Yet another Conflict of Interest? WordPress.org gives priority to a handful of Hosting Providers
WordPress.org continues to push a very limited list of “recommended” hosting providers to millions of users. Since the beginning of 2021 they took it one step further. But let’s back up for a second.
On 24th of February 2021, WPTavern published the following post by Sarah Gooding: Bluehost Misuses WordPress Trademark, Reigniting Controversy Over Recommended Hosts Page.
The post was about Bluehost (a popular hosting provider) misusing the WordPress trademark in their advertising. Long story short, Automattic has exclusive commercial rights to use the WordPress trademark, which is why they can advertise all their products however they see fit. If anyone wants to use WordPress in their ads, they have to go through Automattic first.
But this post is not about trademarks.
This post is about the “WordPress Web Hosting” page on the WordPress.org website, which theoretically is not Automattic’s property.
Currently on that page you will find only 3 hosting providers (Bluehost, DreamHost and SiteGround), plus a special mention for WordPress.com, a commercial project owned by Automattic.
In the WPTavern article, Sarah posted Matt Mullenweg’s statement about the recommended hosting providers. Here it is:
No one can pay to be on the page, and there are no affiliate payments made for customers sent from that page. It’s free, opinionated, and editorially driven. I do believe it drives many millions of year in business, which is why the potential for things like bribery or conflict is high if it were open to a larger group deciding who’s on there.
I think that this statement is wrong on a few levels, so let’s dive a little deeper.
1. WordPress Hosting Page
Let’s start with the actual WordPress Web Hosting page on WordPress.org.
This text on the page somewhat contradicts Matt’s previous statement: “some will donate a portion of your fee back”.
- Who are these “some” providers that will donate a portion of their earnings?
- Who will they donate back to? Is it for WordCamp events?
- When will they donate back a portion of these fees?
- Corporate donations are usually rewarded with praise in the community and additional exposure.
So technically, assuming that these hosting providers receive “free, opinionated, and editorially driven” exposure on this page, besides financial gains, they can “donate back” some % of that revenue and receive even more exposure.
These hosting providers can buy exposure and improve their reputation with free money. What a deal!
Anyone who has ever ran an online shop knows how simple it is to track the amount of sales generated from one traffic source or another. So it is completely obvious that all hosting providers mentioned on this page know real well how much revenue is generated from this page. And that includes Matt.
Matt recommends web hosting by WordPress.com, his own business, on WordPress.org pages. Are regular users aware of this conflict of interest? Is this relationship disclosed in any way?
Many will argue that such a disclosure is not necessary, as there are no direct affiliate links on the page. How convenient 🙂
But wait, there is more.
2. Download WordPress Page
2. Let’s look at arguably the most important page on WordPress.org, the Download WordPress page (Get WordPress).
I always knew that I can download the latest version of WordPress from a big, blue call to action button that was visible “above the fold”. Not anymore.
On the left you can see what the Download WordPress page looked like until 8th of January 2021. On the right you can see the current version of the page.
There’s a new paragraph of text that is difficult to explain:
There are several ways to get WordPress. The easiest is through a hosting provider, but sometimes tech-savvy folks prefer to download and install it themselves.
Here’s a few questions that come up while looking at this new version:
- Why was it necessary to move down the main call to action button (the download button) by a full screen (~1000 pixels)?
- Why was it necessary to add recommended web hosting providers ABOVE the main call to action button?
- Why is it necessary to emphasize with strong text the fact that you have to be tech-savvy in order to download and install WordPress?
It looks like some effort went into convincing new WordPress users that directly downloading WordPress is a bad idea, especially if they are not tech-savvy.
This is not meant as an attack on Matt Mullenweg. I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. I will gladly publish Matt’s side of the story, if one will be provided.