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Mergers and Acquisitions in the Web Industry: Who’s Really in Charge?

The article you’re reading right now couldn’t have a more fitting backstory.

I began writing it on April 16th, 2024 on CodeinWP.com, but then, two days later, CodeinWP was merged into WPShout. So I continued writing my initial draft on WPShout, where it went through our usual editorial process, before finally being published. And now you’re reading it – an article that started on one domain and finished on another, or in the context of the topic, an article that began with one brand and ended with a different brand. Except that both brands happened to be owned by us.

Mergers and acquisitions in the web industry.

This trend toward consolidation in WordPress has been going on for at least a decade now, but it’s not only limited to WordPress. All aspects of the web industry have been affected by it: web hosts, domain registrars, SaaS tools – you name it. I know I’m not the only one on the internet who has taken notice of the trend, but consider this one additional finger pointing to the giant elephant in the room.

In the remainder of this post, I’ll introduce you to five mergers and acquisitions from recent history that had to do with the web industry somehow. We’ll talk about the players who were involved and give a bit of background on each deal. When you’re done reading, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you think about any of the specific examples or just the overall consolidation trend. Do the cons outweigh the pros or vice versa? Let me know.

BlueGator, is that you?

Do you happen to have a hosting account with Bluehost? Maybe HostGator? And where do you usually buy your domain names – Domain.com, perhaps? Sorry for all the personal questions, but I’m willing to bet that even if you’ve never personally used these companies, you’ve no doubt heard of at least one of them.

Well, here’s the interesting thing about those companies:

Whether you’re on #TeamHostGator, #TeamBluehost, or #TeamDomain.com, underneath it all, you’re on #TeamNewfoldDigital.

This one company, Newfold Digital, is the puppet master behind well over a dozen well established web brands, ranging from domain registrars to web hosting companies to WordPress plugins.

Collectively, all of the brands serve approximately 6.7 million customers around the world [1]. If you take a step back and think about it, that is an immense amount of control, held by only a single company…

A meme depicting the classic "Scooby Doo reveal" where the masked villain is shown with the famous brand names HostGator, Bluehost, Domain.com, Yoast, and Web.com, and the "mask off" shows the company behind them all - Newfold Digital.

…a single company that didn’t even exist four years ago.

Wait, what? 😲

It turns out that when you dig a little deeper, Newfold Digital itself is really just a placeholder company that was created in 2021 to serve as a joint investment vehicle for two private equity firms: Clearlake Capital Group and Siris Capital.

The abbreviated backstory is that Clearlake acquired Endurance International Group Holdings, Inc for about $3.0 billion USD [2]. Afterwards, they partnered with Web.com, which was previously acquired by Siris for $2 billion in October 2018 [3]. In short, Clearlake Capital Group + Web.com (owned by Siris) = Newfold Digital.

A WordPress whale swallowing everything in its path

You know there is no way I can write an article about this topic without discussing one of the most talked about companies in the WordPress community when it comes to acquisitions: Awesome Motive.

Awesome Motive has been gobbling up plugins and themes like some kind of a WordPress Pac-Man for more than ten years now. It only takes a minute of scrolling through its founder’s bio page to get a quick overview of how active the company has been with acquisitions. They even have a page on their main WordPress-related site that asks WordPress business owners if they wish to submit a proposal to sell their plugin, theme, etc or enter into a “strategic partnership.” I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen that anywhere else.

Okay, so big deal, they’ve got an insatiable appetite for plugins and themes – why should you care?

You might think that the answer partly depends on whether you use WordPress or not, but even if you don’t, you should still care. It might not be as personally relevant as it would be for a WordPress user, but keep in mind that 43.4% of all websites on the web are powered by WordPress. This means that whatever happens in the WordPress space, affects almost half of the internet! And if you use the internet, then you have a very high chance of bumping into a website powered by WordPress, which means it affects you too.

And at the moment, Awesome Motive is getting a lot of shade in the blogosphere, in part due to being so aggressive with their acquisition strategy, but also because of what they’ve been doing with the plugins and themes they’ve been acquiring. Mark Zahra over at WP Mayor wrote about it only a few months ago. WPJohnny touched on the subject last year, and David Risley at Blog Marketing Academy discussed it the year prior.

WPJohnny's article that harshly critique's Awesome Motive.

There’s even a (humorous) parody Twitter account that’s solely devoted to exposing Awesome Motive’s business practices. Its handle? @evilmotive.

Cornering the control panel market

Our next example comes from a well-known brand in the web hosting space. While not a web hosting company itself, cPanel powers the backend interface of numerous hosting providers. I’m assuming that many of you reading this might already have been aware of that. What you might not be aware of though, is that as of August 2018, Oakley Capital is the company behind cPanel [4].

