This article explores why "Best" lists of VPN providers are not useful.
There are many, many VPN service providers on the market. Hundreds. No joke. VPNs are "in." Unfortunately, that usually means a lot of bad actors will try and join the party, looking to profit from the hype. VPN service providers are no exception. Coupled with the fact most consumers don't know what they're doing, the result is the current VPN market is full of privacy and security land mines. Selecting a "good" VPN provider is tougher now than it's ever been. We would all like to have simple solutions presented to us in order to solve all of our problems. However, the reality of life is most decisions that are worthwhile and wise do not come easily. Selecting a VPN is no different.
The goals for this article are:
- Compare and contrast "Top-10" VPN lists from multiple reviewers of VPN service providers
- Explain why such Top-10 lists are not effective decision making tools for consumers
- Examine the failures of generalized "best of" lists
Recommended VPN Providers
How important is your privacy? How important is the security and the sanctity of your data?
This article is not going to recommend any particular VPN to you. Its purpose is to demonstrate why you need to derive your own criteria for VPN suitability, and then evaluate the best choices based on your own criteria. I'm going to illustrate why "best" lists don't work well. If you want advice on how to go about the process of making an informed decision and choosing the best VPN for you, I suggest reading the related articles, Choosing the Right VPN Provider and Reviewing the VPN Reviewers.
Myth Busting "Best" VPNs
The fact is there really isn't a "best" list that fits everyone's needs. It is a misnomer within the VPN industry, propagated by the myriad of affiliate marketing programs these same VPNs push to drive revenue generation. This results in dozens of "Best" VPN lists. As the industry has matured, many VPN "reviewers" have stepped up their game and now umpteen "best" lists exist for whatever use-cases they can think of.
To illustrate my point, I culled the top-10 lists of the best VPN review sites and organized them in the chart below. To identify the "best VPN review sites," I used only the recommended reviewers in the related article, Reviewing the VPN Reviewers. That's just four (4) review sites as of this article's writing (November 2019).
As you can see in the chart below, most of the ratings are all over the place. Keep in mind is a list of the best picks of the best VPNs. A proverbial "best of the best," if you will. Each of the 10 providers in the list appears somewhere in the Top 10 list of at least one VPN provider reviewer. If some VPNs are truly "best" then wouldn't one expect them to rise to the top of the heap consistently? How do you measure what "best" means?
NOTE: I narrowed the original lists by excluding any VPN service provider that does not provide full support for OpenVPN. Why? OpenVPN is one of the most ubiquitous standards in the VPN world, and is the "gold standard" for VPN security. If a VPN provider does not support OpenVPN, it is quite likely because their security infrastructure is inadequate. That's not good for the customer.
|Recommended VPN Service Providers|
|Provider||Cost (USD)||Con1||Speed Rank2||Logs||Reviewers3||Server Locations4||Headquarters Jurisdiction||Hop5||WG6||P2P7||Geo8|
Universal abbreviations: UNL = UNLimited; NR = Not Rated or Not Ranked
1 Number of maximum simultaneous device connections to the VPN service by the same account ID; UNL = Unlimited.
2 Download speed rank compared with other VPNs in this list. Lower is better.
4 NA = North America | SA = South America | EU = Europe | ME = Middle East | AF = Africa | AS = Asia | AU = Australia
5 Multi-Hop; the ability to daisy-chain concurrent VPN server connections. You can read more about it here.
6 WireGuard supported? Note at this time WireGuard support is very limited and should be considered experimental (November 2019).
7 Are Peer-to-Peer and Bit Torrenting allowed?
8 Good for circumventing geo-fenced content (e.g. Netflix)?
9 "None" for logging is the ideal result (it means no logs are stored at all). "Good" means anonymous or operational statistics only.
10 British Virgin Islands (a territory of the United Kingdom)
11 Private Internet Access is the company's full name.
12 d = days
Taking all this in, and looking ONLY at the info in this list, I'd have to say ExpressVPN appears to be the winner. However, I want to reiterate this is a very small sample and limited universe when it comes to VPNs. I would not use this information to make a decision on which VPN provider to use. That's because this is not the right type of information you should be evaluating. I hope it's clear that I produced this chart for demonstration purposes only. Specifically, to demonstrate why this method (a generalized "best" list comparison) is a bad idea. It just doesn't work well. As a customer, it does not explain what you're buying and why.
I hope you got the point from examining that list above. How does one choose the "best" VPN when virtually none of the supposed review experts agree on rankings? Adding insult to injury, we cannot know if any of these statistics are influenced by the fact most of the reviewers are affiliate marketers for the VPNs they review.
Filtering through the noise, ExpressVPN (average rank 1.67) and NordVPN (average rank 2) rank in the top spots. PIA and VyprVPN received the most consistent scores among different reviewers. And if we look just at reviews from That One Privacy Site (T.O.P.S.) - the most impartial and objective reviewer of the bunch and the only one who does NOT receive kickbacks from the VPN providers - we find TOPS views both NordVPN and VyprVPN negatively and recommends avoiding them. Yet, NordVPN is one of just two (2) providers that ranked among the top-3 places with all other reviewers. What does all this mean? It means there is something TOPS sees the others don't, and that is a warning sign for you. It bears further investigation, such as reading the TOPS review of NordVPN to ascertain what the cause of the discrepancy might be.
Another concern is how SurfShark appears in the Top 10 list of two (2) of the reviewers and has an aggregate rank of 4th place, yet its log retention policy is unclear. That should be a red flag for privacy enthusiasts. Logically, this ambiguity ought to disqualify it from holding an honorable rank. This is a disservice to consumers concerned with privacy who may miss this detail. Furthermore, SurfShark is a relative newcomer in a field where some incumbents have been operating VPN server networks for over a decade. There is much more to VPNs than what you see on the surface. That is a fact VPN reviewers are or should be intimately familiar with. This type of reward-based behavior should arouse suspicion of the reviewers as there appears to be a mis-match between ratings and reality. Digging deeper is certainly warranted here, though for now I'll settle for raising the flag.
Instead of reading through a myriad of these lists, compile your own priority list based on your needs and not someone else's. From there you will be able to evaluate commentaries and advice, through your own lens.