VPN services have gained popularity in recent years. With the loss of net neutrality and FCC consumer protections, ordinary Internet users are more concerned about their online security and privacy. This clear increase in VPN usage poses several issues for webmasters and their SEO efforts.
How VPNs Help Users
A user pays a subscription fee and receives a username and password. They install a client or app for their device(s) and OS (s). Then, using the client or app, they connect to a VPN server of their choice. Most VPN services have hundreds or thousands of servers spread across the globe. VPN users can change servers as often as they want.
Users gain from increased security, privacy, and relative anonymity. First, all traffic between the user and the VPN server is encrypted and tunneled. That means government and ISP monitors can’t see what’s being sent or where it ends up. At the same time, the VPN server decrypts and re-broadcasts the traffic. The destination server only sees the VPN server’s pool IP address, not the user’s true IP address. Finally, users can bypass content geo-restrictions by connecting to VPN servers in different countries. Popularity among users is boosted by the affordable combination of security, privacy, and anonymity.
Local Search Results
Then there’s local search. An impact on websites that offer localized services, search results, or anything else based on a user’s location. Because most location-specific data is derived from a user’s IP address, the IP address is very important for local results. However, when using a VPN service, users receive a shared IP address from the pool associated with the VPN server they are connecting to. It will geo-locate to their VPN server, which may be in another region or country. This aspect of VPN use may harm overall site experience and geolocation accuracy.
Geographic Statistics and IPs
These packages are often provided by web hosting companies or self-service web design firms and allow web administrators to track geographic statistics, unique IP/page views, session data, bounce rates, and so on. Although not as dynamic or detailed as Google Analytics, many webmasters use this data to shape their content and SEO efforts. While page views and related elements will still be logged, VPN users will negatively impact geographic and unique IP statistics. The geographic issue is the same as in “Local Search Results” above.
Similarly, VPN servers recycle IPs and use a shared pool, so the same IP could belong to 2, 10, or even hundreds of different site visitors. This means your unique visitors or IPs will be artificially reduced on an ongoing basis. These issues can be mitigated with tracking cookies, Google Analytics, and other tools.
Site loading times/speed
VPNs can slow down site load time and access speed. The traffic from a user to a VPN and then to your web server involves a lot of communication overhead and processing time due to encryption and decryption. Latency/ping time increases, and maximum download/upload speed decreases. The better VPN providers only impact latency by 20-30 ms (virtually undetectable to most users) and max download speed by 10-20%. Lower-quality VPN providers can add 60 ms or more to latency and reduce maximum download speed by 90% or more.
As a result, users connecting via low-quality VPNs may experience excessively long load times or slow navigation, increasing bounce rate and lowering SEO rankings. However, most VPN users are unlikely to continue using a service that slows normal web browsing to a crawl. It may be more of an issue if your site is heavily media-rich, with lots of video streaming, etc. But for most website owners, this is a problem that is resolved between the user and their VPN provider.
In short, using a VPN has little impact on SEO and web analytics right now. However, there are viable alternatives for web administrators that are not affected by VPN use in terms of geographic statistics and local search results. Using a VPN provides users with far more security and privacy than webmasters lose in terms of SEO, at least with the current generation of VPNs and technologies.