Tag Archives: dirtyslimyshady

Hostinger’s Fake Reviews – A Guide on How NOT to Promote Your Company

It started with a seemingly innocuous comment responding to someone looking for a hosting recommendation.

So what's wrong here? Let's take a look at all those likes.

So the CEO, Head of Acquisition, former Customer Success Manager (and now running a review site promoting Hostinger), Head of Customer Service and Customer Success Specialist from the company all liked this status posted by a Junior Software Engineer at Hostinger. The followup comment by the Head of Acquisition, which links to their good reviews on TrustPilot, is also liked by the CEO and the Junior Software Engineer.

This seems a bit manipulative in a post asking for recommendations to have your employees all commenting/liking yourselves to give a false sense of popularity.

But how did we get here?

So a huge influx of Hostinger employees all showed up to participate in a poll asking which company was the community's favorite (hint: they voted for themselves). So their entire presence in this community was started because they wanted to manipulate a community vote to give themselves a false sense of popularity. Their manipulation got them a nice 4th place out of ~65 companies. Technically there wasn't a rule against voting for yourself and I'm sure other representatives from companies voted for themselves too, but not in such a massive group that the admins were commenting on it. But this adds context to why all these employees joined the community with regards to timing.

So what's the big deal?

Some of their employees are pretending to be customers and offering unsubstantiated (and clearly biased) comparisons against their competitors.

 

"Hey, checkout our TrustPilot score!" or "Look at this review comparing us to the heavyweights in the industry!"

At least there is a disclosure from this employee that he works there.

Problem is that the review is published by themselves (always a good comparison source). They also like to use TrustPilot again and pick negative reviews about their competitors. They like comparing themselves to SiteGround.

So they pick a negative review for SiteGround (and HostGator) and a positive review for themselves to highlight how the 'real users speak for themselves.' Except when you look at the overall score, SiteGround scores a 9.6/10 on TrustPilot versus Hostinger's 9.3/10. They probably don't want you to know that though. It doesn't fit the narrative when you actually have worse reviews than your competitor on your darling review site.

Hostinger is so focused on TrustPilot and how "real users" and "customer replies cannot lie."

Are you ready for the surprise?

So who is posting these glowing reviews about Hostinger on TrustPilot? It's none other than.... drumroll please.... themselves!

But wait, there's more!

 

So that glowing Trust Pilot score they are using to advertise their own service? Fake and manipulated. I guess their 'customers' (also known as their staff) can lie.

As a further bonus, as I was working on this article I was contacted by Paulius Zemaitis. The name might look familiar from the top of this article where he was liking their statuses. He used to work for Hostinger as a Customer Success Manager for nearly 4 years. Now he runs a review site called Hosting Review where you will be shocked to know he has ranked Hostinger as the #1 host. He was kind enough to try to buy sponsored content on Review Signal to promote his reviews. And when I called into question his integrity ranking his former employer as the best, he wrote "What kind of reviewer would I be if I placed Hostinger lower when it's cheaper, faster and more reliable than other hosts?"

000webhost is another brand owned/operated by Hostinger.

So I pointed out it's hard to trust anyone who pretends to be a customer of his own company and writes reviews for them while an employee there. I wondered if that posed any problems for him. He never responded.

Conclusion

Instead of behaving like an ethical company, they simply manipulated a community, a review site and a former employee created another review site which promotes them.

Whether they are technically competent is still unknown, but it's hard to think we as a community should be rewarding this type of behavior. It's beyond simply being overly self promotional, it's a operating a campaign to deceive consumers. It's hard to want to ever trust a company that thinks that is ok, especially when the CEO is often one of those people commenting on Facebook.

Of course, they got called out right as I was publishing this and their official response is just priceless.

Instead of simply punishing Hostinger for their bad behavior, I wanted to create something good as a result of this investigation. I reached out to a lot of thought leaders in the community to talk about the proper way for companies to engage with communities. 

A Guide to Community Participation for Web Hosting Companies and Employees.