I’m going to keep it a buck here and say that until I started digging into this topic, I had never heard of Oakley Capital. I always assumed that cPanel was an independent company – which it was until the Oakley acquisition.

The thing is, at the time Oakley acquired it, it had already also acquired Plesk the year before [5]. While there are other smaller players in the control panel game (e.g., DirectAdmin, Webmin/Virtualmin, ISPConfig, InterWorx, and others), the reality is that cPanel and Plesk dominate the market. In practice, this means that Oakley Capital has a disproportionate amount of power and influence within this space now and they’ve wasted no time leveraging that power. How? By instituting three price hikes since the acquisition:

The first one came less than a year after the acquisition. Then another one was announced in the summer of 2022, and yet another, in January 2024.

Here are some reactions from cPanel users in the Reddit community:

Redditor reviewing Oakley Capital's acquisition of cPanel and the price hikes introduced since then.
Redditor complaining about cPanel's deteriorating quality after the Oakley Capital acquisition.

When the buyer becomes the buyee

Back in 2010, three entrepreneurs from Phoenix, Arizona launched a new domain registrar platform from scratch. They called it NameSilo. Over time, they expanded its offerings beyond just domain registration. For example, they introduced services like domain parking, email forwarding, and security features.

All of their hard work paid off:

By August 2017, NameSilo had grown to become a top 1% ICANN registrar with over one million active domains under management. Its success caught the eye of a Canadian public investment firm called Brisio Innovations, who put forth an offer to the founders to acquire the company. It was accepted, and in August of 2018 Brisio became the new owner of NameSilo [6].

Pretty standard story up to this point, right? Well here’s where it gets interesting compared to most acquisitions: Brisio didn’t just acquire NameSilo, they transformed themselves into NameSilo! What I mean is that the company changed its name from Brisio to NameSilo Technologies Corp.

Typically, in most mergers and acquisitions, it works the other way around, where the bigger company doing the acquiring retains its name. They usually either maintain the acquired business as a separate entity or absorb it into their own brand. Not the case here, though.

Following the takeover, NameSilo continued to grow and in January 2019 they acquired 100% of the membership interest in NamePal, a small domain name registrar. At the time, NamePal had a really useful multi-platform backorder aggregator called “Fetch,” which was one of the main reasons NameSilo acquired the brand [7].

Overall, this is one of the more feel-good examples on this list. NameSilo hasn’t done anything drastic to make their customers angry – or at least nothing that we can point a finger to and say that it was because of being acquired by Brisio. And they’ve done a great job expanding their offerings and their business. This has led to them becoming the seventh most popular domain registrar in the world, based on domains under management [8].

The visiting team takes the spotlight

For our final example, I’m going to talk a little bit about what’s been happening on our home turf.

As I mentioned in the introduction, I actually began writing the first draft of this article on CodeinWP, but in the process of writing, we folded our legacy CodeinWP brand into WPShout, which was a brand that we acquired from its original owners in 2022.

The reason we picked up WPShout was because we liked the courses they had and we felt that it would allow us to have a site devoted to more technical content. While CodeinWP did have a lot of useful code snippets and some more technical posts, it wasn’t designated as a “technical site.”

Over the past two years though, we came to the realization that we just weren’t able to devote as much time to WPShout as we initially envisioned. We did update a few posts here and there, but the site was primarily collecting dust – which was a shame because it had built up a good name within the WordPress community.

Fast forward to a few months ago, and we made the difficult decision to consolidate the two sites, while retaining the WPShout brand name. It wasn’t an easy decision. Many of us – including myself – had a lot of emotional attachment to CodeinWP. For me personally, it helped guide my initial foray into WordPress many years ago and I was a big fan of the site before I even started working here.

Saying goodbye to it honestly did not feel good, but at the same time, WPShout is probably a marginally more recognizable brand name in the WordPress space – so it made sense from a business strategy standpoint. On the plus side, the “new” WPShout retained a lot of the old CodeinWP content and site design so it still feels very familiar – despite the cosmetic name change.

What are your thoughts? 💡

I think that in the popular discourse, people primarily associate consolidation in tech with the “Big 5” of the internet – Google, Amazon, Facebook (Meta), Apple, and Microsoft. That’s because these tend to get the lion’s share of press coverage. Mainstream media rarely, if ever, talks about how prevalent consolidation is among web hosting companies, domain registrars, and WordPress businesses. Perhaps as a result, few people recognize the kingmakers behind the scenes of some of the most popular brands on the web.

Well, I think it’s a conversation worth having. So I’m having it!

Now I want to hear from you. What do you think about the consolidation trend? Were any of the examples I shared surprising to you or were you already aware of the power players behind the brands? What do you think about the deals and their aftermath overall? Are there any other examples that you know of that I didn’t share here?

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Yay! 🎉 You made it to the end of the article!
Martin Dubovic

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