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Web Hosting: It’s a Jungle Out There

Shopping for Web hosting can be like slogging through a jungle full of pitfalls, predators, and traps for the unwary. This article discusses what I’ve learned from two experiences in that jungle, in the hope of informing and assisting readers who are looking for Web hosting.

Pitfalls and Predators

How do you shop for Web hosting? The obvious way is to type “web site hosting” into your favorite search engine. Or perhaps “best hosting” or “web hosting reviews” to look for reviews and recommendations. That approach can work well for many products or services, but not so much for Web hosting. The search will turn up numerous blogs and sites that purport to “review” or to recommend the “best” hosting companies. The pitfall is that nearly all these blogs and sites are bogus.

Most hosting companies have “affiliate” schemes that pay users commissions for referring new customers. Thus, most of those “review” sites belong to affiliates, and exist to steer visitors toward companies that will pay them commissions. If you click one of their links to a hosting company, they’ll get some money when you sign up. If you visit enough of these sites you’ll likely notice that a few hosting companies are consistently “recommended.” The “recommendations” more likely reflect the generosity of those companies’ payments to affiliates than the quality of their hosting.

Then there’s a voracious predator you’ve probably never heard of: Endurance International Group (“EIG,” now called Newfold Digital). To mix metaphors, you could call EIG the Borg of Web hosting. EIG stealthily buys reputable or “up and coming” hosting companies. Then they “migrate” all their customers to EIG’s consolidated infrastructure and offshore customer and technical support. Finally, EIG liquidates the former hosting company’s assets and lays off their staff. The change of ownership may not be immediately apparent to owners of the Web sites the former company hosted; but as the assimilation proceeds, the quality and reliability of the hosting service— particularly customer and technical support— declines precipitously.

Thus assimilated, the empty shell of the former hosting company becomes what EIG calls a “brand.” EIG owns at least 80 “brands,” some of which are the largest and most heavily promoted names in the industry. As EIG has a large advertising budget and is particularly generous to its affiliates, it’s no coincidence that the largest EIG “brands,” particularly Bluehost and HostGator, are the ones you’ll find most frequently “recommended” when you search for hosting.

Each “brand” retains its own Web site that avoids any mention of EIG. For example, the “About” page for HostGator, the outfit that hosted this Web site for 17 years, boasts about how the company started in 2002. But in neglecting to mention that EIG bought (and gutted) it in 2012, the page deceptively implies that HostGator remains the same once-reputable company that has offered “Web hosting with personality” for more than 20 years.

This “cloaking” is an essential aspect of EIG’s business model. First, it gives the illusion of choice in a competitive market, even as EIG continues its relentless quest to monopolize that market. More importantly, it means that a customer who is dissatisfied with one EIG “brand” is very likely to move their site to another EIG “brand,” unless they do enough careful research to see through the “cloaking” and select a hosting company that isn’t an EIG “brand.”

This is a brilliant strategy for EIG: Their dissatisfied customers not only stay with EIG, but pay twice for that privilege! As I’ll discuss later, the pricing of Web hosting strongly encourages prepayment for up to three years of service. So EIG keeps what the user prepaid for the old “brand,” and collects another payment for service with the new “brand.” It’s much less brilliant for the customer, especially when they find out that the new hosting company— probably chosen based on glowing “recommendations”— has the same technical shortcomings and poor customer service as the one they left.

The Pricing Trap

When you visit a hosting company’s Web site, you’ll usually see a selection of plans. The plans provide different allocations of storage, bandwidth, and number of separate domains; and possibly offer different levels of CPU cores, memory, and speed. Some plans specifically support WordPress, a very popular platform for creating Web sites. Each plan lists a monthly price in bold, colorful digits. That price may be very tempting, particularly for the lowest-cost “basic” or “starter” plan. There’s often a notice that the price is a special, limited-time offer that will expire soon. If you visit the site months later, they’ll likely still have the same “limited-time offer, perhaps under another name or promo code. Regardless, there may or may not be a tiny asterisk next to the big bold numbers.