Update

Their CEO, Arnas Stuopelis thinks this behavior is ok. Would rather Review Signal didn't exist to expose their bad behavior. Classy organization from the top down. By classy I mean fraudsters, obviously.

Uncovering the Rose Hosting Spam Network on Quora

Welcome back to Dirty, Slimy, Shady Secrets of the Web Hosting Review (Under) World - Episode 3! Read Episode 1 | Episode 2

Today's post features Rose Hosting. Who I refuse to link to because their whole business model seems to involve comment spamming this blog and other sources of information. What started with a simple spam comment sent me down a rabbit hole I wasn't prepared for and shed light on a fairly large spam operation that spanned multiple sites, but my primary focus became Quora with a secondary focus on the web hosting review sites also being manipulated.

Visualization of Rose Hosting Quora Spam Network. An interactive version is available at the end of the article.

The Beginning

It started with a simple spam comment.

fakereview1

The poster tries to compliment the post and then drops in a RoseHosting mention and praises it.

But wait, there's an IP address! Looks like they made a mistake this time.

oscarstanley-arin-ip

So Miami Cloud Hosting is who owns the IP space that this comment came from. Let's see what comes up when I ping rosehosting.com

rosehosting-ip-ping

If you go to that IP, rosehosting.com shows up. So it's correct. Also if you look at their DNS:

rosehosting-dns

So we're 12 IPs away on that A record. Let's check out that IP that actually responded on ARIN.

rosehosting-arin-ip

Bingo. Same Miami Cloud Hosting.

So fakeish looking name, an email with zero google search results and coming from the same IP space on a the cloud hosting provider that hosts RoseHosting. Pretty damning, but unsurprising to see some astroturfing, many of the bigger players just rely on affiliates to do it for them and look the other way.

But I'm not one to accept shitty behavior in this business and just look the other way.

Digging Deeper

Let's see how many more I can dig up. I recognize the Rose Hosting name and know they've spammed me in the past.

jean-debushy-comment mike-hidemyass-comment pablo-comment

mateo-comment

 

The pattern seems to be emails with nothing associated with them on google. There is a protected twitter account with the same username as Pablo, but that's about it.

Mike uses HideMyAss, a VPN service designed to hide identities. VPNs/anonymity have a lot of value, they also happen to be abused by spammers a lot. This pattern looks nefarious.

Jean's comment follows the original Oscar comment's template: compliment, rose host spam, compliment.

They all added in HTML with the rel="nofollow" because they probably realized Google can easily see comment spam and cracked down on it. Putting a nofollow link is supposed to preserve your SEO value by not associating it as a spam link (because it's telling Google not to follow it). Why are these supposed customers adding SEO tactics to their comments and trying to hide their identities?

The Boss Man

I also got this email from Bob, who I assume is the owner based on what's listed publicly and the interviews he's done on at least one other review site which I don't trust a bit, and won't link to either.

But it's all class, I want to get listed and pay a lot.

generous-affiliate-program-rosehosting

So at best they are a 'subtle' please promote me for money kind of web hosting company (which almost every host will do). At worst, they are comment spamming and potentially astroturfing/sockpuppeting web host.

Searching For More

I searched WebHostingTalk, the largest web hosting forum that has run forever and has over 9 million posts.

rosehosting-wht

Just about everyone is talked about here. They have a company account that constantly posts ads. But how is it that in 14 years there are only 2 reviews and most of the threads are asking 'who?' Yet somehow, my blog is getting hordes of accounts recommending them. Another red flag.

Did they learn their lesson on WHT when an account got questioned about sounding like a shill? So the largest forum with 9,000,000 posts has basically nothing about them.

I kept searching and stumbled upon this gem on Twitter

twitter-brandonhimpfen-rosehosting-comment-spam

twitter-brandonhimpfen-rosehosting-discussion

I sense a pattern. Those crazy customers of ours who link to git and tomcat installation tutorials. Carl had a bit of a spamming spree according to Google.

