The Zero-Asterisk Manifesto

All brand names mentioned in this text are fictional; any resemblance to real hosting providers, active or defunct, is purely coincidental. All screenshots are for illustrative purposes only.

Imagine you’re looking for an apartment to rent. You’ve found this pretty nice option in a decent neighborhood, and the deal’s really great, price-wise: just $800 for a two-bedroom beauty (and yes, this metaphor obviously doesn’t take place in San Francisco).

You are forced to spend some time with the formalities, but it seems totally worth it – you haven’t seen a flat this spacious for a price this low. And the agent says utilities are included in the rent!

You move in, unpack your stuff, even buy a new coffee table, and for some time, you’re in a state of bliss from your new dwelling. Then comes the time for the second monthly payment, and you’re in for a surprise:

– the latest bill says your rent is $2400… that’s three times higher than before!

As if that wasn’t enough, you get a separate $300 utility bill this time, which is also due in a week. For the love of Gandhi, this was supposed to be a listing from a very reputable real estate manager!

You give them a call and explain the situation; you think you hear a little sigh on the other end of the line: “Didn’t you read the terms of the agreement?” – “I DID”, you reply, trying to control your voice.

“The small-print part” – enunciates the agent.

You nervously page through the rental agreement and notice a small asterisk next to the monthly rent figure, and then another one:

        Rent is $800* utilities included**

Where do those little fellows lead to? More page-flipping ensues. Here they are, in the second appendix printed in 8th font:

                 * Prices reflect discount on first term; renewals occur automatically at standard prices (see Appendix 7).
                 ** Free utilities offer extends to the initial period only.

You sit on the couch for quite a while, staring into the distance, tapping nervously on your new coffee table…

– – –

Sounds like fun!

Such episode would probably raise eyebrows if you shared it in your friend’s kitchen (because you don’t have your own kitchen now). But somehow, similar practices hardly bother anyone in the context of online real estate.

We’re talking about websites, to be precise: the thing no serious endeavor can exist without in our day and age.

While hosting prices are certainly not comparable to apartment rents (especially not in San Francisco), almost all hosting providers employ various tactics designed to trick gently nudge you into overpaying silly amounts of money.

Don’t believe us?

Here’s a non-exhaustive collection of the popular methods from official web pages of some of the largest brands in the hosting industry:

1. Quietly Raising Your Price After the First Billing Cycle

This is probably the single most widely used tactic for extracting maximum cash from the clients, while staying legally safe. Let’s look at an example, shall we:

Since this is a real (and popular) hosting provider and getting too personal is not the point of this article, let’s call it, say… PlayGround.

When you visit their official website, you are immediately presented with a pricing table showcasing rather lucrative offers:

And good news, no asterisks in sight! This means no special conditions or caveats, right? So we can safely go on and add this to our shopping cart.

Well, just remain attentive during the checkout: at the very bottom of the page, after you’ve already filled in all the payment and personal details, take a closer look at the hosting services summary for your order:

There, in smaller print, below the bold green promo price – there’s our asterisk! What it tells you is basically that your hosting bill will jump from $3.95 per month to $11.95 per month after the first year passes.

In order words, you will pay 3x more (!) for your second year of hosting services at PlayGround, and will keep it up for all subsequent years.

Well, at least some providers give you a free domain name with a hosting order, which is a nice bonus to compensate for all the price hikes… Yeah, about that:

2. Offering “Free” Domains as a Bonus

Which are – yes, you guessed it – only really free for the first billing period. And that would be perfectly okay, if not for the way this information was presented to the users (or rather, hidden from them).

Our second example will involve a provider which we’ll call SimplyHost – a no-frills brand positioning itself as an easy, affordable, value-for-money solution. Let’s look at their front page:

Wow, that’s a LOT of the word “free” in all-caps! The free domain is mentioned two times in a row, that’s how eager they are to share the good news.

Looks like a “shut up and take my money” kind of deal, here’s the big red “Get Started Now” button just waiting for you to push it… Wait a second. Some of those “FREE” are underlined – does that mean they are clickable? Let’s try:

Ah, so the domain name stops being so free after the first year. How much less free? Glad you asked! The regular domain price is nowhere to be found on the homepage of this hosting provider

In fact, to find out the exact figures we’ll need to dig deep into their Help Center, where, after some searching, we discover that .com domain names renew at $17.99 per year. That’s almost twice the industry average!

Thanks, SimpleHost, for reminding us that clicking all underlined words before buying something from a hosting provider might be a sensible strategy.

3. Automatically Adding Paid Extras to Your Order

As opposed to other items in our list, this one is also quite often used outside the hosting services industry.

Most of us can probably recall the experience of deactivating check-boxes while buying flights from those annoying airlines which believe that priority boarding, insurance, and an on-board meal are things that should go be default with every ticket.

Un-tick, un-tick, un-tick… no, thanks, I don’t want to pay extra to be the first one to board the plane! – un-tick.

In the hosting business, the standard up-sells usually include security solutions, backups, marketing tools and other stuff you can easily replicate with a free WordPress plugin.

Let’s take a look at HostCroc, our next hero. Their checkout process looks quite streamlined, with everything compressed into a single page.

You’re treated with promo codes and discounts, but the most interesting part comes after you fill in all the fields and scroll down to click that “Checkout Now” button.

