How to interrogate your website developer

No polygraph required

You decided to get your business online with a website. That’s amazing. And you want it to kick ass, so you’re leaning toward hiring a professional website developer — you’re busy enough running your business; no need to fuss with a website (or teach yourself how to do it in the first place). That’s the kind of sound thinking that leads to success.

Well, just like you’d hire a plumber to install a new sink, you’re essentially looking into hiring a contractor to build your online home — a.k.a. your website. From the plumber, you’d request an itemized estimate for that sink installation upfront; the same goes for website development. Unlike a sink, however, your website isn’t a totally tangible object. Ownership of the elements that comprise it — its domain name, hosting and actual website content — can get murky.

Save yourself a throbbing headache down the digital road: sort out the particulars in advance. Before you sign on the dotted line, know what you’re signing up for by asking the right questions. An interrogation of sorts. But, in a nice way. Here are some basic questions to get this gentle inquisition underway:

How much do you charge per hour?

A common mistake is to ask how much a pro charges per website. Websites vary greatly in complexity, and their price tags follow suit. Each customer has different needs that take different amounts of time. Getting a per-hour price makes it easier to compare rates between developers.

How much do you charge per hour for maintenance?

The last thing you want is a stagnant website. You’ll want to update content to reflect changes in your business and trends in website design. And you’ll want to find out if your developer will charge for updating plugins and security patches. It’s a good idea to knowing the price for all that type of work before you’re scrambling to get your home page updated.

Who owns the domain name?

The best answer is you — the business owner. Your domain name — like coolexample.com — is your Internet address, how visitors find your website. It’s the foundation of your online identity. As the domain name’s “registrant,” you’ll have the legal rights to the name. If you go with a different website developer in the future, you’ll retain total control of it. That doesn’t mean you’re on your own, though. You can still give your web pro access to your domain by making him or her a domain name administrator.

Who owns the hosting account?

Web hosting is where your website’s files “live” so they’re visible on the Internet. Often times, designers just include hosting and factor that cost into your bill. Others want you to purchase hosting yourself and give them access to it. Just like your domain name, if your developer has the hosting account totally under his or her control and you part ways, it could be a problem. An avoidable problem.

Ideally, both your domain name and hosting account should be in your name in an account that you own, i.e. separate from the developer’s. (This doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker, though, because there might be logistical reasons for a developer to require a convoluted hosting setup that necessitates it remaining in her account.)

Who owns the website’s files?

Your website is comprised of files — text, photos, videos, etc. Ownership can get really murky here. It’s possible that the designer can give you a copy of your website’s files and you’re free to do with them whatever you wish — including having another designer work on them at a later date. It’s also possible that the designer literally has no access to the files and they’re not portable to you, another designer, or another host. Another possibility? A contractual refusal to let someone else work on the site.

Have this conversation upfront and establish an agreement about the ownership of your website’s files before you forge ahead.

What happens if I want to go in a different direction?

No one wants to talk about breaking up at the beginning of a relationship, but knowing what can happen ahead of time helps you avoid a sticky situation. Get the details. Have a backup plan.

Answering these questions will help you narrow down your list of possible website developers. As you move forward, you’ll also want to consider who’s going to write the copy for your website, obtain images and video for it, and tackle search engine optimization. The fun stuff.

Check out this post for tips on finding the right contractor and this one for the scoop on finding a website designer online. GoDaddy also offers professional website design services.

Still on the fence as to whether you want to hire a professional website developer or design your own site? This article and the chart below can help you sort it out.

Web Developer Questions

Sean Loiselle
Sean Loiselle is a senior technical writer in NYC who focuses on open source enterprise software. When he's not neck-deep in SQL, he takes in the city's museums, music, theater, and performance art spots.