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Digital Extortion: Don’t Let Your Data Be Held Hostage

If you don’t own your own data, you need to fix that right now. Here's how to prevent a marketing or SEO agency from holding your data hostage.

Don’t Let Your Data Be Held Hostage By Your SEO Agency

Recently, our firm took over the digital marketing efforts for a small company.

Their previous digital marketing efforts were led by a large, multi-national corporation that formerly specialized in Yellow Page advertising.

As we went about our onboarding checklist, we ran into a snag.

The small business had never had direct access to their Google Analytics account.

They had used their previous firm’s “proprietary” dashboards to track progress.

Our calls to the previous agency went unanswered.

We asked our client to contact the agency. They did.

The agency told our client that they owned the Google Analytics account, and even though my client had paid their previous bill in full and fulfilled the term of their contract, their analytics account would not be released.

So we called Google.

After speaking with three different folks at Google, we were told that we could not have access to our client’s analytics because a different URL, not my client’s, was being tracked by the analytics code.

A little bit of digging uncovered that more than 68 domains were using this same UA code. All of these sites appear to have signed up for digital marketing services from my client’s former agency.

I’m assuming that this agency is using some sort of dashboarding tool that pulls in data from a Google Analytics setup where different views are created with a single UA tracking code.

This makes it simple for them to set up websites (they build almost all of their client’s sites) and do all of the configurations in Analytics after the fact.

This is how the agency scales to handle the thousands of small business accounts they manage without using costly skilled talent.

This also means there is no way any of these companies can retain their analytics data after they decide to leave their agency.

History gone. Poof.

This is data held hostage through a loophole.

Who Owns Your Data?

Good contracts make good partners.

If I were a business looking to hire an agency, one of the first things I would do is look at the contract and make sure that I own the work being done by the agency.

I would also make sure that I owned any data being analyzed.

It’s astounding to me how many businesses come to us without their data after leaving an agency. In fact, many come to us not even owning their own website.

If an agency is holding your data, or your website, hostage – you could try to sue to get it back.

But you might not win.

And lawsuits take months, if not years to work themselves out.

By the time the legal system gets around to recovering your stuff, it’s probably going to be pretty obsolete.

Businesses must insist on owning their data.

This doesn’t mean that businesses need to be the ones analyzing the data or even collecting it.

In many cases, agencies are better equipped to deal with the data.

That’s why you hire an agency.

Why You Need to Own Your Data

Agency and client relationships change.

Every client eventually leaves their agency at some point. Every. Single. Client.

When a client leaves an agency, if they can’t take their data – or, god forbid, their website with them – it puts their next agency partner at a huge disadvantage.

When an agency enters into a partnership with a new client, the first step is to see what has been done in the past.

We need to know:

  • What has been done.
  • How the site has performed.
  • What the challenges have been.

We don’t repeat mistakes of the past. And we don’t want to do extra work by implementing a strategy that has already been tried and proven to fail.

Without analytics data, new agency partners are left in the dark.

In the case above, our team had to install a new instance of Google Analytics.

We have no traffic benchmarks.

The client didn’t download any data from their previous agencies dashboards. And of course, that agency won’t give us anything now.

We can only show how well we have performed since we started managing the account.

This makes it hard for the client to evaluate our work compared to what they were getting.

But, in this case, I suspect their P&L will reflect the success of our efforts. Their site was a mess.

However, measuring success isn’t always cut and dry, especially if there are no benchmarks at the beginning of a relationship.

When we don’t have the data we can’t look back and predict any seasonal trends.

We can’t see how the site was affected by any algorithmic changes.

We can’t see how specific code implementations affected the search engine presence.

We’re blind.

What to Do When You Are Held Hostage By Your Agency

What can you do when an agency decides to hold your data hostage?

In the case cited in this article, unfortunately, there is not much we can do.

Because the analytics account tracks several different URLs, there is no way we are going to recover that data.

If the previous agency would cooperate, we could ask for specific reports that might help us establish some benchmarks – but without their cooperation, we are up the creek without a paddle.

But most of the time there are steps you can take to get your data back.

Make Sure You Own Your Data

Check your contracts.

If you don’t own your data, ask for a contract addendum, whether you plan to leave your agency or not.

If the agency refuses to add that addendum, start collecting as much data as you can.

Pull dashboard reports. Pull analytic reports.

If you are going to a new agency, hire them before you fire the old agency and ask them what data they want to have.

It’s better to have to pay two agencies for a month or so while you collect data than to move into a new relationship with no data at all.

Give Your Agency Notice Before You Leave

I’m a big fan of transparency.

Most agencies know when a relationship is about to end.

If you are going to leave an agency, give them notice.

Be prepared for the agency to work to save the account, but have faith that they will do the right thing.

But be prepared before you give notice. Not all agencies will do the right thing.

Some agencies will just stop doing any work.

But if you are prepared for that eventuality, there’s a better than average chance that the agency will cooperate with you – especially if they are a legitimate agency with a good track record.

It’s interesting to me how most companies are reluctant to tell their agency that they are planning on leaving.

Personally, I want to know if a client is leaving so I can plan and staff accordingly.

As an agency owner, if I’m about to make a new hire and I’m assuming a client’s revenue in order to make that hire – I want to know if they are going to go away so I can staff accordingly.

Agency friends – I encourage you to embrace clients that tell you when they are leaving. Trust me, it makes your life easier when they feel comfortable enough to do so.

So clients, you expect your agency to be transparent. Agencies expect the same from you.

It doesn’t help anyone to pull the rug out from under them without notice.


If you don’t own your own data, you need to fix that right away.

If you are using an agency that reports to you with a dashboard, make sure you can take your data if you leave.

Companies should be upfront with their agencies if they plan on canceling the contract. Especially when they know they own their data.

And Google – let’s stop agencies from holding data hostage. It’s not a good look.

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Image Credits

Featured Image: Created by author, November 2018


I am a 19-year veteran of the digital marketing world with previous experience in journalism, public relations and advertising. I’ve ...

Digital Extortion: Don’t Let Your Data Be Held Hostage

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