PCMag’s VPN review-ratings compared to sales commissions

PCMag have produced a series of “review-style” pages featuring a selection of Virtual Private Network (VPN) service providers. Prominently featured at the top of these pages is a comparison table with links to each of the different VPNs.

PCMag fails to disclose that they earn a sales commission if you listen to their recommendations and click through to any of the VPNs included in their article. To shine some light on this, I’ve made my own comparison table highlighting how much PCMag stands to gain if you let yourself be influenced by this undisclosed advertisement.

I’m specifically looking at the PCMag article titled “The Best VPN Services of 2018” as its published on PCMag’s website in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and India. Note that PCMag also publishes several variants of similar articles with slightly different titles and themes.

The article itself is in my opinion not intended for human consumption; but is included on the page for the benefit of search engine robots. Page snapshots from the Wayback Machine show that PCMag keeps moving the publication date of the article forward so it never appears more than a few days old.

The layout of the page makes it appear as the main body text of the article is a separate article. The text is also so dull that few — if any — humans would be bothered to read it. The body text only tells you generic facts and statements about any generic commercial VPN service and doesn’t talk about the specific services that are being reviewed. It’s filler text.

At the top of the page you’ll see a comparison table (screengrab above) that’s intended for human consumption. The table is neat and orderly and it includes some key facts and rankings for a few popular VPN service providers. The price column contains a row of big red buttons labeled “See It” but no actual price information. I’ll get back to these buttons later in this article. Readers have to click through to make their own price comparisons.

Here are the ratings from PCMag’s “The Best VPN Services of 2018” comparison chart paired with the prices that are missing from PCMag’s version of the chart. The prices are for each VPN provider’s lowest-cost-per-month product. I’ve also included the sales commission PCMag earn from each of the VPN providers.

PCMag’s ratings VPN prices and sales commissions
Service Editor’s Choice Stars Product Price Revenue share Recurring Commission
NordVPN Yes 5 2 years 79,00 30 % Yes 31,60
P.I.A. Yes 4,5 2 years 69,95 33 % Yes 23,60
PureVPN Yes 4 3 years 69,00 35 % Yes 27,20
IPVanish No 4 1 year 77,99 35 % Yes 27,30
KeepSolid Yes 4 lifetime 149,00 fixed No 75,00
TunnelBear No 4 1 year 59,88 fixed No 30,00
GoldenFrog No 3,5 1 year 80,00 ? ? ?
TorGuard No 3,5 1 year 59,99 30 % Yes 18,00
HotSpot Shield No 3,5 lifetime 119,99 30 % No 59,94
Hide My Ass No 3,5 1 year 95,88 40 % No 38,35
Total revenue per new referred customer over time
Service 1st year 2nd year 3rd year 4th year 5th year 6th year 7th year
NordVPN 31,60 63,20 94,80 126,40
P.I.A. 23,60 47,20 70,80 94,40
PureVPN 27,20 54,40 81,60
IPVanish 27,30 54,60 81,90 109,20 136,50 168,30 191,11
KeepSolid 75,00
TunnelBear 30,00
GoldenFrog Unavailable
TorGuard 18,00 36,00 54,00 72,00 90,00 108,00 126,00
HotSpot Shield 59,94
Hide My Ass 38,35

PCMag may have more favorable revenue share agreements with the different VPN providers than the data quoted above. The above rates are taken either from the public websites for the affiliate programs run by each of these providers or comes via one of their customer support representatives.

All but one of the Editor’s Choice awards went to VPNs with recurring revenue shares. These programs can provide a revenue stream for as many years as the subscriber renews their subscription. The only Editor’s Choice award that didn’t go to a VPN with a recurring revenue share went to the VPN with the highest sales commission for a one-year subscription. The top four ranked VPNs all have recurring revenue shares, and only TorGuard were given a low rating out of the VPNs who offered a recurring revenue share.

What isn’t apparent from looking at the table or even reading the article is that these VPN services all pay PCMag to be included in the article. PCMag earn a sales commission for every new customer they refer to any of the VPN services that have been included in the comparison table. The big red buttons are partner/affiliate links that track purchases and credit PCMag for the sales. However, the buttons use link cloaking techniques and appear to link to a page on PCMag’s website. It’s not apparent that it’ll redirect you to the website of the VPN provider until you click on it.

PCMag Australia, India, and United Kingdom don’t include any disclosures anywhere on the page about these affiliate links. PCMag in the United States do have a generic disclaimer pushed far down on the page next to the main article, but underneath another banner advertisement; safely tucked away where its unlikely to ever be seen. The disclaimer refers to “buying links”, but I doubt very much that anyone would associate “See it” with “buying links.” There’s no information in a more visible place such as below the headline or the beginning of the article. I find even the small disclaimer in the U.S. version of the article inadequate to inform the reader about the primary commercial nature of the article.

Notably, when I try to visit the United States version of this PCMag article from here in Norway, I’m immediately redirected to the United Kingdom version of the article that doesn’t have even the small disclosure message. Ironically, I’ve to use a VPN and tunnel over to the United States to see the affiliate disclosure message.