A unique new study of VPN users and providers has turned out some fascinating new data about what VPN users want, how they understand VPNs, and how the industry and the ecosystem in which it operates can be improved.
VPNalyzer is a research project run out of the University of Michigan in the USA. Its aim is to analyse the ecosystem in which VPNs operate and conduct large-scale quantitative and qualitative VPN user studies as well as qualitative studies of VPN providers.
This is the first academic study of this type to take research from VPN users and providers together. In its initial report, it has looked at a total of 1,252 VPN users (all US-based) and also conducted qualitative interviews of 9 VPN providers.
The research has produced some fascinating results.
VPN motivations and requirements
VPNalyzer found that the main reason people choose to use a VPN is as a security tool. 82.1% of respondents said protection from threat was their principal motivation while 58.4% said they wanted a VPN to make public Wi-Fi networks safer to use.
Interestingly, only 12.1% said that file sharing (i.e., torrenting) was their main reason for using a VPN. This finding rather undermines those who criticise VPNs as a tool primarily used for copyright infringement.
However, strangely there seems to be no mention of users who utilise a VPN solely for geo-restriction avoidance. That’s those who access other Netflix regions or TV services outside of their intended region.
After nearly 10 years of experience in the VPN industry here at VPNCompare we find that somewhat questionable as a huge percentage of users make use of VPN service solely for this reason.
When it comes to the key features that VPN users want from their VPN service, the research aligns closely with our own assessments here at VPNCompare.
Speed is most users biggest priority with 72.6% of respondents saying it was important. This was followed by price (55.4%) and usability of the VPNs app (44.1%). These are all key factors that we focus on in our VPN reviews for precisely this reason.
At the risk of seeming too self-congratulatory, the research also found that search (61.1%) and recommendation sites (56.5%) were the best ways to find a VPN, with sites such as VPNCompare viewed as overwhelmingly trustworthy by the majority of respondents.
We’ll take praise wherever it comes from but would urge a little caution as our own research has shown that some other VPN comparison sites are owned by the same companies that run VPNs.
This therefore means their reviews are likely to be skewed in favour of their own VPN services rather than offering the same level of independent market research that we do.
Indeed, in this survey, this flawed ecosystem is noted as are the malicious marketing gimmicks that some sites employ. As our site is 100% independent, you will find none of that here.
VPN perception and understanding
The VPNalyzer study found that 86.7% of respondents felt safer browsing the internet with a VPN and 62.6% felt unsafe browsing without a VPN.
However, it also found that a huge 40% of respondents didn’t have a clear understanding of what data VPNs collect about them. Many believed that their Internet Service Provider (ISP) could see what they were doing online even when connected to a VPN and 13% thought that VPNs collected private data about their online activity.
An anomaly in this data is that in their responses, VPN providers said they felt they communicated this information clearly. Obviously, that is not the case, which is where sites like VPNCompare come in.
This may be the case with some rogue providers and free VPN services. But the overwhelming majority of VPNs, including all of those reviewed on this site, have reliable no user logs guarantee and will hide your activity from your ISP.
If you are uncertain about this in any way, take a look at our VPN Reviews where we provide clear information on all of this.
The value of this information is clear, and the study showed that respondents found breach disclosures (62%), a clear logging policy (46.7%), and independent security audits (41.6%) were important to them. This is all information we cover in our reviews.
The University of Michigan team behind this VPNalyzer study reached some interesting and innovative conclusions.
They recommend that the FTC and other government organisations should have oversight on VPN advertising and use their powers to curb malicious tactics used by VPNs, because such aggressive and misleading ad campaigns could confuse VPN users about what VPNs offer.
They cite the banning of a single NordVPN advert in the UK as an example of this being effective. They also want more focus to be drawn onto the VPN review ecosystem too.
These are both recommendations that we here at VPNCompare are happy to endorse. VPNs should only make legitimate and verifiable claims about the services they offer, which is one of the reasons we make a point of calling out those that don’t in our reviews.
And it is quite right to say that the VPN review ecosystem can be deeply misleading. We are very proud of the forthright and independent service we offer, and we are clear if and when we are receiving affiliate payments.
It frustrates us hugely to see many of our competitors exploiting their readers by offering biased and inaccurate recommendations. This is something we would never do, and we would very much like to see our whole industry held to the same high standards that we pride ourselves on.
However, the FTC only have jurisdiction over the United States and as the majority of VPN providers are registered outside the US as with millions of consumers, there is only so far their reach can cover.
The report also recommends increased user education about what VPNs do. Again, we concur with this assessment, and we hope that much of the content that we put out does play a role in delivering this.
This initial study by VPNalyzer is fascinating stuff and important research albeit missing some crucial data. Our thanks go out to the research team behind it, and we look forward to reading their future output in the months and years ahead.
The VPN industry is maturing but is still growing rapidly and it is research like this that will help all of us involved in the industry, both as providers and users, to deliver the best possible service and maximise the huge benefits that VPNs can offer.