With or without that asterisk, buried at the bottom of the page in small type is a statement that the listed price is for new customers only. It may or may not mention that the ”renewal price“— what you’d pay after that initial ”new customer“ term runs out— will be higher, and often much higher. That’s important if you intend your site to have a long-term or permanent presence on the Web. Sometimes there’s small print underneath the large digits that says ”renews at regular price.“

The advertised price may also apply only if you pay in advance for two or three years of hosting. A shorter term will always have a higher monthly price. Sometimes there is a pull-down menu next to the advertised price that shows the cost of different terms. Those terms may range from one month to three years.

The trap is that they usually don’t make it easy to find the renewal (or ”regular“) price. That’s because the renewal price may be double, triple, or even five times the attractive ”new customer“ price touted on the home page! I’ve seen one hosting company that has an easy-to-find direct link to the renewal pricing right on its home page, but that’s quite unusual. More commonly you have to hunt for it, usually by searching the support knowledge base for ”renewal price or “renewal.” If that search comes up empty, you could try entering “name renewal price” into your favorite search engine. Search engines sometimes index a hosting company’s knowledge base better than its internal search engine. Otherwise you’ll have to contact them and ask. Or you might be able to calculate it if the advertised price has a crossed-out “regular price” or a percentage off the “regular price” touting the big discount they’re giving you as a new customer.

Like the “new customer” pricing, renewal pricing varies with the length of the term. That term may range from monthly to annually to two or three years. While the monthly cost of a three-year term can be significantly less than paying monthly, paying for two or three years carries the risk of losing some or all of that money if the hosting company is bought out (by EIG or someone else), deteriorates in quality, goes out of business, or is no longer a good fit for your Web site.

I consider this “new customer” pricing game sleazy, and outright deceptive when the finding the renewal price becomes a frustrating game of hide and seek. But it is the industry standard. When comparing hosting companies and plans, it’s essential to find and consider the renewal price.

Resistance Isn’t Always Futile

So how can you navigate the jungle and avoid the traps and predators? You can start by narrowing your initial search query to “Non-Newfold Hosting” or “Non-EIG Hosting.” That will at least lead to “review” sites and blogs whose owners pierce EIG’s “cloaking.” Some of them attempt to maintain a comprehensive list of EIG “brands” so you can avoid them. They will also offer a list of “recommended” hosting companies that aren’t EIG “brands.” The cautions about affiliates apply— and some of them still recommend Newfold brands, possibly with a caveat— but at least it’s a way to direct your search away from the Borg.

The most useful resource I’ve found is a forum site called Web Hosting Talk. You can search it for user reviews and discussion of specific hosting companies. Or you can sign up for a free account and make your own post on the “Web Hosting” (discussion) forum describing what you need and soliciting advice and recommendations. Many of the most active participants are owners or representatives of hosting companies, or are otherwise part of the industry. As they aren’t allowed to directly promote their companies— there are separate forums specifically dedicated to such promotion— they often share useful advice.

One consistent piece of advice they offer is to consider smaller hosting companies that host tens of thousands of Web sites rather than the millions the largest companies and EIG “brands” host. They’re big enough to have good infrastructure and customer service, but probably not big enough to be a target for future assimilation by EIG. Their funding structure, which relies on customers rather than investors, also provides strong incentives to keep customers satisfied. They probably also have a higher ratio of support employees to customers, which means they can provide timely, hands-on support when you need it. Taking this approach doesn’t guarantee anything, but it does make some sense.

In 2021, a private equity firm bought EIG. They merged it with web.com, a large hosting company owned by another private equity firm. The two private equity firms renamed the combined venture Newfold Digital, possibly in an attempt to thicken the “cloak” by dropping the rather tarnished Endurance International moniker. But Newfold now look to be phasing out many EIG “brands.” The Web sites of those “brands” allow existing customers to log in, but refer new customers to either web.com or Bluehost (the largest EIG “brand”). A few of the “brands” still accept new customers, but prominently note that they’re either “partnered with web.com” or “powered by Bluehost.”

It’s difficult to know what’s behind this change. Perhaps the wider exposure of EIG “brands” has reduced the effectiveness of the “cloaking” strategy. Or more likely, the new private equity owners decided they could significantly cut costs by eliminating most of the “brands” and consolidating their users into a small, manageable number of divisions, each providing mediocre service (at best) to millions of users.

