Canadian web host Netfirms was founded in 1998 and went on to host 1.2 million domains, before being acquired by tech giant Endurance International Group back in 2011. Some Endurance companies keep their profile – HostGator, Bluehost – but Netfirms is different, and seems to have been left to drift since the acquisition.
The website has barely changed since 2012, for instance. The Site Builder page has the headline: ‘In 2013, build your website in just 11 minutes’. The Press Releases page has nothing created after 2010. The Twitter account has three tweets in the past two years, and the Facebook page posts endless ‘special deals’ rather than any useful content or news on company activity. None of this proves anything, but it doesn't indicate a company that's pressing forward, making changes, or even trying to maintain what it has already.
Our corporate concerns aside, the base Plus plan seems to offer reasonable value. Spending from $3.49 (£4.35) a month gets you a free domain, unlimited web space, bandwidth, websites and email accounts, along with a drag-and-drop website builder and one-click installs for WordPress and others.
The downside is a significant limit of 5 MySQL databases, and a maximum of 50 FTP accounts. If that's an issue and price is key, Namecheap's Value plan gives you up to 50 databases for a lower price, though it has other restrictions of its own.
The $8 (£10) a month Advantage plan lifts the database limit to 200, supports 200 FTP accounts, and – unusually – gives you a second free domain (just about everyone else gives you one only).
The $11 (£13.75) a month Business plan gives you unlimited everything and five free domains. If you don't need the domains there's a lot of appealing competition around. For example, HostGator's $12 (£15) a month Business plan includes a dedicated IP and SSL certificate.
There are a few other products – a basic e-commerce plan from $13 (£16.25) a month, a $33 (£41.25) VPS plan which seems to be reselling Spry – but no dedicated servers or anything else which might make Netfirms stand out from the crowd.
Netfirms offers a 30-day money-back guarantee on your hosting fees, and that’s some protection if you're not happy with the service. But beware: the terms and conditions state this applies to credit card payments only, not PayPal (this isn't made clear on the order page). The site also states you must call a US support number to cancel the service, which seems expensive and unnecessarily inconvenient.
After choosing a plan, you're prompted to register a new domain, or specify one you own already.
The next step displays various add-ons, with Netfirms sneakily adding a couple to our cart by default. These included basic managed WordPress functionality for $3 (£3.75) a month, an SSL certificate for $1.67 (£2.10) a month, SiteLock malware scanning for $1.67 (£2.10) a month, G Suite for $5 (£6.25) a month, and daily backups for $1.45 (£1.80) a month.
Select what you need, delete the defaults if you prefer and it's on to the Billing page. Here we discovered that there's no monthly billing – the shortest term for the Plus plan is one year at an effective $4.95 (£6.20) a month.
Payment options are credit card or PayPal. We chose a credit card to preserve our right for a refund, and continued.
Netfirms wasn't finished. Could we fill out a survey? No, thanks – next page.
Did we want to register another domain? No, thanks – another page.
Did we want to spend $99 (£124) a month on an SEO package. No! On to the next page…
And there was more: add-ons for mobile site building, search engine submissions, and another SSL option with no explanation on how it differed from the first. No, no, and no again.
Then another page appeared offering a professionally designed website for $399 (£499). We clicked No.
Yet another page followed with the SiteLock and backup options we turned down back on the second page, and another SEO add-on. We clicked No – once again – then Netfirms gave us links to our control panel and tutorials, and we thought our upsell-hell was over...
But not quite: after setting an account password the company had one more try, asking us to transfer our domain to them. We clicked No and finally made it to the control panel. Phew.
Creating a site
Netfirms uses vDeck as its hosting frontend. We would prefer cPanel – it's more of a standard, people know it already, and it has more features and add-ons – but its core functions aren't radically different, and experts and beginners alike will have the basics sorted out relatively quickly.
The panel offers multiple website creation options and tools, but some of these are poorly implemented.
For example, we tried ‘WebSite Creator for CM4all’ using Google Chrome, only to be told: "You are using a non-supported browser. Please use current version of one of the supported browsers – Internet Explorer or Firefox." So the most popular browser in the world isn't supported? Really?
Once the disbelief had worn off we tried it again with Internet Explorer, and this didn't work, either. An error explained that the site needed to use ActiveX controls, and to fix this we had to add its domain to IE's Trusted Sites. Just in case this wasn't bad enough, we were told to disable the default Internet Explorer ‘require HTTPS...’ setting for Trusted Sites, because the creator site was HTTP only.
We continued using Netfirms with IE, clicked a WordPress icon and were sent to the marketing-heavy Mojo Marketplace site, where it asked us to choose the domain for installation. Except we couldn't, as the domain list was empty. We switched back to Chrome and then it worked correctly.
It's not all bad news. We're not fans of Mojo Marketplace as it's more interested in selling you stuff than anything else, but there's nothing wrong with the basic installer technology, and it'll equip your site with WordPress or one of many other apps with minimal hassle.
There's also another simple Website Builder which does work, and enables building of up to six pages. These are limited and relatively plain, but the system is easy-to-use and you could have something up and running in an hour or two.
The control panel provides FTP tools and a file manager for uploading a pre-built site. These are simpler than the cPanel equivalents, but typically that won't matter. The File Manager gives you an easy Explorer-type view of your site, enables creating folders along with drag-and-drop file uploading, and most of the time that's all you're going to need.
Our Netfirms testing began with a look at the website support. This starts with a Support link on the vDeck control panel which opens a page at a ‘support console’. There's a search box, buttons representing common topics (Email, WordPress) and some useful-sounding ‘popular topics’ (‘FTP: How to connect to your website’, ‘Navigating File Manager’).
We typed in the search box and matches appeared instantly. In theory we could click one of them to display it, or press Enter to run a search on whatever we typed, but this didn't work consistently. Sometimes pressing Enter would do nothing – we never figured out why – and we noticed a few keyword matches didn't have a corresponding article. We typed SSH, for instance, and hits for ‘SSH’ and ‘SSH Terminal’ appeared, but selecting either of these told us "there are no articles matching your query".
Running our standard ‘import WordPress’ search returned one or two useful articles. There weren't nearly as many as with the best companies, and poor article sorting made them more difficult to find, but there was some helpful information on offer.
It was a similar story with our more general, single keyword searches (MySQL, PHP and so on). Netfirms has some advice to offer on most topics, although not as much (or as good quality) as we'd like. Some of the content is dated, too. Having ‘Configuring Outlook 2003 as your email client’ as a featured tutorial is clearly ridiculous, but there are other issues, with many video and other tutorials being at least three years old.
Person-to-person support is better. Our two chat queries were met with speedy responses and answered accurately. But even here, there are limited options. Despite a ‘support tickets’ link at the bottom of the page, the ticket system has been disabled. It's live chat or the US support phone number only.
We completed our tests with some quick benchmarks of server performance, using Bitcatcha and some other tools. Our server was registered to Endurance International Group, based on the eastern side of the US, and gave us acceptable performance for US and UK connections. Response times dropped for more distant connections, but this was nothing out of the ordinary, and speeds were average overall.
Netfirms offers decent value, but poor web support, dated content and a limited product range suggests this is a company lacking investment and being left to fade away.