Don't trust web hosting recommendations. They are always bullshit (at least that should be your attitude until proven otherwise*).
First off, I'm not the first person to know or say this. It's been known in the industry and by tech savvy users since forever. TechCrunch even wrote web hosting reviews are a cesspool when they covered this site. It's this pervasive semi-secret that everyone seems to have accepted, but it screws over countless people who aren't in on the secret. They get tricked into using sub-par services that authorities are recommending.
Let's take a look at Drupal's hosting recommendations page:
Oh that's interesting. What does that disclaimer say?
These companies are great choices but you don't endorse them? That seems like a nonsense disclaimer. The only reason they have such a stupid disclaimer is because if you click that advertising policy you find out those spots are sold to the highest bidder and based on nothing but how much a company is paying.
$7,000/month for the top spot and you must sponsor events. So we're talking $100,000/year commitment roughly. They've removed that pricing information though and one can only assume raised prices since 2013 (we saw PaaS jump from $100 to $500/month). They changed the wording to "minimum monthly guarantee plus an affiliate commission once the guarantee is met." The hosting companies must still be making a lot of money, let's get even more from them.
So when did they give up even listing companies that didn't pay? Seems around 2011 you could be a bronze level hosting provider without payment or affiliate commission.
So when did they sell out? 2010-2011 it would seem. If you look at the 2010 version of the hosting advertising document they still demanded affiliate links to be tier 1 and tier 2, but at least they pretended to care with language like this, "Retains a high Better Business Bureau rating and consistent positive reviews around the Internet" and being a member of Drupal Organization didn't cost thousands. Tier 3 seems to be bronze equivalent and free.
So since approximately 2010, quality didn't even factor into their 'great choices,' but what does factor into it today? If you're a member of the Drupal Hosting Supporter Program, which is just another fee. They even do a security test!
Oh right. You're not required to pass a Drupal security test to become a member. Thanks for your money and here, have a badge, you're awesome! That payment ensures you can pay us more and get priority to pass us more money for your advertisement to be masqueraded around as a recommendation, but not really since we say you're great but not endorse you.
Update (4/21/2015): I managed to find Drupal's 990 tax filing. It's fun to see how in 2010 there was zero hosting affiliate income. 2011 had $32,701. 2012 had $219,824. (2011 and 2012 were combined hosting and advertising revenue). 2013 had $247,927 in hosting affiliate revenue.
tl;dr: So selling out pays out pretty nicely.
WordPress.org recommends BlueHost, DreamHost and Laughing Squid. They have for years. Apparently nothing has changed in the WordPress hosting space over that span. Except there's dozens of companies specializing in WordPress hosting. BlueHost and DreamHost are just joining the managed WordPress hosting game and are quite late. But these are the best and brightest for years? Sorry, that's just not true and we've got performance and real consumer opinions to back that statement up. Less than 50% of the opinions on BlueHost we see are favorable. DreamHost isn't much better at 55%.
One thing I am sure of though, is that they are probably pretty good at paying to be listed in places. BlueHost is listed first on both Drupal and WordPress. I can't fathom what sort of money that costs if Drupal is 2% of the CMS market and WordPress is 23.5%. Using some old Drupal numbers, $7,000/month x (23.5 / 2) = $82,250/month. That's ~$1,000,000 per year based on some napkin math.
Need more math? Take a look at Endurance International Group (parent company of BlueHost and many other brands)'s 10-K filing with the SEC. "During the year ended December 31, 2014, the Company made a strategic investment of $15.0 million in Automattic, Inc. (“Automattic”), an entity that provides content management systems associated with WordPress. The investment represents less than 5% of the outstanding shares of Automattic and better aligns the Company with an important partner."
How important is that relationship? "In addition to word-of mouth, PPC and reseller and referral channels, we have also entered into strategic partnerships, such as our partnership with Google through the “Get Your Business Online” initiative in the United States, India, Africa and Southeast Asia and our strategic alliance with WordPress, which help us reach additional subscribers." It's mentioned as one of two partnerships that they called out specifically by name at the top of their filing. Pretty damn important.
But is that even plausible? Sure. More gems from the 10-K filing, "The Company engages in sales and marketing through various online marketing channels, which include affiliate and search marketing as well as online partnerships. The Company expenses sales and marketing costs as incurred. For the years ended December 31, 2012, 2013 and 2014, the Company’s sales and marketing costs were $83.1 million, $117.7 million and $146.8 million, respectively." So between PPC, Affiliates and Partnerships they spent nearly 150 million last year.
Update (April 2, 2015): It's been pointed out that WordPress and Automattic are separate entities, but both are run by Matt. I've also managed to find WordPress Foundation 990 document for 2013. It shows $848,925 in contributions/grants. My best guess is that is mostly the web hosting recommendation 'donations.' If I am correct, my napkin math doesn't seem to bad considering that number more than doubled from 2012's $357,451. I can't wait to see 2014's numbers, if the trend continues they definitely should clear that one million dollars I guessed.
This is why we can't have nice things
Do I blame BlueHost (and EIG) or any of the other companies paying to be listed and get these deals? Nope. I've even privately told friends running companies in these spaces that it's probably worth it for them to be paying to get listed. Competition is fierce and whomever has the most customers and reach is winning the game. Ask GoDaddy or EIG. They will go to whatever length they need to in order to get new clients and that's their job. I expect that behavior from the web hosting companies.
I am disappointed in WordPress and Drupal though. They've sold out their community for presumably a fairly large sums of money. At least call it what it is and be transparent they are ads and not real recommendations without using intentionally misleading language. The best and brightest and great companies these are not. These are the companies who paid you the most money.
*So where does that leave people looking for honest web hosting reviews?
Here at Review Signal. Of course. We have a vested interest in telling this story. And if you listened to the first thing I wrote you've got a healthy dose of skepticism (great!) about Review Signal too. Web hosting reviews are bullshit. That's why I started this site and the only way to cut through bullshit is with transparency. Every algorithm we use to display / rank companies is published in our How It Works section. We also link every single review to its original source (on Twitter) so you can verify who said it and if you're really interested, figure out their intent. We publish how and what we classify as positive and negative reviews. So what we're left with is Trust, But Verify. Our entire system can be verified by anyone with enough will to go through it.
Is it perfect? Nope. Based on the scale of data we process, it's almost entirely automated, and automated classifiers make mistakes. Luckily our users report mistakes, we fix them and our system tries to learn from its mistakes by getting better and better over the long run.
We also have affiliate deals with most companies. That's the most common complaint against us. It's impossible to compete for free and maintain this technology without making some money. Affiliate deals can be corrupting when they pay so much, but our belief is that the transparency protects us manipulating the rankings based on affiliate pay. Currently, the highest rated company on Review Signal, FlyWheel, doesn't even have an affiliate program. I hope for my financial sake that they do open one in the future, but will that change FlyWheel's ranking? Not one bit. (Update: FlyWheel did announce their affiliate program and Review Signal was just accepted into it)
If you're ready to see what honest reviews look like, check out our web hosting reviews.
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