Let's keep digging.

Sockpuppets and Patterns

jeandebushy-reddit-comments

Looks like I found Jean Debushy!

jean-debushy-serchen-review

And again.

jean-debushy-itzgeek-comment-spam

And again. Deep linking their ubuntu VPS on an ubuntu tutorial too, nice SEO tactic.

jean-debushy-quora

It's not a good spam campaign without hitting Quora!

So this name exists solely to promote RoseHosting and it all seemed to happen in October 2015. That's suspicious to say the least.

At this point it became clear that the sockpuppeting is more organized than I originally thought.

Organized Sockpuppets

I started to search the other names I had been spammed from and easily found more bad behavior.

oscar-stanley-disqus

oscar-stanley-discovercloud

Oscar is alive and well it seems on Disqus. and DiscoverCloud.

The Smoking Gun

Quora was the gold mine for uncovering this spam network. Once I found a couple accounts on Quora, I could go through their history and see who upvoted their posts. It would be practical if you were running a spam network to have many accounts upvoting one another to give yourself more visibility. More upvotes, more traffic, easier for me to track it all down.

I discovered 51 accounts connected to RoseHosting and mapped out how they connected to one another. I took those same names and searched for their re-use across other sites. 10 showed up on Serchen, 3 on HostReview, 6 on DiscoverCloud, 6 on HostAdvice, 3 on TrustPilot, 1 on Reviews.co.uk - all industry review sites being manipulated by these same spam accounts. I also discovered 11 more accounts connected to various review sites and comment spam.

Rose Hosting Quora Spam Network

This graph charts the connections (upvotes) of RoseHosting associated Quora accounts. If you hover over a name it links to the Quora details and any other related content spamming like review sites.

Aftermath

I tried for months to reach out to Quora and have never heard a word from them. I did notice when I last checked (March 28, 2017) that at least some of the accounts have been banned. Maybe someone actually read my email and just didn't have the time to respond.

I have reached out to the web hosting review sites and will update as I hear back from them. The only company that did respond and acknowledged the issue was HostAdvice (not to be confused with HostingAdvice which steals Review Signal content to mislead its visitors).

Sources

Full Data Table Available on Google Docs

 

Bonus

Thanks RoseHosting for having the decency to make sure you spammed this article as well. I am guessing your spammers don't understand irony. Or possibly the English language.

A new comment on the post "Uncovering the Rose Hosting Spam Network on Quora" is waiting for your approval
https://reviewsignal.com/blog/2017/03/31/uncovering-the-rose-hosting-spam-network-on-quora/

Author: Merritt George (IP: 75.86.176.9, cpe-75-86-176-9.wi.res.rr.com)
Email: merritt.george@gmail.com
URL:
Comment:
That's a great article! There sure are interesting parts of web hosting that people don't know about.

So hey I wanted to know if you do reviews on new sites? I was looking around and noticed that my current webhost, <a href="https://www.rosehosting.com/" rel="nofollow">Rose Hosting</a> wasn't listed and that's a shame! In a sea of companies with no scruples, they've stood out to me as a solid company that doesn't resort to shady tactics, delivers quality support, and has great uptime.

Would love to see a benchmark!

 

Bonus: Fake Review Screenshots

carl-williams-serchen-review

 

donald-wilson-discovercloud

 

akila-hostadvice

wesley-hermans-host-advice

emre-hakan-review-discovercloud

pete-williams-serchen

gary-coleman-hostreview

jean-debushy-hostreview

 

dirk-vlaar-serchen

 

HostingAdvice.com Steals Review Signal’s Content and Uses it to Mislead Visitors

This was originally written on July 7, 2015. The screenshots are mostly from that period using archive.org. The site has changed (no longer has a Top 10 that I see, but still misuses Review Signal in the exact same way). I was hesitant to bash competitors, but I decided I don't care, they are the ones behaving badly, I will call them out on it.

