- Started by a 16 year old in the year 1999 and is owned by the same person today
- Goal is to build the web's largest collection of verified hosting reviews from users
- The site has been through 3 different versions in its 20 year existence
- Began as a hobby but later incorporated due to popularity
- Over 5 years invested into developing and programming
Early Beginnings – 1999
Michael started the web site in 1999 at the age of 16 years old. He wanted to build a web site where people could go to find reviews about different web hosting providers. Michael had a passion for building web sites, and this was his first project that had the potential to add value on the Internet.
The first version of the site was launched on a free hosting provider called Angelfire. In its early stages, the focus of the site was reviewing companies in terms of what they offered (i.e. pricing and plan information). The focus was not on experiences (i.e. user reviews).
While the site did have a small section for user reviews, it was primitive and difficult to update due to the site being static. In other words, if Michael received a review to post, the review had to be hard-coded and manually published. The site received very few reviews back then, so he did not have to go through this laborious process on a regular basis.
Our original web site address on Angelfire was http://www.angelfire.com/mb/mtgm/
Domain Registration – 2000
In 2000, Michael wanted his own domain name and he also wanted to move away from free hosting due to the obvious drawbacks – and not to mention, it would be ironic to recommend paid hosts on a site that was hosted for free. After trying a number of searches, Michael saw that www.webhostingreviews.com was available and that the domain accurately described the content of his web site.
Michael did not own a credit card at the time, so he purchased the domain by using a money order. Michael still remembers riding his bicycle up to the local post office to send the money order. He was excited about the future potential of the web site and how it could be useful to visitors. He enjoyed the thought of people actively using the web site and getting value from it in some way.
Site On Hold – 2001-2005
From 2001 to 2005, the site remained very basic from a functionality perspective and stagnant in terms of updates. Michael attended university during this period and did not have the time to update the web site on a regular basis. Reviews were sporadically added to the site throughout these years, with very little growth in terms of traffic and content.
Realized Value – 2005
After graduating in 2005, Michael came to the realization that “web hosting reviews” was a very popular and competitive search term on sites like Google, Yahoo!, and Bing. Hundreds of thousands of web sites were offering web hosting reviews to visitors, and were branding the keywords on their web site.
As the owner of arguably the best domain for this particular subject, Michael felt like his web site ought to be drastically improved and rank higher. He knew that the name, in combination with a compelling web site, could significantly increase the site’s position in the search results.
It was then that Michael decided the focus of the web site would be strictly on experiences (user reviews). He wanted to build the web’s largest searchable database for web hosting user reviews.
Michael no longer had any interest in the prior focus of the site, which was reviewing companies in terms of their pricing and plan information. It was apparent that content of this type can quickly become stale over time – due to the ever changing nature of the industry. Furthermore, it was his belief that people generally favor user reviews over reviews about a company’s offerings. The latter is something that can more easily be researched on your own.
Redesign #1 – 2005-2007
From 2005 to 2007, Michael spent his time redesigning the entire web site on a full-time basis. Every aspect of the redesign required a significant amount of effort to arrive at something that he was satisfied with. This was not only limited to the top level pages, but also the lower level pages and the administration area, which is behind the scenes.
Unlike other web sites that employ a content management system, the entire web site was custom built from scratch – including the vast majority of the graphics. Coming up with metrics like Page Analyzer, Page Relevancy, Review Quality, Filters, and the algorithm that is used to determine the host order was also a challenge.
In retrospect, it is amazing how fast a design can become fashionably obsolete on the Internet. While Michael was happy with the design in 2007, he would not have been happy with the finished product today.
The web site was using HTML4 which is outdated today. It was also using hundreds of nested tables to design and position content, which is considered a bad practice today. The proper way to control presentation is with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Using tables, however, was the easiest approach to take back then, and made no difference to the user from a visual standpoint.
In addition to that, the site was not mobile-friendly. Mobile browsing was virtually non-existent in 2005. It wasn't until the first iPhone was released in 2007 that mobile began an uphill trend.
Furthermore, the site was built on a 19” monitor and was not tested on larger screens. This resulted in a wide content area on such devices.
Growth Attained – 2007-2008
The redesigned web site was launched on June 17th, 2007. From the day of the launch, it took about one year for the site to gain momentum and move up the ranks in the search engines. New content was being added on a daily basis. Michael was also advertising the site in various places that were targeting web site owners.
After about 2.5 years from the launch date, the web site achieved the number one position on Google for “web hosting reviews”. The site also ranked extremely favorably for the same keywords on Yahoo! and Bing, although the vast majority of the traffic was coming from Google. As a result, Michael did not pay as much attention to analytics from the other search engines.
In addition to ranking in the top positions for the web site’s most descriptive keywords above, the site was also ranking high for various company names that were listed. As the site’s popularity grew, this resulted in some companies being displeased with the site if they happened to be featured in a negative light by users.