Don’t scroll too fast, because you might miss the Additional Services section:

Note how two of the four paid extras are pre-selected for you – seemingly at random, also: HostCroc has decided that you definitely need security monitoring and site backups, but won’t find emails and SEO tools that useful.

The effect on the price tag?

Instead of paying $71.40 for your order, you will end up with a $115.34 bill – that’s a 61% mark-up for a couple of pre-selected add-ons which nobody asked if you really needed right away.

Snappy indeed!

***

Does its main competitor fare any better? Not really:

In fact, one of their “best” examples of shadow up-sells cleverly combines automatic extras with promo pricing: meet GoMommy, one of the leading domain registrars on the planet.

If you choose any of their hosting packages and go through the checkout process, un-ticking all add-ons, you will end up with a purchase summary that looks like this:

Wait a second, where did that Office 365 Starter Email come from? You go back to the start and click through the checkout wizard once more: nope, you were never offered an option to remove it from your order.

At least it’s free, right? Look closer:

Oh come on! You’re saying this will also renew at a price? “Of course”, says GoMommy in a booming, disembodied voice – “we’re not a charity, you know”.

Alright, how much is the normal price, you ask (almost rhetorically at this point) – and find no indication on your checkout page. You wearily search the entire website and discover the figure in a completely different section: $9.99 per user per month.

That’s more than the hosting you were trying to purchase in the first place! “Surely not a charity”, – you mutter to yourself: “charities don’t double your pledges without your consent, at least”.

Depressed a bit yet? Want some more of that good stuff? How about:

4. Presenting Promo Prices as Permanent Discounts

Yes, we’ve already talked about promo pricing in point 1. This strategy can be viewed as a variation of the former, with a twist:

Both the promo and the regular price are clearly displayed next to each other, but the wording is carefully chosen to make it look like a permanent discount rather than something that’s only valid for one billing cycle:

This example is from a large provider which we’ll call B3Hosting. Notice the standard bold-green discount figures: you’ll save a whopping 63% on your purchase if you act now, so what are you waiting for?!

Notice also the text printed in the faintest legally acceptable shade of grey: “was $7.99”. If you’ve never bought a hosting before, the reasonable interpretation of this phrase is something like:

“The price was $7.99 per month, and now they’ve dropped it to $2.96 per month, period.”

The funniest thing about this example is that there aren’t even any asterisks to go by – in order to find ANY indication that those are merely promo prices that will last for a single billing cycle, you’d need to visit their Comparison page and locate this table somewhere in the middle:

That table has no captions or any explanatory text on B3Hosting’s website, but by now you can already make sense of it on your own.

Here’s the interpretation: promo prices in the first two columns are the ones quoted on the home page, and the last column, Recurring Total, is a fancy name for “regular price at which your account will be renewed”.

To make sure we’re correct, let’s check the numbers: $7.99 presented as the “old” price in the first screenshot, times 36 months – or precisely $287.64. Bingo! That’s a 170% increase, by the way – but you’re not even too shocked anymore, are you?

Alright, last, but not least, our favorite:

5. Making It as Hard as Possible to Find the Real Prices

In this case, the hosting provider does its best to hide tuck away its normal prices deep inside its Terms & Conditions, or even its help center – because who needs to know how much they’ll pay after the promo period is over, right?

Enter our final example, which we’ll refer to as IndigoHost for its soothingly blue-ish brand color palette. On their home page, you are presented right away with what’s ambitiously called the “Best Web Hosting”:

Alright, the asterisk is there, and the respective footnote is prominently displayed as well – that’s old news for us.

However, what if we wanted to find out how much we’ll pay after the first billing cycle, for each of the 12-month, 24-month, and 36-month options?

Let’s head to the checkout page:

Now THAT’s a treat! Most of the dark patterns we’ve discussed here – on a single checkout page! Well done IndigoHost. Still no mention of the renewal prices, though…

Let’s go back to the home page and scroll all the way down to the footer. See right there? In the smallest font that’s still readable? Our friend asterisk, with a link to the help center article with real prices!

And yes, they are twice as high as the first-period prices, but, you know, at least we’ve found them. Just a couple of minutes of scouring the provider’s website with a magnifying glass…

***

Does all this mean we need to change something?

Or, if everybody is doing it, should you just accept those practices as the new norm and move on?

At Warpgate, we say: no, you should not.

The Zero-Asterisk Manifesto

Here’s a challenge for the rest of the web hosting industry: how about a shake-up of the established practices? how about fewer dark patterns and more transparency?

The rules we’ve set for Warpgate are really simple:

  • NO price hikes. Just clear, transparent prices that stay true and constant for every billing cycle.
  • NO misleading offers. In other words, if something is presented as free, it’s free forever. Period.
  • NO auto-upsells. No sneaking in extra features to inflate the bill, there are tons of free plugins out there that do just as well.
  • NO charges for essentials. Domains, SSL certificates, and mailboxes are included at no additional fee.

You can find more information about our pricing and features on our home page, while more detailed, interactive price comparisons with other popular hosting providers are available here.

We pledge to follow the above rules without compromise. And invite all other hosting providers to do the same – after all, the more respect we show to our clients, the better the Web becomes for everyone.

Have something to say?

Your thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, constructive criticism, unexpected praise, and other comments are always welcome!

Materialize your WordPress website
Takes less than 1 minute to set up.
Free for 30 days, no card required.