This is Episode 2 of Dirty Slimy Shady Secrets of the Web Hosting Review World

I've long hated the fake review sites that plague the web hosting review business. But it just became even more personal. HostingAdvice.com decided to take reviews from Review Signal, edit them and selectively use them to promote companies with very poor ratings.

Let's take a look at what is happening at HostingAdvice.com (This links to archive of their site in case they change it and I don't want them getting any benefit for the BS they are pulling).

hosting_advice_mission

They claim to be an expert and say everyone sucks. They are calling everyone else spammy and unreliable. It's hard to argue with the sentiment considering I have the same stance here.

But let's take a look at their Top Hosts in 2015

hosting_advice_top

Media Temple as number one, not the most abusive ranking I've seen. They don't have the best reviews here, but they are 58% (56% as of Jan 2017), which is 2nd tierish, at least more than half their customers are saying good things. BlueHost is #2? That's just nonsense. They have a 47% (40% as of Jan 2017) which means less than half their users are saying good things about them.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE!

hosting_advice_disclaimer

Remember that Highfalutin rhetoric about them being different and not spammy/unreliable? How could you possible need a disclosure like that if it were true? That's right, you're just like every other crap web hosting review site out there trying to pimp the highest paying affiliate program on unsuspecting visitors.

If that wasn't enough, there's always the coup de grâce:

Things are starting to make sense. But none of this has gotten personal yet.

So I took a look at the #3 Ranked iPage and to my absolute delight found this under 'Customer Reviews'

hosting_advice_stealing_reviews Yes, those are the two highest rated positive comments about iPage on Review Signal.

review_signal_actual_review

Except they've been given 5 stars which isn't something we do here. Also, they've edited this review without indicating they changed it (adding 'I'), which tells me they did this by hand and not scraping.

So that five star rating is made up. How made up?hosting_advice_fake_bluehost

So made up that this stolen review was given four stars. They are simply adding their own narrative and judgement to Review Signal's data.

At Review Signal, we only categorize as positive or negative.

Why does this matter and why is this so personal?

This matters because they were conscious enough of Review Signal to steal its content. They were also conscious enough to cherry pick the data they wanted to push the highest paying affiliates and ignored the fact they are selling out to some of the lowest rated companies around. They have JustHost listed as #9 (like many Fake review sites have in their top lists) when every indication shows that they have a terrible reputation. One of the absolute lowest on this site at 39% ( 31% as of Jan 2017) or you can look at the 21% on a no-affiliate link site that uses a similar methodology to Review Signal (now down to 7% as of Jan 2017).

2017 Update: iPage is still listed as 5 Stars with a 4.9/5 Rating as one of their best hosts in 2017.

Finally, what made this so personal is they are using the Review Signal brand to mislead consumers. This site was built to help consumers in a space filled with charlatans and it is painful to watch the brand be used by one of them to enhance their bottom line.

If you're not familiar with Review Signal, I suggest start by looking at our full dataset. Alternatively, you can read about how it works where our entire methodology is detailed including the algorithms used to generate our ratings. The gist of it is we use twitter data to listen to what good and bad things are saying about web hosting companies and publish the results. We validate our method using the few limited available metrics like NPS scores when given the opportunity.

Dirty, Slimy, Shady Secrets of the Web Hosting Review (Under)World – Episode 1

It's been approximately three and a half years since Review Signal launched.

The mission was simple: provide honest web hosting reviews.

(Almost) Everyone wants that. Consumers would love to not get screwed over by fake reviews/recommendations. Tech savvy consumers have all but given up on honest web hosting reviews even existing.

So why has it been so difficult to spread the word about what Review Signal does and why it's different? How come nobody else is really making a strong effort to do the same?

The easiest explanation is money. Money corrupts everything is a pretty common belief and in the web hosting world it's practically the law of the land.

Many web hosting companies are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for you to sign up new customers with them. And it's generally not the ones you would in good faith recommend to a friend. And these companies hire many people with the sole goal of convincing reviewers, bloggers, anyone with a voice that they should sell out.

And it's worked.

