Here’s a question: Who would care if you tore down your house? Sounds crazy, but stick with me for a second—the answer to this question illustrates an important point. If you’re like most people, your family would go ballistic, your neighbors would flock to the commotion, and your bank’s loan officer would be leaving you some very panicky voice-mail messages.

In fact, all sorts of people might stop you from demolishing your house, including your spouse or partner, a homeowner’s association, the bank, and several government agencies. This scenario illustrates the point that often when we say we “own” something, many other people could still have some control over it. A Web site is no different.

Before you think I’ve lost my noggin over property rights, let me relate this to your surgical practice. As the president of a Web-marketing firm that specializes in the medical services industry, I speak with numerous surgeons about improving their Web sites as part of their overall marketing strategies.

Many of these surgeons assume that if they pay for something, they own it. In my line of work, these surgeons are increasingly known as “future litigants.”

All too often, our new clients are surprised to discover that they don’t really own the assets we need to do the work. Sometimes, a Web vendor has acted vindictively against clients who want to try other firms by locking down their assets or holding them hostage. At other times, our clients didn’t understand the limits of the deal they forged with their previous Web vendors.

Both situations end up costing surgeons plenty of time and money to protect the good name and good business they’ve worked hard to establish online.

This article is about how surgeons can avoid online surprises. There are times when it makes sense to own all the aspects of your own Web site, and there may be other times when a lease or an agreement to give up some ownership might be a good idea. I’m here to encourage you to find out where you stand so that you can avoid some of the pitfalls I’m about to discuss.

Vendors Behaving Badly

I’ll say this at the outset: The majority of Web vendors are doing an honest job to provide their clients with competent Web services, and some truly fantastic vendors are hitting home runs almost daily. But an increasing number of bad apples in this business are doing things that end up harming their surgeon clients.

Let me highlight some common mistakes on the Web that ensnared surgeons just like you over recent months. Names have been changed to protect the frustrated.

Case study 1: Cloned, not owned. A New York plastic surgeon, “Dr Deli,” hires a Web firm to build her site, and hires us to promote it. About a year after the site “goes live” on the Internet, she gets a very official-looking letter in the mail. It turns out to be a cease-and-desist notice from a heavy-hitter national law firm.

What did Deli do wrong? The overseas Web vendor she hired to design the site failed to purchase the stock photography it used, opting instead to steal images from other sites. Just like that, Deli is liable for copyright infringement.

Along with the cease-and-desist notice, Deli receives a very unwelcome bill for more than $20,000. Some of the pirated images should have been purchased, while others were “rights-managed,” meaning that she should have paid royalties for their use.

Because of the Web vendor’s corner-cutting, Deli ends up having to pay penalties for every day that the rights-managed images were displayed on her site. She must pay the whole tab out of her own pocket, because—not surprisingly—the shady Web vendor is outside the reach of US law and has disappeared.

It’s a sad fact of life that there always will be people chasing the fast buck, and it’s unfortunate that government and oversight bodies haven’t done more to protect businesses online. Until someone cracks down on unscrupulous Web vendors, I am working hard to protect my clients, and to get the word out so that medical professionals like you can protect themselves.

Fortunately, if you make a few good moves up front, you can enjoy a happy Web existence for years to come. The lessons from Deli’s experience: Be cautious when selecting an overseas firm to perform your Web work, and get proof in writing that your vendor has the right to use the text and images selected for your site.

The Pros of Contracting

Let’s assume you’ve done the research and found a reputable Web vendor. You’re well on your way right there. But many surgeons don’t realize how important it is to have a thorough written agreement to cover their Web-services needs.

You need to have an agreement, and you need to read it, or you may face unexpected costs and hassles down the road. Again, let’s look at case studies:

Case study 2: Handshakes make shaky deals. “Dr Chardonnay,” a Cali¬≠fornia surgeon, spends tens of thousands of dollars with a firm to develop his Web site. Rather than going to the trouble of writing up a service-agreement document, Chardonnay enters into a “gentleman’s agreement” with the firm that he will pay a set price and they will take care of the entire Web-site development process. As part of the handshake deal, he thinks he will own all the assets on his finished site—the images, text, and computer code that makes the site work.

When Chardonnay comes to us after he decides to change Web vendors, we contact the old firm to discuss transfer of the existing site. Chardonnay’s old vendor tells us that they will gladly release the physician’s site code and text, but they put a ton of work into the graphic sections of the site, and they believe that they still rightfully own all the visual elements.

