Yes, you can trust online reviews of security products, even if the reviews might make money for the reviewer. However, you don’t have to take that claim at face value. In this article, we’ll explain how PrivacyJournal works and unpack why affiliate programs don’t have to compromise a reviewer’s integrity.
Some commentators have lately argued that consumers can’t trust online reviews of security products, especially VPNs. Articles such as this ZDnet expose assert that reviewers have two common incentives to publish inaccurate information.
- The review site makes money when readers click links in the article, incentivizing more positive coverage.
- The site itself shares a parent company with the product being reviewed.
At PrivacyJournal, we fully support the idea that you can’t believe everything online. We encourage you to read security reviews, even ours, with a healthy degree of skepticism. That’s why won’t just say you can trust Privacy Journal — we’ll explain exactly why you should.
We’re a small company and don’t own any of the products we review. Although we make money through affiliate agreements with VPNs, we don’t make our decisions based on affiliate programs. We will suggest only quality products, and if there are any negatives, we will be clear about them. Our goal is to help you make informed decisions on what’s best for your needs.
Read on to learn exactly how PrivacyJournal works and why you can rely on our VPN reviews and online security information.
How PrivacyJournal Works
If an independent website wants to monetize, it typically has three options beyond being acquired by a large parent company (see the “Warning” section below).
- Sell products. The site can either act as a clearinghouse for products it endorses, or develop its own merchandise.
- Sell advertising space. The site auctions off space on each page to instant ad networks like Google Adsense.
- Earn a commission. The site can join an affiliate partnership program and earn a small bonus when people sign up.
First, we don’t sell products. We are into critiquing products, not making them ourselves. Second, you may have noticed that PrivacyJournal doesn’t display ads on any of our pages. We’ve seen way too many VPN review sites that are so full of ads you can barely read them. Trying to get around them all reminds us of the best scene from Airplane!.
Although advertising would be an easy way to make money for the site, we don’t want to display ads because we don’t want to compromise the user’s experience with ads. Additionally, advertising is now pretty much unavoidably linked with personal data collection, which we want to help you avoid.
However, we still need to make money. That leaves us with affiliate partnerships.
What Are Affiliate Partnerships?
Affiliate programs are a new kind of marketing that rose up alongside e-commerce. Amazon was an early pioneer, but you can find affiliate programs anywhere products are sold online.
An affiliate partnership is a relationship between a product’s creator and a content creator who reviews or recommends that product. Generally, affiliate partnerships work on a commission model.
Here’s how it works:
- A website reviews a product or recommends products for a certain use case.
- The site adds an affiliate tag to the links in the article. The affiliate tag is unique to each review website so the product creator knows the user came from the review site.
- If the customer signs up for the product, the review site gets a small bonus from the product creator.
Affiliate marketing is a win-win for the reviewer and manufacturer. The former gets paid without having to sell ads, and the latter gets publicity without investing much.
The only person who doesn’t necessarily benefit is the consumer. The flaw in the plan is clear: If the reviewer is getting paid when someone buys a product, doesn’t the reviewer have an incentive to bias the review in the product’s favor?
To be honest, yes — and in fact some services will try to lock in guarantees from sites for larger bonuses, including how high it ranks or how often it’s mentioned.
However, that doesn’t mean every affiliate author takes advantage of these dynamics. Some sites — like PrivacyJournal — consider their integrity to be worth more than the few bucks they could clinch by selling out.
At PrivacyJournal, we not only talk about the pros of a service, we make sure to be clear about the cons. We also don’t recommend poor services, no matter how much money they throw at us. Finally, we have a disclaimer about our commission on any page with an affiliate link.
In the next section, we’ll explore some reasons affiliate marketing isn’t necessarily bad for the consumer.
3 Reasons Affiliate Marketing Isn’t Always Bad
1. Affiliate Marketing Arrangements Aren’t Secret
You’ve almost certainly seen a blog post with an affiliate disclaimer at the top. If you buy a product through a link in this review, we may earn a commission, or something similar.
These disclaimers are partially about complying with the law. Most countries, including the United States, have laws that require advertisements and affiliate relationships. However, it’s also about integrity.
