Bluehost Misuses WordPress Trademark, Reigniting Controversy Over Recommended Hosts Page

Bluehost was called out this week for misusing WordPress’ trademark, as the WordPress Foundation prohibits its use in advertising. The company has been featured on WordPress’ recommended hosting page for the past 16 years, as one of a handful of hosts that have been arbitrarily selected based on an incomplete list of criteria.

The wording of the ad in this instance, “There is a reason WordPress officially recommends Bluehost more than any other hosting service,” was a visceral reminder to the hosting community of being excluded from the benefits that listing confers.

In response to the issue, WordPress’ Executive Director, Josepha Haden Chomphosy scheduled a call with Bluehost to find a resolution. She provided the following statement after the call:

This was flagged to me on Twitter, and I immediately reached out to learn more. Bluehost removed the ad proactively, and they scheduled a call with me and a representative of Automattic to understand the concerns being raised. As Matt mentioned, commercial use of the WordPress trademark is permitted, and Automattic can sub-license that use.

From a WordPress project standpoint, Bluehost was swift to respond to this issue, and took immediate steps to better understand how the trademark and logo are allowed to be used. When mistakes like this happen, we ask companies to keep us informed about how the issue is resolved, and Bluehost has agreed to do that.

Bluehost has not yet responded to our request for comment.

In the meantime, the incident reignited the controversy that has plagued WordPress’ recommended hosting page for years. Continuing the conversation that started on Twitter, members of the Post Status community pressed for more clarification in the club’s #hosting channel.

In response to claims that inclusion on the page is a closed process, and that the selected hosts haven’t changed in three years, Matt Mullenweg offered what is perhaps the most forthcoming response the community has seen on this topic:

When the list is open, anyone can apply. I take 100% responsibility for the editorial, though in the past and future will have people help with testing hosts, and collating all the threads in the forums. I also get a fair number of people emailing me directly feedback about the hosts listed, and how the host follows up is part of my evaluation.

It’s true the list of hosts hasn’t been changed in a while. The current list is all in good standing. I stand by the long-term behavior and service of every company linked on that page. It is past-due for open applications again, but I have prioritized other work on .org.

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.

The hosting recommendations page exists to reduce barriers for new users looking to get started with WordPress without having to shop around among thousands of hosts. WordPress.org is not transparent about who makes the decisions regarding recommended hosts or what criteria is used. Because it benefits a select few very large companies who have dominated the recommendations for years with few changes, rumors abound.

Mullenweg’s response confirms that currently there is no “pay-to-play” type of arrangement, but he did not say if this has always been the case. In the beginning, this page was called “WordPress Hosting Partners” and included the following text: “Signing up through this page will help us finance WordPress.org’s operations through partner deals.” That wording was changed in April 2005 to remove the reference to partners. However, previous versions of the page from years ago include what appear to be tracking or affiliate links for the hosts listed. For example, a version of the page from 2007 includes the following links:

According to the Internet Archive, 2009 was the last year that tracking ID’s were appended to the links on the recommended hosts page. A few examples from that year include:

The copy on the page hasn’t changed much over recent years. It currently gives the following criteria to be listed but it doesn’t specify why only three companies meet these standards:

We’ll be looking at this list several times a year, so keep an eye out for us re-opening the survey for hosts to submit themselves for inclusion. Listing is completely arbitrary, but includes criteria like: contributions to WordPress.org, size of customer base, ease of WP auto-install and auto-upgrades, avoiding GPL violations, design, tone, historical perception, using the correct logo, capitalizing WordPress correctly, not blaming us if you have a security issue, and up-to-date system software.

With such a diverse hosting ecosystem supporting WordPress users around the world, it’s difficult to understand why there aren’t more companies included among these listings. The era when tracking links were included on this page was a different time before many things were formalized, but the community could stand to receive a transparent history of this page.

“To my knowledge, no one has ever paid to be on that page, and certainly no one has ever approached me about doing so,” Josepha Haden Chomphosy said when asked about the process for getting listed.

Thousands of volunteer contributors are continually building and improving this software. It’s only natural that the community is curious about who is benefiting from the project’s hosting recommendations and the nature of those arrangements. Mullenweg estimates the impact of that page as “many millions per year in business,” but the process surrounding the selection of hosts is closed and not clearly outlined.

Following the incident with Bluehost, Mullenweg briefly elaborated on why Bluehost retains its position on the page despite some people reporting poor service:

Regarding Bluehost or other large hosts, there is an aspect of WordPress Utilitarianism, any business will have some unhappy people, but a small % gets to a high absolute number at scale. I try to look at hosts that are doing the most good for the most number of people. Will definitely keep an eye on if anything with their approach to WP customers post-merger, but they also have a lot of good karma built up over a very long period of time. Bluehost, for example, does the best job I’m aware of in keeping the largest number of WPs on the latest version, and deploying updates incredibly fast. (If another host does more, please let me know! GD I think has more sites, but fewer on latest version.)