Without an agreement in writing, who’s to say if their understanding is right or wrong? In the end, we’re forced to start from scratch to re-create the site’s graphics and flash animation. This duplicative work for Chardonnay’s site needlessly costs him thousands of dollars.

We delivered an excellent finished product, but many other surgeons just aren’t in the position that they can afford to redo work. This forces them to stick with their existing Web vendor, no matter how lackluster.

In this case, it turned out that Chardonnay’s handshake really didn’t seal the deal. Of course, you don’t need a written contract for every purchase you make. Imagine signing an elaborate purchase agreement every time you buy a pack of mints or go out to dinner. But it only makes sense to protect yourself when making any big purchase by getting a written agreement that details the offer and its obligations.

An element of trust in business relationships is certainly important, but you should be suspicious of Web vendors who will not detail the work they will provide in writing. The takeaway message here: Be prepared to open your wallet if your agreement is open to interpretation.

Case study 3: Don’t assume you’re fine with the fine print. Blackjack Plastic Surgery, a Nevada practice, has been running a Web site to advertise its aesthetic surgery services. The site soldiers on for several years, not attracting a whole lot of visitors and not really contributing to the practice’s marketing plan.

After deciding that its site needs a complete overhaul to make it more appealing and to increase site traffic, Blackjack signs a 1-year search-engine optimization (SEO) contract with a Web firm. During the year, the firm does some things that help to boost the site in the rankings of popular search engines such as Google, Yahoo!, and MSN. But Blackjack wants to be one of the top surgery practices shown in the search engines when Las Vegans search for plastic surgeons, so the physicians decide to move to our company once the year is up.

Unfortunately, we encounter some speed bumps in the transition process. Blackjack did the right thing by signing a service agreement with the previous Web vendor. Its error was not reading the agreement carefully.

Upon close examination, the service agreement says that the vendor retains ownership of all the work it did during the year, meaning that it can strip away all the changes made to the site, even though the practice paid for them. Blackjack loses all the text changes, new pages, and optimization work the moment it wants to try something new.

It may seem unfair that a vendor would retain ownership of assets you pay for. But there are times when this kind of arrangement is reasonable. For some medical professionals, it makes sense to work with a company that basically leases a good site to you, or designs Web sites using low-cost templates.

Similarly, your vendor may grant you the right to use a software package it incorporates into your site, such as an e-mail newsletter system, that would cost much more if you developed it from scratch. When you change Web vendors, you won’t be able to take that software with you. The advantage to all this is, obviously, a much smaller initial investment.

Along with the fact that leased or template-based sites have limited flexibility and aren’t likely to get you very good search-engine rankings, the disadvantage is that you often must leave your site behind if you ever leave your vendor, or if your vendor closes up shop. Remember this: Know the details about what you’re buying, because “caveat emptor” isn’t just another Roman relic.

Protect Your Practice

In a perfect world, you would own all your Web assets free and clear, and you could do with them whatever makes the most business sense. But in the real world, there are many reasons, both good and bad, why the Web assets you use might not really be your own. The key idea is this: Consider your Web asset strategy carefully at the outset, invest the time to find a good Web vendor, and then develop appropriately formal and detailed agreements based on your needs.

Your agreement with a Web vendor should be as comprehensive as possible, addressing ownership of all types of assets: text, photos, graphics, embedded software, SEO work, and ongoing enhancements. Make sure to discuss what may happen at the end of the agreement. I hate to sound like a lawyer, but a little due diligence in this area will go a long way.

See also “Web Crimes” by Ryan Miller in the July 2007 issue of PSP.

Most importantly, both in your Web contacts and for all your other business partners, never forget the key role trust plays in healthy business relationships. Don’t do business with any Web vendor you don’t trust, and rely on your gut feeling if something doesn’t seem quite right.

More and more business interactions occur in impersonal settings without face-to-face contact, and this growing trend is quite common in the land of Web vendors. Partly, that’s just the nature of the work in today’s online world. I encourage you to seek out a vendor who provides a personal approach, who you feel you can count on through the good times and the bad.

Let me leave you with this parting thought: Your Web site should be an integral part of your comprehensive marketing campaign. How would you like it if potential patients can’t find you online, where many surgeons now get one third or more of their patient referrals and leads? Any time a dispute over your Web site occurs, you may face months or years when your site is underperforming or has disappeared from the Internet entirely.

Why take that risk? Keep your online house in order so that nobody but you has the right to tear it down.

Ryan Miller is the president of Etna Interactive, a Web-marketing consultancy that serves elective health care providers nationwide. He can be reached at the com¬≠pany’s Web site, www.etnainteractive.com.