US-based Dotster started life as a domain registrar around 18 years ago, moved into web hosting, and is now owned by the mammoth Endurance International Group.
As with some of the other small EIG companies, Dotster doesn't seem very active. The firm’s press room shows no releases since the company was acquired by EIG in 2012. The Twitter and Facebook feeds have no original content, instead showing the standard EIG marketing offers and deals. Even the website content is dated in places, listing support email addresses which are no longer used.
Dotster's product range is a little limited. There's Linux shared hosting, Windows hosting at extra cost, a site builder, and basic VPS starting from $30 (£24) a month. But there isn't the depth to these plans that you get elsewhere, and there's no dedicated hosting.
The $3.75 (£2.90) a month Basic Hosting plan has several limits: a maximum of one domain, 100 email addresses, 5 FTP logins and 10 MySQL databases. That will probably be enough for many personal users, though, and there's a bundled drag-and-drop Site Builder and one-click install of WordPress and other apps to help you get started.
The next-level $6.75 (£5.40) a month Deluxe plan gets you support for unlimited domains, 250 email addresses, 25 FTP logins and 25 databases (this renews from $10.95 – £8.75 – a month).
The Ultra Hosting plan finally lifts all the limits, for what seems like an expensive $13.75 (£11) a month. HostGator's similar Baby plan renews at $10 (£8) a month, and its Business Plan – $6 (£4.80) a month for three years, $15 (£12) a month after that – gives you a dedicated IP and SSL certificate as well.
All payments are protected by a 30-day money-back guarantee. The small print says this is valid for card payments only, so keep that in mind at the purchase page. In our experience they're not strict about this and you should be able to get PayPal payments refunded too, but that will be at the company's discretion – if they decide to say no, there's nothing you can do about it.
Dotster's website presents its hosting plans clearly, side-by-side, making it easy to spot limitations like ‘5 FTP logins only’ before you buy.
We selected a plan, added it to our cart, and entered our domain. Dotster can register a new domain at no cost for the first year, or you're free to use a domain you own already.
The upselling attempts started on the next page, with Dotster offering basic managed WordPress functionality for $3 (£2.30) a month. It also offered SiteLock malware scanning for $1.67 (£1.30) a month, G Suite for $5 (£3.90) a month, SEO optimisation for $0.83 (£0.65) a month, and daily backups for $1.25 (£1) a month. Fortunately none of these were selected by default, so we ignored them all and hit Continue.
The payment page requests your regular contact details – name, physical and email address, phone number – and your payment information. Credit cards and PayPal are supported, but as we mentioned before, bear in mind that only card payments are officially covered by the money-back guarantee.
After parting with our cash, the site presented us with a small survey asking questions like "Do you plan on selling products online?" and whether we might be using "advanced marketing tools?" Our guess would be Dotster uses this info to send related marketing emails, but it's optional and can be ignored.
What you can't ignore is all the upselling that comes next. A page asking us to buy another domain? We clicked No Thanks. A page with an SEO offer? We clicked No. Another page with further site add-ons? We clicked No once again. A custom website design service followed, then a page with yet more add-ons, but eventually it was over. The website displayed a receipt, offered us a login link, and despatched a welcome email with more information.
Creating a site
Dotster provides vDeck as its hosting manager. It's not as powerful or comprehensive as cPanel, but it's easy-to-use and has all the functionality that most people will ever need.
Website creation features include easy installation of WordPress and many other popular applications. This also isn't implemented as we'd like – it's powered by the ad-packed Mojo Marketplace rather than something like the excellent Softaculous – but it doesn't make very much difference. You only have to use Mojo once, hopefully, and once you've fought your way through the ads, it'll install WordPress as effectively as anything else.
Dotster also includes a basic WYSIWYG website builder, which appears to be the same package as used by Netfirms and some other EIG providers. It has a maximum of six pages, and the templates are just okay as opposed to good, but it does enable building simple sites relatively quickly. And of course some web hosts don't provide any form of site builder at all.
The standard vDeck FTP and File Manager are available if you need to upload or manage your site manually. These have their own limitations and issues – the baseline Dotster account supports only five FTP logins, and the vDeck File Manager is quite limited – but like Dotster's other hosting tools, it's probably good enough for most situations. Experienced users should have their site uploaded with minimal hassle.
We started our Dotster tests by checking out the company's website support. This seems to be using the same feeble system as Netfirms, another Endurance International Group company, which didn't fill us with confidence.
Support wasn't integrated into the control panel, for instance – there was just a link which took us to a separate page. This opened with a quirky search engine that didn't seem to run searches on single words (type SSH and press Enter, nothing happens; type ‘SSH access’ and it works). It also displayed autocomplete-type entries with titles like ‘SSH’ or ‘SSH Terminal’, but when we ran those searches the site told us there were no matches.
When we did get a hit, it opened in yet another page outside our authenticated session. That's inconvenient for users, but does at least mean you can check it out for yourself here.
Running our regular ‘import WordPress’ test search returned plenty of documents, but they were sorted poorly, only a few were even vaguely related to migrating a blog, and they weren't close to the detail and quality we've seen elsewhere.
Single keyword tests – PHP, MySQL – gave us similar results. There was some information imparted, but Dotster didn't get close to providing the number or quality of articles as the best of the competition.
The articles were sometimes out of date, too. Searching for Outlook gave us instructions for Outlook 2003-2013; top of the ‘most recent’ list was a piece starting ‘Exchange 2007 will be upgraded to 2013 soon’; a ‘Clearing a browser's web cache document’ started with instructions for Internet Explorer 8+ (IE 9 was released in 2011).
We found a Dotster link suggesting there was ticket support, but that just redirected us to the live chat. We tried it anyway with an exceptionally simple product question: "What’s the maximum size of a MySQL database in your shared Linux hosting accounts?" The website said database size was limited by hosting space only, so that's the answer we were expecting.
An agent apparently connected within ten seconds, but then nothing happened for the next three minutes. Maybe we were greeted by a bot, or perhaps the agent was asking someone else, we don't know. Three minutes wasn't long to wait, but then he came back with an answer: 2GB. That's actually a decent size, but not what it says on the website, and irrespective of whoever is right, the contradiction is an issue.
We tried a couple more basic queries and got speedy, accurate results. We wouldn't expect Dotster's support to help us out with anything complicated, but we've seen worse and they may be able to help you in some situations.
As usual, we finished our tests by using Bitcatcha and other benchmarks to measure server performance. These also returned very similar results to Netfirms, another EIG company, suggesting you're getting a very similar product. Both companies allocated us Endurance-registered eigbox.net servers, based on the eastern side of the US. Performance was acceptable for US and UK connections and tailed off as distance increased, but there were no obvious issues and speeds were average overall.
With a few distinctly average plans and relatively poor support, there's no reason to pick Dotster over the competition, and the apparent lack of investment suggests this isn't going to change. Take your business elsewhere.