Private equity is focused on maximizing short-term return on investment for partners and investors. Their preferred way to achieve that is through aggressive cost-cutting measures. For Web hosting, that means cramming more users onto older and less powerful hardware, and outsourcing customer and technical support to subcontractors in low-wage countries. Many hosting companies’ Web sites brag in great detail about the state-of-the-art servers, storage, software, and reliability measures in their data centers. That’s a selling point because fast servers and storage can make Web sites load and respond faster; and measures like backup generators and redundant storage reduce or eliminate downtime. But I think it’s significant that the Web sites of Newfold’s HostGator, Bluehost, and web.com “brands” divulge nothing about their servers or data centers.

The only thing that’s clear about Newfold’s apparent new strategy of consolidating its “brands” is that it should make avoiding Newfold Digital much easier.

My Host Story History

After not quite two years of hosting this site on my Internet provider’s personal Web space, I moved it to Los Angeles-based PowWeb in March 2001. I don’t remember why I chose that company, but someone I knew probably used and recommended it. I stayed with PowWeb until 2006, when EIG bought it. (It’s “now part of Bluehost.”)

PowWeb was then EIG’s largest acquisition. It was more than they could handle, and thoroughly overwhelmed EIG’s technical and customer support staff. Many PowWeb customers had serious problems with “migration” to EIG’s servers. When it was my turn to “migrate,” I decided it would be better to migrate somewhere else that wasn’t an EIG “brand.” When I went shopping for a new hosting company, I serendipitously stumbled upon Web Hosting Talk. Based on discussion there I chose HostGator, then a reputable company owned and run by its founder.

EIG assimilated HostGator in 2012. Even though HostGator was much larger than PowWeb, EIG seemed to have figured out how to assimilate a hosting company seamlessly, without stepping on users. I didn’t even know about the assimilation until a year after it happened. Of course, they didn’t send any notification to customers. And my site still seemed to work, without serious problems that might give me a reason to look at user forums that would have informed me of the buyout, or to experience EIG’s offshore technical support. I wasn’t happy about being back in EIG’s clutches; but my site worked well enough so that I didn’t feel the need to go through the hassle of moving.

HostGator’s reliability deteriorated significantly in 2022. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that the deterioration started soon after the private equity acquisition and merger that created Newfold Digital at the end of 2021. There was extended downtime and breakage. HostGator made no attempt to let anyone know what was going on, even as they continued their normal upselling promotions in e-mails and Facebook group posts. By then EIG/Newfold had shut down HostGator’s once-active user forums, apparently because users were complaining too much about persistent problems and poor service. I found posts on other forums claiming the downtime was due to a botched move to a new data center, but they were from users rather than anyone from HostGator. Attempting to fix the breakage after the servers were working again, I got to spend considerable time with Newfold’s technical support agents in India and the Philippines— and even more time waiting to reach them via phone or chat. The agents were actually knowledgeable and tried their best to help, but they were apparently too overworked and overwhelmed to provide adequate or timely service.

I had paid for three years of HostGator service in July 2021. By the end of 2023 I had decided to move to a non-Newfold host rather than renewing with HostGator. That decision was confirmed when I found out that HostGator had significantly raised their renewal prices. Renewing would cost me at least 50% more than what I paid in 2021. Yes, there has been significant inflation since 2021, but nothing that would justify a 50% increase.

A search turned up numerous forum posts from HostGator customers who were upset when they saw that the price on their renewal invoice had suddenly and unexpectedly increased by as much as 70% (for customers paying monthly). Newfold apparently didn’t consider it necessary to inform anyone about the increase in advance, which angered many long-time customers even more than the increase itself. Their response to complaints on forums and social media was tepid and even rather insulting. Given that many competitors can provide comparable hosting features for a significantly lower renewal price— and they’ll even handle the migration at no extra cost— I can’t imagine what Newfold’s private equity management are trying to accomplish by treating long-time customers that way. If they have some brilliant business plan, unfathomable to ordinary mortals, that requires driving away long-time customers, I’m happy to help them out!

Into the Jungle

I entered the jungle with a search for “non-EIG hosting.” I was somewhat surprised at not finding hosting companies that made a selling point of not being an EIG “brand.” I did find several potential candidates from “review” sites, bearing in mind the caveat about affiliates. I immediately dropped one candidate after I found that its renewal price was five times the new-customer price! (I will not identify this company or otherwise “name names” because any specifics I mention are likely to change by the time your read this.) I made a short list of three candidates.