Another point of contention that regularly pops up is Automattic’s exclusive commercial license for using the WordPress trademark. Mullenweg clarified why the company is in possession of this exclusive right after Automattic donated it to the foundation. He confirmed that Bluehost was not given permission to run the ad with the trademark:

A common misunderstanding is that there is no commercial use of the WordPress trademark allowed. As some know, the trademark was originally held by Automattic, which donated it to the Foundation, and in return got an exclusive commercial license back. That commercial use can be sub-licensed by Automattic, and has been in the past. The ad that is bugging everyone was not approved, as far as I’m aware, and that will resolve once everyone has had a chance to talk to each other. Automattic can lose its commercial license to the trademark if it is not a good steward. This license is a bit of an accident of history, but also an entirely fair criticism of Automattic having a special privilege to commercial use of the WordPress trademark (because it’s true, vs most of what the company gets accused of). This happened in 2010, and the growth of WP and the WP ecosystem has been incredibly strong since then so I think the idea of a for-profit and non-profit complementing each other has proven successful, and I think better than either would have done on their own.

Mullenweg seems to recognize the friction that trademark matters can create in the community and said that he would change the naming of WordPress.com if he could go back in time.

“If I could wave a magic wand and go back to 2004, though, it would be nice if .com and .org had distinct names ‘before the dot,’ as it can be a source of confusion,” he said.

These things can certainly be changed in the present but not without a severe blow to the benefits of Automattic’s special privilege of commercial use. It would also impact the company’s millions of users who call WordPress.com their home on the web.

In the interest of eliminating some of the confusion regarding conflicts of interest and commercial use of the trademark, a continual movement towards transparency will be required. WordPress.org’s recommended hosts page is overdue for an update. Ideally, this page will provide clear guidelines about the process and criteria for inclusion before opening up applications again.

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18 responses to “Bluehost Misuses WordPress Trademark, Reigniting Controversy Over Recommended Hosts Page”

  1. Nothing new. They have been doing this for a long time now. Take this video as an example: https://youtu.be/eqQORI5Ehd0?t=15

    Due to my interest in WordPress/Hosting I have seen this ad several times on YouTube (which uses Adsense to show ads) and Hotstar. (WP logo has been deformed as well.)

    I also remember an ad published by BlueHost India in TimesOfIndia Newspaper’s front page with a clear WordPress logo and tagline saying that it has been recommended by WordPress.org since 2006.

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  2. They had those affiliate links for a few years to measure the impact.
    So if it was $20,000 / month in 2007 and then it was $40,000 / month in 2009, they can estimate the benefit of the link based on traffic to that page.

    Matt claiming that he is the one responsible for what goes on that page, is basically an open invitation to be “friends” with him.

    Oh well. Nothing new 🙂

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    • Dave Warfel says:

      “They had those affiliate links for a few years to measure the impact.”

      How do you know what their purpose was for using affiliate links? Were you a part of the team making those decisions? Did you speak with people who were?

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  3. “Bluehost, for example, does the best job I’m aware of in keeping the largest number of WPs on the latest version”

    What kind of a lame benchmark is that, for being listed on the page! So, because they host a large number of WP sites they deserve significantly preferential treatment to other hosts!? Bluehost is consistently one of the worst hosts around and recommending them to new WordPress users only does them a disservice. It’s no surprise that Bluehost is owned by EIG. Just ask anyone who’s been in the WP community for a few years and who’s dealt with client websites, just what they think of EIG owned website hosts.

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  4. Dave Warfel says:

    “Bluehost removed the ad proactively…”

    Interesting use of the word “proactively.” 🤔

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  5. Miroslav Glavic says:

    So, as of me typing this comment, we have three hosts:

    Bluehost – EIG owned company.
    Dreamhost – Not EIG owned company.
    Siteground – Not EIG owned company. Has sponsored WordCamps, including WordCamp Toronto.

    I don’t think any EIG owned company should be on the list in the first place.

    What about GoDaddy? They have sponsored WordCamps in the past. They even hired a former WCTO organizer.

    I have used GoDaddy in the past due to their sponsoring WordCamp Toronto in the past.

    I think hosting companies who contribute to the WordPress Community should be listed on the page, that are not EIG owned companies.

    By WordPress Community, I don’t mean just Canada/USA.

    Once a year rotate the list, or twice a year. Include some smaller companies too.

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    • David says:

      Worth adding: Endurance invested in Automattic in 2014. That bit of information seems to always be excluded from these sorts of articles.

