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5 Ways to Avoid Vendor Lock-In With Your Website

By Ashley Orndorff, aka Marketing Geek locked padlock and chain on a gate

Your website represents your business online. You paid for the work to be done to design and build it and it’s your business, so you should own it. Most agencies and vendors operate under this idea. Even if they are contracted with you for some part of keeping your website live and looking great, you’re still the one that owns it. Unfortunately, there are some vendors out there that will make it as hard as possible for you to leave by locking you into their service somehow. Here is some more information about vendor lock-in and a few ways to avoid vendor lock-in with your website:

What is Vendor Lock-In?

Vendor lock-in, which is sometimes also called customer lock-in, occurs when a customer is dependent upon a particular vendor or agency for a product or service and is unable to switch or use another vendor. The inability to use another vendor is usually caused by exorbitant costs or other issues associated with switching.

When it comes to your website, vendor lock-in could be caused by the agency or vendor owning your domain, owning or data, owning your website’s code, etc. Generally, they “own” it to the point where switching to another vendor for a similar product or service would incur a ton of extra fees, result in data loss, or something else that would inhibit or hinder your ability to transfer or switch to someone else for the service.

Transferring websites, hosting, etc. always requires some time and effort because there are usually a lot of moving pieces and coordination that needs to happen. However, there should not be prohibitive costs or issues on top of it that would make that switch or transfer unrealistic or impossible.

How to Avoid Vendor Lock-In With Your Website

The best way to avoid vendor lock-in with your website is to make sure that, when it comes down to it, you are the one who owns your data, your information, and your property. With a website, there are a few different elements to account for including your website domain, web hosting, website code, website backups, and more. Here are a few things you can do to protect yourself from vendor lock-in with your website:

1. Own Your Website Domain

Your website’s domain is the URL that it lives on, it’s the web address people type in or click on to find you, and it’s important that you own it. It can seem like an easier process if the agency or vendor you partner with purchases it for you, but it doesn’t always end that way.

A good vendor or agency will transfer ownership to you if you need it, but it’s much better to begin the process with you as the owner. Contacts can change, businesses can shift, and not every agency or vendor will make it easy for you to leave.

You can avoid vendor lock-in here by making sure you are the one to purchase your domain, keep it renewed, and own it. Your vendor partner can help you with the process, but they should make sure that it is your information that controls the account.

You can always grant access to the account if needed. But, transferring ownership or trying to get access from an uncooperative vendor after someone else is an owner is a different story altogether – and it doesn’t always have a happy ending.

2. Set Up Web Hosting With an Email You Can Access

It’s not enough to just have a website. If you want people to be able to see it, you’ll need a web host to keep your website live on the internet. Knowing how to choose a web hosting provider or getting help from someone to pick the right one for you is one thing.

The other part is making sure that your account with the web hosting provider is set up with an email you own and have access to. You can identify other people who are authorized contacts on your account if you are partnering with an agency to help you with managing your website. However, you should be the owner of the account for your website so there is nothing holding you back from switching if you need to.

3. Review and Monitor Contracts Closely

Another way to avoid vendor lock-in is to review contracts closely before partnering with anyone and also to monitor any contract changes or updates throughout the relationship. This will help you identify anything that would cause vendor lock-in and allow you to circumvent it or find another vendor without those restrictions.

Check for Auto-Renewal

Check your contracts for the renewal or auto-renewal process. Most contracts have some sort of renewal clause in place. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something you will want to be aware of.

After the initial contract term is complete, what are the renewal terms? Is it for a year, month-to-month, or something else? You should be aware of these terms before you sign on to officially partner with anyone for a product or a service.

Think About an Exit Strategy

When evaluating vendor or agency partners and their contracts, it’s helpful to think about an exit strategy, make a plan, and then hope you don’t have to use it. Even if you don’t think you’ll cancel or switch, thinking about what that process would be like can help you identify any areas that might contribute to vendor lock-in.

What is the cancellation process like? Is it straightforward? Are there fees involved? Who owns the data? Who is responsible for what during a switch or transfer? What protections do you have if something goes wrong?

Consider Plugins and Other Services

If your website is built on a CMS (content management system), like WordPress, you likely have some plugins to help maintain the site or provide some function. Some plugins are free while others have a cost associated with them.

If these are necessary for your site or for something on your site to function properly, it’s important that you own the licenses to them. In doing so, those necessary functions continue unhindered regardless of the vendor you’re using.

In some cases, it makes sense to get these plugins through your vendor or agency as they may have a bulk license that allows you to get them at a discount or at no additional cost. However, should this be the case, you will need to be prepared to purchase a license/renew the license yourself and handle that cost should you decide to leave.

This situation can become a form of vendor lock-in, but it shouldn’t. If you will be benefitting from an agency’s bulk or developer license for a plugin, this should be made clear upfront and before the plugin is installed. In the case of your website, a good developer or agency will discuss these options with you before taking over maintenance or hosting for your website or moving forward with a build.

You should know beforehand if any plugins that will be added to your website require a purchase, how much that would be, and what that looks like. If the vendor or agency has a bulk license in place that allows them to provide the plugin to you for free, they should also present that option in addition to letting you know what it will cost you to maintain should you no longer benefit from the perks of that relationship.

The same is true for other services like email marketing platforms, call tracking, or any other marketing services you may be working with a vendor or agency to implement for your business. You should be the main point of contact, you should be aware of the costs associated with it, and you should know how an exit will work in order to keep things running consistently and without interruptions.

4. Build Your Website on a Portable CMS

Another way to avoid vendor lock-in with your website is to make sure it is built on a portable CMS (content management system) with a user-friendly interface. This makes it easy to move web hosts if you need to or move away from the original source that built your site.

Things can get more complicated with a custom-coded environment as your website may not function properly in other environments. Plus, a CMS usually means you can make basic changes to your website yourself.

Managing your website gets a lot easier when you have the option of updating content or images yourself instead of being forced to rely on developers to do it. You should have the option to offload that task to developers if you want to, but you should also be able to make basic changes yourself if you want to.

5. Have Backups for Your Backups That You Can Access

Backing up your website is essential. It allows you to roll back changes in case something gets messed up during an update, if your website was hacked, if you need to rebuild something, etc. Without backups or access to your website backups, you could be left with a broken website or starting from scratch when you decide to work with a new agency or developer.

A good web host will be backing up your website regularly and you should have access to those. It’s also not a bad idea to periodically have local backups to those regular site backups that you are guaranteed access to whenever you need them. Then, if something happens to your site or a designer/developer you’re working with disappears on you, you still have access to some recent version of your website to get it back up and running or updated as quickly as possible.

These are just a few ways to avoid vendor lock-in with your website and put some protections in place for your business. There may be agencies or vendors you partner with for a variety of things. The important thing is that you own your website and are able to switch vendors without major issues.

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