Maintaining a good reputation is the right choice even if your motives are entirely selfish: if readers don’t trust you, they won’t read your reviews or click on your links.
Some affiliate marketers do try to slip under the radar. If you’re not sure whether a review is part of an affiliate program, hover your mouse over any link in the article. An affiliate link must include a tag within the URL — for example, “tag=” or “aff=” — so the manufacturer knows who should get the commission.
If you can delete that tag and everything after, and still follow the link, the website is part of an affiliate program — and if the article didn’t start with a disclaimer, you shouldn’t believe anything it says.
That’s one of the great things about affiliate marketing: it has to happen in the light of day. On TV, in print, or when getting word-of-mouth from a friend, the consumer has no way to spot the hidden agenda. Affiliate marketing, on the other hand, is nearly impossible to conceal.
2. Sites Can Work With Multiple Affiliates
Affiliate marketing is not an exclusive relationship. Almost anytime a website makes money through an affiliate program, it works with multiple partners. This has many benefits for review sites.
If everybody is paying a reviewer for coverage, then — effectively — nobody is. The more affiliate programs a review site can be part of, the less likely it is to write for the benefit of any one company. This is especially relevant in the VPN world, where most of the 25 or so top providers have affiliate programs.
In fact, if a site earns a commission from every service it reviews, then the reviewer now has an incentive to recommend products they genuinely like and believe readers will actually want to use. It’s easier to recommend quality products rather than put lipstick on a pig.
3. The Affiliate Relationship Is Entirely Voluntary
An affiliate marketing partnership is voluntary. It’s not an acquisition.
The language of business can be confusing, often intentionally so. Some people might hear that a website is “affiliated” with a VPN and interpret that to mean the website has been acquired by that VPN or its parent company.
Muddying the waters is the fact that many VPN review sites have actually been acquired by the companies that own the products they review. It’s a serious problem and we don’t mean to downplay it.
There’s been a frightening trend of consolidation among VPNs, with companies buying up several VPN providers at a time. What’s less talked about is that those parent companies are also buying review sites.
It’s good practice to be wary of who owns any source of information, online or off. However, there’s a world of difference between an affiliate marketing partnership and an outright acquisition.
An affiliate relationship is voluntary and mutualist. It’s far more like a vendor working with a client than it is like an employee working for a boss. The product manufacturer can’t tell the review site what to print.
How PrivacyJournal Works With VPN Affiliates
Our mission at PrivacyJournal is to provide a central source for privacy information that’s readable, professionally edited and free from obnoxious ads. We want to arm you with up-to-date information you can use to protect your privacy and anonymity online.
We’re glad that readers are learning to approach online information more skeptically. Everybody in this business is trying to make money, but not all revenue sources are equal. We believe affiliate marketing is the best way for us to turn a profit while still working on your behalf.
Our reasoning is simple. We don’t make a dime without readers, and trust is tough to build and easy to break. The only way to ensure a stable, growing readership that makes an affiliate program possible is to give good recommendations. There’s no substitute for that.
When we’re deciding whether to recommend a service on PrivacyJournal, we base it on whether it can help our readers. Whether we’re feeling generous or selfish, it’s the right thing to do.
Warning: Digital Publications Owned by VPN Companies
In this section, we’ll keep a running log of review sites owned by parent companies that also own VPNs. To be clear, we’re not saying every word on any of these sites is a lie, or that they don’t frequently host good writing. We just think it’s important to air all potential conflicts of interest.
VPNMentor & WizCase: Kape Technologies
These websites are owned by Webselenese, whose parent company, Kape Technologies, owns CyberGhost, Private Internet Access, Zenmate and ExpressVPN.
PCMag, IGN & Mashable: Ziff Davis
These websites are owned by Ziff Davis (formerly J2 Global), a security firm that owns the VPNs IPVanish, StrongVPN, SaferVPN and Encrypt.me.
Conclusion: PrivacyJournal & Reviews You Can Trust
Our goal at PrivacyJournal is to earn your trust. We don’t want you to just believe that we’re telling the truth about affiliate marketing not compromising our decisions. We’d prefer to prove ourselves.
Almost every product we recommend has some kind of free trial or money-back option. If something sounds good, give it a try without paying. Let your real-life experienc