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    • Robin M. says:

      People are always quick to lambaste Bluehost and EIG (which I personally think has more to do with it being a large corporation buying up hosting companies than anything else) but rarely do I see them bragging about the excellent hosting providers that they have found, unless of course they are posting their own affiliate link on a forum or in a discussion group on social media. I would like to see some of the Bluehost Bashers tell us who they use for hosting and how many clients then have on that hosting.

      As I have stated in my own post below, I currently have 22 of my own sites and 85 client sites on Bluehost (and had another 40 on Bluehost since 2007 that are no longer active as the businesses either closed or the individual has died) and the service has been excellent.

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      • Bianca says:

        People are always quick to lambaste Bluehost and EIG (which I personally think has more to do with it being a large corporation buying up hosting companies than anything else

        Not necessarily. A few years ago I used to be a happy reseller for a hosting company that got aquired by EIG. As from the moment of acquisition, things took a turn for the worse. And not in the slightest way; A lot of downtime, no responsive support anymore etc. I remember reading a lot of similar experiences from others that went through the same frustration as me. So it’s not just that EIG is a big company, I think.

        There is a lot of pain amongst ex clients. Maybe EIG cleaned up their act by now, I don’t know. When I see a hosting provider that is owned by EIG, I avoid it because of my experience with them, not because it’s a big company.

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  6. Ronnie says:

    Thanks for keeping the conversation going, Sarah 🙂 You ended with a call for more guidelines before opening up applications for hosts to be included on this page, but I would advocate for there to be no hosts listed on that page. There are just too many and there’s no good way to keep up – especially when you consider an increase in users wanting (and needing) to host their websites in their home countries. Best I can tell, only one of the listed hosts has managed WordPress hosting options outside of the US.

    Instead, maybe the page could have some helpful content on the different types of hosts and what to look for?

    Also of note, these same Bluehost ads date back to at least May 2018 on Facebook, with several active campaigns currently running: https://www.facebook.com/ads/library/?active_status=all&ad_type=all&country=ALL&view_all_page_id=235969756424648&sort_data%5Bdirection%5D=desc&sort_data%5Bmode%5D=relevancy_monthly_grouped

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  7. Harald Baldr says:

    It should be noted that Bluehost is owned by Endurance Internet Group (EIG).

    Why is this noteworthy when talking about anything involving Bluehost, EIG, WordPress and Automattic?

    EIG is an investor in Automattic.

    Follow the money.

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  8. It is not just about the hosting page. On the download page there is a block above the Download button showing those four recommendations (Bluehost, Dreamhost, Siteground and WordPress.com), even on every locale page.
    For example: https://de.wordpress.org/download/

    This page is not editable, so there is no recommendation possible based on the locale.

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  9. The most unfortunate aspect of the WordPress hosting recommendations is that mostly newbies will use this guidance.
    If you read any board or group specific to WP hosting none of the listed hosts actually satisfies users’ long-term requirements. All they achieve is a “suboptimal” (to remain friendly in tone) introduction to WordPress and its complex server demands.
    With Google Pagespeed becoming a ranking signal the frustration with the recommended hosts will only increase.

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  10. Shawn says:

    I’ve used all three of those hosts as well as godaddy, and seen their services degrade as they got bigger. I find this to be true of other hosts as well. I’m using a relatively small host at the moment and get exactly the service in all respects, that I aim for– I figure I have a few more years with them until they get too big for their own britches. Deploying wordpress is a breeze no matter what the size of the company is, or how many times it gets used. That’s a useless metric these days.

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  11. Sally G says:

    I would never use just one source for recommendations (though I have found wpbeginner to have a lot of worthwhile “best of” articles along with how-tos, I will check elsewhere and certainly click through at least a few links before making a final decision).

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  12. Richard says:

    I find the recommended hosting page and Matt‘s reasoning for keeping Bluehost absolutely absurd. Clients’ and personal experience have been terrible or under average for WordPress hosting … this is 2021! The market has expanded.
    Maybe we are those few percent, but there has been so many far better experiences with other hosts besides Bluehost.

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  13. Robin M. says:

    I cannot speak to anyone else’s experience with Bluehost, but I have been using them for more than a decade for my own sites and for client sites; currently I have 22 of my own sites and 85 client sites on Bluehost shared hosting and I have had nothing but excellent service from them; I have rarely had any issues and when I have had issue their tech support has been responsive in 5 minutes or less and issues were resolved with the first contact.
    My clients are mostly individuals, small businesses, professional practices, and a few very large blogs. I do not have experience with their dedicated hosting, WP managed hosting, or large ecommerce hosting. But with the types of clients I work with their hosting has exceeded my expectations.

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