half a dozen people and a fair bit of their time. Fortunately, those efforts were successful and control over the name is restored.

The Name is Separate from the Site

One of the fascinating factors at play in the domain name loss I’ve just mentioned was a lack of understanding that the name and the site are not the same thing. The rise of one-stop-shop site-builders like Weebly and Squarespace coupled with the practice of domain registrars to bundle website hosting with domain name registration all but set a trap for the uninitiated.

A domain name is an asset that is separate from any website or service to which the name points. Figure 1 illustrates how that plays out for my personal website on which you are reading this post. 

Figure 1. My domain name settings at PairNIC.com direct email and web requests to my chosen service providers. I can change those providers at any time using the control panel at PairNIC.

Figure 1. My domain name settings at PairNIC.com direct email and web requests to my chosen service providers. I can change those providers at any time using the control panel at PairNIC.

What you should take away from Figure 1 is that a domain name is a distinct asset to be protected. The name is a gateway to various services such as a website or email that you may choose to make available. Those services can be hosted at different providers, they can be moved between providers, and the domain name is always the constant by which outsiders access them.  

Customers of site-builders such as Weebly and Squarespace buy into a product that includes website hosting and name in a single package and one easy payment. Domain names can be lost when those customers change hosting providers and don’t even realize their names are their own. 

So Keep It Separate

Register your organization’s name through a domain registrar separate from your hosting provider. Figure 1 shows that I control my domain name through a registrar named PairNIC. Doing so gives me full control over my name at all times. I can move my website away from Squarespace at will, and my email away from Google, and without their cooperation. 

There is a separation of concerns issue that arises as an organization grows. The person managing an organization’s domain name need not be the same person as manages the organization's website or its content. Having different people in control of the domain and of the website make it difficult for any one person to take rogue action that’s not approved by the organization’s leadership. For example, it’ll take two people instead of one to move to a new hosting provider.

Seek out a reputable domain registrar if you are planning a new website for your organization. Buy your domain through them. Then use a different provider to run the website itself. You’ll need to read more than you probably want about how to point your name to your website. (Hire someone to help, if it comes to that). The payoff will come down the road when you are able to change hosting providers without worrying about losing your name.

What if you already have a website up and running, and the domain name is through the same provider as hosts the site? It's reasonable to let things ride for a while if you trust your provider. It's even more reasonable if your provider has in place a ready mechanism by which you can transfer your name to another registrar on demand. (Squarespace does have such a mechanism). Just be aware that moving your name away might not be so easy in the event of a billing or similar dispute. 

Let the Organization Own the Name

The organization should own the name. Don't allow an employee or a volunteer to own the name on the organization's behalf. Create an account at your domain registrar specifically for the organization. Place the domain name into that account. Because whomever holds the username and password to the domain registrar account is the de facto “owner” of the domain. 

Most domain registrars make it easy to transfer domains between accounts. Is your domain currently registered by a volunteer under the volunteer’s own account? Then create a separate account just for the organization. Follow your registrar’s process for transferring domains between accounts. Get the domain into the organization’s account. Write down the username and password to that account, and file that information in a safe place. 

The end goal is to ensure that the officers of the organization are in control. They should be in control legally, which is accomplished by listing the organization as the domain name's owner. They should be in control practically, which is accomplished by their having ownership of and control over the account at the domain registrar under which the domain is registered. 

Review Status Yearly

Believe it or not, domain names are lost because organizations “forget” to pay their renewal fees. Domain names must be paid for, and typically on a one-year, two-year, five-year, or ten-year basis. Since one year is the shortest amount of time, it makes sense to schedule a review once yearly to check on your name’s expiration date, and to renew if necessary.

Don't overlook this task! And keep in mind that paying for your domain name is a separate thing from paying for your website. Unbundling the name registration from the website hosting means that you have two payments to worry about rather than one. 

It’s not easy to organizationally “remember” something. One approach might be to schedule a year-ending technology review as a trigger to help you remember to check on your domain names. It also helps to keep the contact information for your domain up to date.

Domain registrars help by sending plenty of warnings. They want your money, after all. Be sure the owner email address for your domain is current and that it directs email to someone who checks regularly. List a separate, second email address for your domain’s technical contact. That way at least two people will be getting those impending expiration notices when your registrar sends them. 

Document!

Write everything down. Just create a simple Word document or similar. Write down the names of your domain registrar, your website hosting provider, and of any other service providers. Write down the services that you use. Write down their login information, including usernames and passwords. File the information in a safe place.

Your organization's domain name is a long-term asset that almost certainly will outlast whatever combination of service providers you are currently using for website hosting and email and so forth. That domain name is also the public address of your organization on the Internet. Protect that name by treating it as the important asset that it is.

Acknowledgments: A shout of thanks to Squarespace expert Ward Sandler from 320NY for reviewing a draft of this post and providing technical feedback and encouragement.

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