I wrote a post on Web Hosting Talk’s “Web Hosting” forum describing my Web sites and asking for opinions about my short list. I also searched the forum for previous discussions of those companies. The consensus was, first, that those hosts are large organizations that pay good affiliate bonuses; and second, that they provide decent but not great support and value for money. The responses recommended looking at the shared hosting offers (promotions) forum for some smaller companies that might be better.

The promotions forum had a lot of hosting companies to investigate. I disqualified many of them because they were either outside the United States, did not actually offer “shared hosting” (an inexpensive plan where multiple users share a single server and IP address), had pricing that seemed too good to be true, or weren’t around long enough to acquire a reputation or reviews that I could find.

I eventually found three companies that had been around for at least 10 years, and for which I could find reviews that were consistently good. Most of those reviews were on Web Hosting Talk itself, but also on a few “review” sites that specifically discussed non-EIG hosting. (The TrustPilot reviews featured on some hosting companies’ Web sites are dubious.) All three companies do have affiliate schemes, but clearly not as generous as what EIG/Newfold or the larger non-EIG outfits pay. Then I went back to the discussion forum for advice about my new short list. It seemed that any of them would meet my needs for reasonably-priced shared hosting.

As I studied the three companies’ Web sites, MDDHosting seemed most promising. First, its owner, Michael Denney, is an active participant in the Web Hosting Talk discussion forum who generously offers advice and shares his extensive knowledge. (Discussion forum moderators aggressively enforce the rule against representatives of hosting companies directly promoting their companies.) He considers MDDHosting medium-sized, hosting some 37,000 Web sites.

Second, the Web site’s home page has an easy-to-find link to the renewal pricing for their plans. This is a welcome contrast to the frustrating game of hide and seek so many hosting companies make prospective customers play to get this essential information. And that renewal price is significantly less than what I would have paid to continue with HostGator.

Finally, MDDHosting’s Terms of Service— the legal contract to which customers agree when they sign up— are unusually clear and concise. I could write a whole essay about the poorly-drafted, unenforceable, and even absurd Terms of Service I’ve seen. My favorite example is an all-too-common provision prohibiting “copyrighted material.” That must actually mean material that infringes any copyright. But as written, it means customers’ Web sites can contain only content explicitly released to the public domain— such as Tom Lehrer’s Web site, on which he relinquishes the copyrights to all his songs and releases them to the public domain. Anything else would violate that provision, which means the hosting company would have to terminate all its customers’ accounts and shut down! This is just sloppy drafting that raises questions about attention to detail. MDDHosting’s provision reads “Use of our services to infringe upon any copyright or trademark is prohibited.” That would be difficult to improve, beyond removing the unnecessary and unidiomatic upon.

I’m writing this in mid-February 2024, about a week after I moved my Web sites to MDDHosting. That’s too soon for a proper review. I do plan to revise this article after a few months of experience with them.

The process I’ve described here led me to what seems a good choice for my particular needs. If your needs are different, a different hosting company may suit you better. Please consider the process I followed rather than the specific result it yielded for me.

After You Buy Hosting

Nearly all hosting companies offer new customers a refund period, typically 30 days. That’s usually enough time to thoroughly check out the hosting plan and make sure it really fits you. If it doesn’t, you can get a full refund of what you paid. If you cancel after the refund period, you’ll forfeit what you paid. But they may nonetheless offer a partial refund if you ask for it. Then you can try another hosting company. Moving Web sites now involves minimal hassle at most, particularly if both the old and new hosting companies use the ubiquitous cPanel software. Many hosting companies will handle the entire migration chore for you at no charge. It’s a red flag if a hosting company’s refund period is less than 30 days. I ran across a few that are seven or fourteen days.

Finally, here’s a very important point that Michael Denney frequently makes in the Web Hosting Talk forum: Always keep your own backup copy of your Web site(s). Even if a hosting company is a good fit and you’re happy with it, it’s always possible that it will be sold, suffer a decline in reliability and quality, or even suddenly go out of business. Having your own copy of your sites will let you move to a new hosting company if that ever becomes necessary, and quickly get back up and running. Better safe than sorry.


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