Need a copy of crashed website, but account holder is unreachable
July 9, 2020 7:58 AM   Subscribe

A bad update crashed our nonprofit WordPress website. We aren't able to rollback the update because we can't reach the person responsible for the hosting. To workaround the problem, we created a new stripped-down version of the website at another host. Now we'd like to get a copy of the old site so we can eventually migrate the old content to this new site. But the hosting company won't provide a copy of the old site without the old account credentials, and we can't reach the person who had/has them.

My church's website went down for good after an ill-considered WordPress version update by one of our WordPress admin users. This should have been easy to remedy by doing a rollback using the website hosting login, but no one has that login, and we haven't been able to contact the person who's been supplying the hosting for this website ever since it was created. A webmaster hastily spun-up a new, but stripped-down, version of the website with a different hosting provider. I'd like to get a copy of the old site's WordPress files so we can eventually migrate any missing historic content to the new version.

The sticking point is getting a copy of the old site from the old host company. I can't get anywhere with their support team without having the account's login, telephone support PIN, or the last four digits of the credit card used. None of our guesses for this information has worked.

I'd like advice on how best to proceed with this old hosting company. We do have full control of the domain registry/DNS, which I feel should be sufficient to establish our legitimate right to this historic content. I'm not even asking for access to the entire account - I just want our website's WordPress files. I think we're willing to pay for a special fee for them to get a copy of this. I setup an account of my own with this old hosting company with the hope that support could copy the old website's WordPress files to my new account. Still no luck - I can't get anywhere with them without being able to provide the old account's login verification info.

If anyone is familiar with inner workings of hosting company support, I'd like to know if it's worth escalating this as a support request, or if there are better options. I had expected this be a not uncommon problem. It's a large, established hosting company - I can post the name if that would be helpful. I'm wondering if there are magic words to make it easier to communicate to the support people what I'm asking for. Or maybe I'm wrong in thinking this is a reasonable request.

A check of AskMeFi didn't find anything directly relevant. If there's an answer to be had by googling, it's buried under the many pages about recovering from a hijacked website/domain. In our case we're simply trying to copy old content from a site that is inaccessible owing to neglect, not maliciousness. Only some of our content is in the internet Wayback Machine, so having a copy of the old website would spare us the considerable work of reacquiring valuable old content.
posted by kgander to Technology (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Can you login as an administrator?

Was there was a regular backup process? If so, where are the backup files stored?

You probably don't have ftp or shell access to the Wordpress site, but if you do, you can reconstruct.

The Wordpress site will be supported by a mySql database instance, which is functionally separate from the Wordpress instance. If you have the "first" admin password for the Wordpress site, the password for the database is probably the same.
posted by alittleknowledge at 8:21 AM on July 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would guess that the person who was 'hosting' it for you is probably a reseller. A lot of small companies do this - it allows them to host websites for their clients without the overhead of maintaining the server OS and hardware. As such, they become the support contact for the site. This can complicate things when that person goes AWOL without giving you a login to your control panel. In future, it would be a very good idea to insist that you have access to a control panel interface (often a product called cPanel) for your account.

Getting hold of a copy of your website files is only one half of things. This will include all of the plugins and customisations that have been done to give your site its 'look and feel'. But you also need the content, and most of that will be in a database, most likely a mySQL database. The database server will (if my above guess is correct) be shared with other websites this person is hosting. One of the databases on that server will be your site's WordPress database. And that's something you'll need a copy of if you want to move to another host.

I would just try to escalate the matter with the company providing the hosting. You're right that the domain ownership ought to be adequate proof that the data is yours. At the moment it sounds like you're getting the canned front-line support response.

Another approach might be to see if you can do a reverse IP search for other websites hosted at the same IP address (if there are any). Those may well have been set up by the same person. If there are telephone numbers on any of them, it might be worth asking them if they have current contact details for this person.
posted by pipeski at 8:24 AM on July 9, 2020 [5 favorites]

If anyone is familiar with inner workings of hosting company support, I'd like to know if it's worth escalating this as a support request, or if there are better options.

Used to work for support at a hosting company. As far as the hosting company is concerned, their relationship is with the person paying the bill and holding the account, not the owner of the domain or content. Absent really compelling circumstances (e.g., turns out the admin died) they should not provide you with a copy without the account holder's consent.

What they might do, if you escalate the request, is contact the account holder for a yea/nay on the request. If they respond to the hosting company where they've failed to respond to you, then you might be able to get any backup or files they have on hand.

When I was working in hosting support this is what I'd have done - if you identified the domain / account, I would not confirm any account holder info to you, but I'd open a ticket with that customer and ask if they gave you permission.

More than once we got pulled into disputes where our customer had turned off sites or something for unpaid bills and their customers would try to end-run around them coming directly to us. That's a big no. Not saying that's what's happening here - but I would expect most hosting companies are not going to deal with people not listed on the account without explicit permission from the account holder.
posted by jzb at 8:57 AM on July 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

This happened at my library recently. The hosting company (actually a reseller) was "in the wind" and we had to go to the hosting company's host (WP Engine) and basically be a sticky wicket bugging them. There were, at the time, some COVID-provisions for sites not being taken down due to this kind of mishegas. So either your host admin is not talking to you personally, or they've actually just up and left (our situation). If it's the latter, they're probably not paying the bills at their own host and you can possibly escalate with them. I won't lie, it's a pain (and like jzb says above, they are doing this for a lot of good reasons) but you should be able to get a complete backup (which is the database plus plugins) if you're successful.

Also I'd make sure your site is 100% "crashed" because sometimes WP can fail in ways that are recoverable and that might be a better way forward here. Best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 9:01 AM on July 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

You may wish to grab copies of what Google and similar services has cached as a worst case fallback. You can find some tools that will do this semi-automatically.

I suspect that jzb is correct - their contract is with your vanished person and giving you the data would violate that and they're not going to be willing to do a ton of work for a site that brings in $5 a month. You can have people in your group check their LinkedIns to see if there's a friend that could introduce them to someone that works at the hosting company who might be able to find out who, if anyone, could make an exception.
posted by Candleman at 9:08 AM on July 9, 2020

You may also have a social engineering option to reach the hosting account owner (your old webdev?) who is ghosting you. If your stripped down site has adequate traffic and if your webdev has a social stake in their reputation, you could add a message about what's happening to your new site, in hopes that the webdev can be shamed into responding.

Obviously, the ethics and advisability of this depends on how this came to be, etc.
posted by alittleknowledge at 9:21 AM on July 9, 2020

Was there any contract signed between the church and the hosting account owner? It might explicitly state that the contents of xyz website belong to the church and not the hosting account owner. That might help your case with the hosting company.

Are you certain nobody has even an FTP login? With an FTP login you might be able to repair the WordPress install, and you would at least be able to download all the files (you'd still be missing the MySQL database unless backups are accessible via FTP). An FTP account might be different from the web server admin console login.
posted by dweingart at 9:37 AM on July 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Are any WordPress admin users still able to log in to WordPress? If so, it has an export function that may help you to export the content. It might not save you effort in fixing the design of the site, but it could be a way to export the actual page content. Instructions here.
posted by bedhead at 9:44 AM on July 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

You could put your site's URL into the internet archive & see if they have copies of your old pages. If they do, you can copy & paste that content into your new site.
posted by belladonna at 10:51 AM on July 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

« Older What family names/parts indicate national or...   |   Please help me find a Meeting Reminder Generator Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.