Demand that your development site at no time becomes publicly accessible.
What Is A Development Site?
When web developers (translation: web programmers) and web designers work on a website they don't do it live. They don't mess in real time with the website you already have or build one right there and then on your domain.
Instead they work on a preview version where nothing is mission critical. It's their sandbox, a development site, a staging area.
Once you are happy with the result and sign off on it they port the whole thing to your real domain and make it live.
What Is Bad About A Development Site?
It's not the idea of a development site you need worry about; it is who can see it.
Good setup: the folks working on it can see it and you can. When you want to see it you need to log into your client account. Or otherwise authenticate yourself before you can see the development version. Sometimes you need to access the preview site from a specific computer that has been authorized. If you try to access the site from just any browser without logging in, you can't see it.
Bad setup: the site is just there for anyone to see who has the URL or does the right search.
Why Should I Worry? I Have Nothing To Hide!
Do a search like [site:staging.*] and you find staging site after staging site. Do a [site:*.example.com] search on the domain of a larger web design company and you find tons of development sites, often from companies whose site has gone live years ago and who are no longer an active client.
Those sites are exact duplicates of the real thing that has gone live. In many cases the development site remains connected to the database of the real site so that every new post, every new article, every new page also gets pushed out to the development site.
Duplicate content is the web's version of "also ran". Although there are but's and if's and a lot of other caveats when it comes to duplicate content the easiest, safest business practical way to think about it is; it sucks. Big time.
Worse. Google treats domains and their subdomains as sort of a big entity. In case of a newly minted web site, and others that still need to build up search engine stamina, the web design company's development version of your site may be more authoritative in some cases than yours, with Google favoring that site over your site. And you thought duplicate content sucked...
How Can I Prevent This From Happening To Me?
- When you find a design company at www.example.com go to Google and search: site:*.example.com -site:www.example.com. See what comes up and click on the results. Do these look like client work? If so, move on to another company.
- If nothing shows the company may still use live, publicly accessible staging servers. Ensure that a clause is present in the contract that your development site at no time will be world-accessible. Define what that means: that access should be restricted by login.
- If the company says that all is fine because their "robots file prevents search engines from coming in" or "we no-index the site" or similar, say that that is not good enough.
- Remember that there is no need to have your development site live to the world. If the designer or design company lacks the technical know-how of skill to configure the staging server so that their developers can work frictionless while third parties are prevented from coming in -- should you trust such a company with your web site? Are they displaying the professional skillet you're looking for?
More Comfortable With Questions? Ask:
- Will you be working on my design on a development or staging server?
- Can that development site be accessed only inside the company (intranet) or also from outside (Internet)?
- If connected to the world wide web, how will you ensure that no-one but you and me has access to it?
- Will the contract include a statement that at no time my development site will be live?
- From big companies to small design firms, live development sites can easily be found in Google.
- Each of those development sites causes duplicate content; each is or can become an annoyance or even a serious obstacle to healthy search engine rankings.
- As a business owner you have to do your due diligence when selecting a design company.
- Once Inquiries start but before negotiations, ensure the design company is professional; that they shield development sites from the world and are ready to guarantee this to you, also in written, contractual form.
Question: what other warning signs do you know of?