A public works director hires a consultant to plan, design, and manage the construction of a high-profile project—and set up a website to keep the community informed during public input stages. The site is so successful that the agency decides to keep it to provide future project updates.

One day, the public works director receives a phone call from a concerned citizen asking why the site was replaced with one offering objectionable content. The director types in the URL and finds images and text no agency would ever want to see on their website.

If this occurred due to someone “hacking” into the site and posting unwanted material, the fix, while not easy, can be made by removing what the hacker posted or taking down the server until the site can be re-established. But if this happened because the agency or consultant no longer has access to the site, they may be facing a much larger problem—and may not be able to delete the material.

To prevent this from happening, it’s important to understand the basics of how to establish and maintain websites.

How to set up a new website
Choose a host. This is typically the company that offers you space on their servers for your website. Everything is stored on those servers, and you manage your site through an interface the hosting company provides. Some public agencies host their websites on their own servers.

Choose the domain name. This is the website address, or URL, that people type into the browser to get to your site. (For example, Public Works chose www.pwmag.com to use as the magazine site's domain name.) The URL you choose must be available so you can register it in your name, or your agency’s or company’s name. To check availability, visit your website hosting company site or another company that registers domain names. These companies typically offer an online tool to check a URL's availability. If the one you want is available, you can proceed with registration.

Once you register your domain name, you can complete installation of the website software on the server and upload your content. When it’s ready, anyone typing in your URL can visit your site.

How to maintain your site
Maintaining a site requires more than just uploading content, adding pages, and changing information. You must also periodically renew your domain registration, as it is only valid for a limited amount of time.

Don't let your registration lapse! There are people and companies out there just waiting to quickly take over the registration of lapsed domains. Some may even offer to sell domains back for a profit. Because governments and nonprofits might not have their names trademarked like companies do, it may be impossible to legally require new owners of lapsed domains to give them up.

In my opening example, it is likely the consultant allowed the domain registration to expire and someone else registered it. Unless the agency wants to buy back the domain at whatever cost quoted—assuming it's for sale—the agency has to accept that it has directed the public to a website address that now contains objectionable content.

Screenshot from DomainTools showing registration information for the google.com domain.

Screenshot from DomainTools showing registration information for the google.com domain.

How to protect your site
There are a few things you can do to ensure you don’t lose your domain name:

Set up an automatic renewal of the domain name through the same company where you first registered it. You can also register the domain name for more than one year. The image is from a screenshot of an inquiry on the DomainTools website about Google’s domain name. You can see that Google has registered their URL, google.com, through September 2020.

Register in your name. In my example, the public works director should have made sure the consultant registered the domain name in the agency’s name and not the consultant’s, so that the agency had control over its expiration.

Finally, consider how long you will need the site. If it is a temporary site, will it be a problem to distribute agency materials directing the public to a website address that might later lead to sites over which you have no control? If so, then discuss the option of having your project sites set up on your agency’s regular website. That way, when the site is no longer needed, you control what people will see when they visit the URL in your handouts.