Incorporation – 2009
On December 29th, 2009, the site was incorporated in Ontario, Canada under the name “User Reviews Inc.”
Incorporation was a means of protecting Michael in the event of possible legal matters. While the company has never been sued, it is wise for any review site to be incorporated for liability reasons. Unlike a sole proprietorship, a corporation is a separate entity from the individual.
The original name was going to be “Web Reviews Inc.”, but a search determined that the name was already occupied. Given that the current name more accurately describes the web site’s content, it worked out well that the original name was not available.
Milestone Achieved – 2009-2012
The web site maintained the number one position on Google for “web hosting reviews” from about the last quarter of 2009 until April 24, 2012. This day marked a significant shift in Google’s algorithm known as the “Penguin Update”. The update sought to decrease search engine rankings for web sites that were trying to manipulate their way to the top of the search results.
Rankings Decline – 2012
After the update occurred, and as new updates were periodically released by Google, the web site began a downward spiral and lost its top positions in the search results. It took several years for the site to plateau at the bottom. In time, the site was receiving only a small fraction of the visitors that it had once received and the continuity of the business was brought into question.
While Michael never tried to manipulate his way to the top, the web site in 2007 was optimized for search engines based on practices that were believed to be acceptable at that time. For instance, Michael exchanged links with other web sites on similar topics and used relevant keywords on each page. Links were never paid for as this was clearly prohibited by Google.
If Michael had to guess, he would say that a) high on-page keyword density and b) too many external links referring to the domain with the same anchor text were the main causes for the decline. As Google’s algorithm became more sophisticated, it began to regard such practices as manipulation instead of optimization. As a result of the algorithm changes, it became clear that search engine optimization (SEO) was bad for web sites.
Awaiting Recovery – 2013-2016
For many months after the dramatic update, Michael thought the web site was “collaterally damaged” and that it would eventually see a recovery in the search results. After all, the site was bigger than it ever was before in terms of content.
In addition to that, Michael held onto the fact that the web site was perceived to be extremely relevant for a variety of keywords for a long period of time. This was in terms of attaining and maintaining top positions in the search results for years. Surely in time, the engineers at Google would make adjustments to their algorithm which would once again allow this original, high-quality web site to return to its former traffic levels.
From 2013 to 2016, Michael patiently waited for a recovery. During this period, the web site continued to receive user reviews but at a much slower pace than before the April 24, 2012 algorithm change. Due to complacency on Michael’s part, the web site remained unchanged from a design and optimization perspective; it continued using the same templates that he created in 2005.
Unfortunately, there was no recovery after several years of waiting for one. It became evident that there would be no recovery without a major intervention on Michael’s part.
Redesign #2 – 2016-2019
As can be seen by the history of this timeline, it took several years for Michael to find the motivation to create a whole new web site. The lack of motivation was due to having spent almost two years working on Redesign #1 on a full-time basis, only to see the web site’s traffic plummet. Any reasonable person would feel like giving up after such an occurrence, and may not bother investing considerably more of their time and effort into a project that can destabilize on a whim.
Given that the web site started as a hobby for Michael, the passion to improve the site was still there. He knew that users would benefit from the redesign by making it mobile-friendly alone. However, Michael wanted to go above and beyond by giving the web site a complete overhaul. This meant discarding everything about the old design and starting from a new perspective.
Michael began creating new designs for the various pages in June of 2016. Finding the time to do this proved to be difficult. Unlike the first redesign, he did not have the luxury of working on the site on a full-time basis. However, Michael made the most of weekends, and finally had the entire web site redesigned by the middle of 2019.
Forward Outlook – 2019+
Even though the design has changed, the premise of the web site remains the same. Michael wants to continue building the web’s largest searchable database of web hosting reviews from users.
Over the last decade, the industry has become saturated with review sites that match the consumer with the "best hosts" based on expert opinions. Unfortunately, those opinions are often biased because they are motivated by affiliate commissions. This will continue to be the case in the future as long as the industry remains lucrative.
Michael wants to always let users decide who the best hosts are. That is why the site is completely free of editorial reviews from the author; it would take away from the site's original premise of being by users.
While all review sites are susceptible to spam and manipulation, Michael believes that a thorough review validation process sets this site apart. Unlike restaurant or hotel reviews, reviews in the web hosting industry can actually be verifed for authenticity with WHOIS and DNS information. Validation is integral to gaining trust and confidence from visitors, and that is why the site only publishes verified reviews.
Regardless of the volatile nature of the industry, Michael is confident that the web site will continue growing. He is committed to making the site a lifelong project and wants to continue adding value on the Internet. Michael would like to personally thank each and every person who has submitted a review on the web site for making it into what it is today.