Can VPN Review Sites Be Trusted?
First published: January 2019. Latest revision: April 2021.
I’d been thinking of subscribing to a VPN (Virtual Private Network) service for quite some time… my interest in Internet security and privacy issues had been growing. I decided to further pursue this, and so I’ve put a great deal of attention into evaluating VPNs over the last few months.
Comments by others about VPN review sites
I initially thought it would be wise to read third-party opinions and online reviews of VPN services. I found that there are many VPN “review” sites on the Web, but I also came across several warnings about their trustworthiness. Here are three examples:
The VPN market is not one of healthy competition, and it does not operate in the best interests of the privacy minded consumer. Unless you are talking to someone you personally know and trust, it is hard to get an honest review about any service.
Let me be frank. These sites are nothing more than “linkfarming” sites in disguise. They put up as many affiliate links as they can, then give the highest paying ones praise to rake in money. There is no other motivation.
(from https://www.reddit.com/r/VPN/wiki/beware_of_false_reviews) (archived)
(VPN review sites) are teeming cesspools of greed and lies, representing some of the very worst elements on the Internet. They appear to offer objective comparisons and recommendations of VPN services, but more often than not, appearances are extraordinarily deceiving.
(from Kissell, Joe. Take Control of Your Online Privacy, Fourth Edition. TidBITS Publishing Inc., 2019)
The sites making these “honest” recommendations are almost always paid by the services they review and recommend. They are beginning their business relationship with you with what is essentially a lie. The technical term for this kind of marketing is “native advertising” and its abuse is a huge problem in the VPN industry.
(from “A Word About VPN Affiliates” in VPN Comparison by That One Privacy Guy) (archived)
Wow! Those are strong statements. Could VPN review sites be that fraudulent? Are most of them “on-the-take,” receiving kick-backs for referring customers to VPN companies? Do the review sites really rank VPN services based on the commissions those services pay for referrals? I decided to gather some data…
Commission rates for affiliates of VPNs
I perused a score of websites of VPN service providers and looked for information about their “affiliate” programs. An “affiliate” of a VPN is typically a VPN review website that has a contract with the VPN. The contract provides for a payment (commission) to the VPN review website when a customer ends up subscribing to the VPN after having been referred to the VPN by the “affiliate.”
I compiled a moderate-sized list of the commissions that VPNs pay to their VPN review site affiliates. I was able to find commission rates for about 14 VPN companies. (More than 14 VPN services that offer affiliate programs were identified, but some of those VPN services do not disclose exact commission rates until one has applied to be an affiliate.)
Highest paying VPNs
Of the 14 VPNs companies for which I found information, following are the top four VPN commission rates paid to affiliates for a one year VPN purchase referral. I also calculated the average rate of the other ten VPNs for which I found information.
1 year default rate = $36.00 (In addition, “The more sales you drive, the more we pay.”)
1 year @ 40% of purchase price = $33.60
3. HideMyAss! VPN:
1 year @ 40% of purchase price = $33.55
4. CyberGhost VPN:
1 year @ 50% (?) of purchase price = $31.50 (Details are unclear: the commission may be greater than this. Their website states: “The most competitive earnings in the industry – up to 100% in commissions.”)
The average commission rate of the other ten VPNs:
1 year = $16.19 (less than half of the commission of the highest paying VPNs)
Rankings of the “Best” VPNs by review websites
I examined twelve different VPN review websites and recorded the “Top 5” rated VPNs that were listed at each site. There were a total of 19 different VPNs that appeared one or more of the twelve “Top 5” lists.
Next I created a master list of the VPN rankings, noting the total number of times a VPN appeared on a “Top 5” list of all of the VPN review sites and also the average rank it received for all the sites on which it was listed. I tallied 5 points for the VPN if it was listed in first place on the “Top 5” list, 4 points if listed in second place, etc.
Thus, by this ranking method, the very best result for a VPN would be for it to be listed on all 12 of the 12 different review sites and to be in first place on every “Top 5” list (yielding a 5.0 point average rank).
VPN ranking results
Of the 19 VPNs that appeared on the lists, here are the top three VPNs, according to my compiled data from all 12 review sites:
-- appeared in 12 of 12 listings, average points = 4.8 out of a possible 5.0
-- appeared in 12 of 12 listings, average points = 3.7 out of a possible 5.0
3. CyberGhost VPN
-- appeared in 9 of 12 listings, average points = 2.8 out of a possible 5.0
None of the other sixteen VPNs was included on a “Top 5” lists more than five times. So, the above three VPNs were far-and-away considered to be the “Best VPNs” in the consensus of opinion of the VPN “review” sites.
Is there a correlation between ratings and commissions?
Now that we have some data let’s see if there appears to be a correlation between how well a VPN is ranked and how much it pays VPN review sites for referrals.
The highest ranked VPN is ExpressVPN.
The highest paying VPN is ExpressVPN.
The 2nd highest ranked VPN is NordVPN.
The 2nd highest paying VPN is NordVPN.
The 3rd highest ranked VPN is CyberGhost.
The 4th highest paying VPN is CyberGhost. (Payment rate may be higher: see above.)
Thus, yes, there is an apparent correlation: High payments from VPNs produce high ratings on VPN review websites.*
Does it follow that ExpressVPN, NordVPN and Cyberghost are necessarily “bad” VPNs? No, they might be worthwhile. However, the positive reviews that these VPNs have received must be strongly suspected of being biased: the review results may well have been influenced by commissions (kickbacks) from the VPNs.
* It should be noted that, although HideMyAss! VPN pays the third-highest commission rate to affiliates, it only achieved the “Top 5” list on two of the twelve VPN review sites. This would seem to be evidence against the correlation between high payments and high ratings. However, a well-respected non-biased VPN review source, namely “VPN Comparison by That One Privacy Guy”, shows HideMyAss! VPN to have an extremely poor overall rating. Hence, it appears that even the biased VPN review sites may have a limit as to how far they will bend the truth when awarding high grades to undeserving VPN services.
The implication that payments to VPN review sites may influence their published reviews and rankings is disturbing and leads one to infer that VPN review sites may well be less than honest.
This situation results in the appearance of unethical behavior by not only the VPN review sites but also the participating VPNs themselves.
Hence, the validity of all of the reviews published by VPN review sites should certainly be subjected to close scrutiny and by no means should the reviews be automatically accepted as credible and trustworthy.
In the next article of this “Choosing a Trustworthy VPN” series, titled “Trustworthiness of VPNs”, we’ll begin to examine how to screen for VPN services that can be trusted to protect your Internet security and privacy.