Can VPN Review Sites Be Trusted?
First published: January 2019. Latest revision: March 2023.
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 recommendations are, in almost every case, paid by the services they review and recommend. They are beginning their business relationship with you, with what essentially amounts to a lie. The technical term for this kind of marketing is “native advertising” and it’s abuse is a huge problem in the VPN industry.
(from “A Word About VPN Affiliates” in “Choosing a VPN” 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 kickbacks 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…
The influence of VPN affiliate programs
An “affiliate” of a VPN is 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.” This payment for referrals amounts to a “kickback” to VPN review sites from VPN services.
Commission rates for affiliates of VPNs
To begin investigating the effect of affiliate programs on the reviews published on VPN review websites, I perused more than a score of websites of VPN service providers and looked for information about their affiliate programs.
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 19 VPN companies. (More than 19 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.)
Of the 19 VPN companies for which I found information, fees paid by the VPN companies to VPN review websites for customer referrals ranged from a high of $41.00 to a low of $4.80 for a customer buying a one year VPN subscription.
There were only three VPN services for which I could find no evidence of an affiliate program in late 2019 that (as of early 2023) continue to not support an affiliate program. Those VPNs are: CryptoStorm, IVPN and Mullvad.
Rankings of the “Best” VPNs by review websites
For the next step in my investigation, I examined 12 different VPN review websites and recorded the “Top 5” rated VPNs that were listed on each site. There were a total of 19 different VPNs that appeared on one or more of the 12 “Top 5” lists.
The VPNs with the most occurrences on the “Top 5” lists of the 12 VPN review sites were:
Is there a correlation between ratings and commissions?
All of above four VPNs that most frequently appeared on the “Top 5” lists were amongst the 8 highest paying of 22 (affiliate + non-affiliate) VPNs.
Of the 10 lowest paying (affiliate + non-affiliate) VPNs, only two VPNs were included on the “Top 5” lists:
- Ivacy had one occurrence on the 12 “Top 5” lists
- Mullvad had two occurrences on the 12 “Top 5” lists
This implies that the “price of admission” to a “Top 5” VPN list is a high commission payment to VPN review sites.
I also examined the potential correlation of how VPNs were ranked on the “Top 5” VPN lists with how high the VPN’s commission rates were. I found that payment of a high commission to VPN review sites results in a high ranking on “Top 5” VPN lists.
Thus, my findings correlate well with the comments about VPN review sites that were quoted at the beginning of this article: the VPN reviews of most VPN review sites cannot be trusted due to the bias induced by affiliate marketing programs.
For further information about my findings regarding kickbacks by VPNs influencing VPN review websites, see the “Correlation between VPN review site ratings and commissions” section in the “VPN Series Appendices” to these articles.
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 (if not the probability of) unethical behavior by not only the VPN review sites but also the participating VPNs themselves.
An even more blatant conflict of interest occurs when VPN review sites are owned by holding companies that also own VPN services.
Hence, the validity of all of the reviews published by all 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.