From some of the largest players like Drupal and WordPress down to the small, anonymous review sites that plague Google's search results for web hosting reviews. They have sold consumers out; for millions of dollars into their pocket.

How Are Web Hosting Companies Paying Hundreds of Dollars for a $5/month plan?

Let's look at underlying numbers that make this whole business possible before we continue. It seems crazy that companies could offer hundreds of dollars per sale for such small purchases.

The basic goal is Lifetime Value of Customer (LTV) > Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC)

CAC is the hundreds of dollars they pay someone to send them a new customer. So the value they are getting from a referred sale must be greater than the X hundred dollars they pay.

So how are they getting hundreds of dollars per customer? Lockins and cross/up-sells are the primary ones. They generally only give the super discounted rates for customers who commit to long-term contracts (1-3 years generally) and often require you to pay for it entirely up-front. So that $5/month hosting deal, may cost $180 up front ( $5/month * 36 months = $180). That's before they have attempted to sell you any extra services such as backups, domains, security, premium features, etc. They don't have to make more on any specific customer, but they know in aggregate how much extras they are going to sell.

If you're really curious, I dug into the financials of some of the publicly traded companies (EIG, GoDaddy, Web.com) to see what some of those numbers looked like. They were getting between $100-180 per subscriber per year. I'm also fairly sure that most customers stay for longer than a year.

So if companies are extracting $180/year/subscriber, paying a $200 commission for a new subscriber is a no brainer if the new subscriber stays over 14 months. Suddenly, the economics of these incredibly high payouts should make sense.

Back to the Corruption

Corruption doesn't happen in a bubble. Someone has to be corrupted. In many cases, it would seem the pure motivation of making a lot of money is enough. Most people create a site dedicated to pimping their visitors to the highest paying companies.

In other cases, there is blatant astro-turfing going on.

hostgator self promo on TC

Perfect example from the techcrunch article about reviews being a cesspool, now deleted of course.

But the most hidden corruption happens behind the scenes. It's the people with titles like Affiliate Program Manager and Partner Marketing Specialist. For many of these companies, their job is to try to convince people to use their brand/authority to sell the company's product for a commission.

What Happens Behind The Scenes of Operating a Web Hosting Review Site?

I'm going to show you exactly what kind of offers I get regularly here at Review Signal.

rs_sample_review

 

 

rs_top5

 

rs_rankings_for_salers_affiliate_no_thanks

This is just a tiny sample of the 'offers' I get regularly. Most look like the email from dedicatedsolutions, trying to convince me to sign up for their affiliate program. Some, like Eli Saad from domain.com straight up tell me that my rankings are for sale (really classy). Alec from tdwebservices won't stop spamming me and refuses to remove me from his list, while literally offering to provide reviews of his own company for me to publish (vomit). Scroll to the bottom for bonus Alec Mwali material. And I've redacted someone from InMotionHosting's name because they were extremely apologetic, but they asked to be placed in the top 5 (sorry, they are based on actual reviews, not paid for).

A lot of companies just ask to be listed and mention their affiliate program as the reason why it should happen. They don't even think twice about what they are implying, it's become so ingrained in the culture of web hosting reviews that they are all for sale that nobody even takes a moment to realize how f***ed up that is.

Consider this me putting up notice, I will be periodically publishing the slimy emails and offers I get here at Review Signal. You may be named and shamed. So don't do it.

BONUS ALEC MWALI MATERIAL

Alec has contacted me on behalf of TDWebServices, Unihost and Codeguard. He has sent me full word docs with fake reviews to publish. He repeatedly uses the fake 'Re:' topic to get people to open and read his emails. When called out about it, he claims it 'was not meant to happen' and it 'keyboard error' or an 'issue with my email platform'. I think you better invest in a better keyboard and email platform, because your current one seems to be stuck in spam mode.

alec_mwali_2 alec_mwali_1alec_mwali_email_1 alec_mwali_email_2

 

Update: CodeGuard no longer works with Alec. (Source)