SEO prediction: 2017 is the Year of the VPN

Charlie Hankers | December 23rd 2016

It’s customary to make predictions on the following year as December draws to a close, and here’s one humble opinion. Come back next year to see whether it’s worthy of Nostradamus himself … or a genuine, reasoned projection.

There are strong indications that both the UK and the new US governments are going to be increasing the amount of internet surveillance over their populations, citing terrorism and cybercrime as justification. In the UK, for example, the Investigatory Powers Act forces ISPs to retain customers’ browsing histories for one year, with a long list of agencies being able to access it. (Although stop press: the UK’s Brexit Minister, David Davis,  Challenged the Act … ironically using the European Court of Justice.) While governments will claim “you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide,” many ordinary people are uncomfortable with government agencies being able to snoop on their every click.

VPNs Are Looking More Attractive

This points to virtual private networks (VPNs) making the leap from business and security use (as well as for bypassing local streaming restrictions) to more widespread use as populations seek to protect their online privacy. With many VPNs promising to retain no browsing records, they are certainly an attractive option. VPNs are already routinely used by criminals and dissidents in repressive jurisdictions as they can mask activities that could land them in serious trouble. The more that liberal governments increase their surveillance on the data of populations who are used to a degree of privacy and anonymity, the more people will feel a threshold has passed – and board the VPN train.

Hiding activity from the law isn’t the only reason for being wary of ISPs harvesting internet usage data. It’s only a matter of time before an ISP has a data breach, either from an external hacker or an internal source, and the information becomes available either to the public or to criminals intent on blackmail. Activities that are perfectly legal but nonetheless embarrassing or unacceptable within certain circles could become knowable. Again, VPNs could offer a degree of protection here.

… But This is Bad News for eCommerce

From an SEO (and therefore eCommerce) perspective, VPNs are problematic. Both organic and paid search rely heavily on location to identify where visitors are coming from. In the case of paid search in particular, ads targeting customers in certain locations will fail to hit their customers and could result in paid clicks from the VPN’s location, where there might be no potential for a conversion.

If VPNs become as common as anti-malware solutions already are, online marketers are going to have to radically re-think the way they use geography and other analytics tools (which VPNs can also block) to optimise their efforts.

However, if lawmakers in the free world take alarm at the potential rise of surveillance culture and deem it not to be a price worth paying to keep on top of terrorism and serious crime, many of the measures requested by intelligence agencies might end up being watered down or put on hold. Whether we like it or not, we as marketers will have to observe the debate keenly from the sidelines and adapt to the consequences. Digital marketers’ and eCommerce businesses’ concerns are not a factor in the argument.