There was a time, in the gloried days of yore, when words like “internet privacy” conjured up images of basement hackers and cyberspace ne’er-do-wells, furiously typing green text into the command line. These days, it’s a little more mainstream.
By now, you’ll almost undoubtedly have seen offers for paid VPN services, cautioning you against the dangers of browsing (gasp!) unsecured, and, if you’re in digital marketing or SEO, or if you manage a business, you may be wondering just what this push for increased internet privacy at the user level means for your day-to-day operations.
Proxies, VPNs, and Anonymizers
For those who aren’t familiar with the terms, VPNs are “virtual private networks.” They route your internet connection through a secure server no matter what network you’re on. In theory, you can sit in a café on public wifi and work on company files as securely as if you were at the office. They have the dual benefit of masking your actual location and IP address, since, from a site’s perspective, your connection is coming from the secure server (wherever it be) rather than the public network.
Traditionally, proxies (homophonous with the proxies we discussed last week, sharing the sense of being a stand-in) have been another way of re-routing traffic to mask your real location (maybe you’re travelling abroad, and your favorite YouTube channel is region locked) but they often lacked the security of VPNs. Today, the term is something of an informal catch-all for internet privacy tools in general, and I’ll be using the term in that sense throughout this post.
Anonymizers are a little different. These tools not just mask your location, they also cloud your identity. Traffic is routed through a series of blind ports, with each port only ever able to see the ports behind and ahead of it in the chain, and no port knowing which are the start and end points of that chain.
Both proxies and VPNs are becoming quite common, while anonymizers lack quite the same mainstream appeal. Aside from a few very specific contexts, most people have little need for anonymity. Indeed, most people are all but screaming their identities online to anyone who will listen.
There was a significant leak of search query logs about fifteen years back. They were being used internally, but were made very briefly public owing to a small error on the part of one of the project members. In those minutes, they were copied and mirrored across the web, and have now become a very useful database for any number of different research applications.
But here’s why I bring them up today. The queries were sorted by IP address (not by name or user or anything) but, embarrassingly, an astonishing number of people had searched their own names (who among us hasn’t?), their own addresses (this was before Google Maps and smartphones), medical conditions, whimsies, desires, hopes, and fears. They didn’t hold back.
Today, there is even more data. There’s not just a full and comprehensive record of every internet search you’ve ever made (and if you’ve logged into Chrome or your Gmail account, odds are that that data is tied to you cross-platform) but there’s also an almost incomprehensibly massive amount of other data added to the mix as well.
And it all starts with cookies.
As you’re probably aware, whenever you visit a site, it leaves a small token (commonly called a “cookie”) in your browser. When you visit a site and you’re still logged in, even days later, that’s because a cookie on your system was recognized by the host site and acted upon, redirecting you to your own account. Here’s the thing: other sites can see those cookies, too. Google can see your Amazon history, Buzzfeed can see that you’ve been reading Cracked, sites can recalibrate on the fly to feed you content to match your expected reading level almost as easily as they can resize their pages for your particular browser and screen resolution.
And that brings us to another point of interest.
Your Hardware Has a Signature
This doesn’t matter for users of VPNs (remember, their job is to keep your connection secure, not anonymous) but for those users who are trying to maintain some level of internet privacy, or who are going through anonymizing software, they’re leaving almost as much of a fingerprint as other users.
Here’s a very quick explanation of how the internet works at a hardware level. Your computer connects to another computer, somewhere else, and asks that the second computer show its content on your computer’s screen, or play sound through your computer’s speakers. That requires the transfer of information between computers about what to show (your request) and who’s asking (what hardware to calibrate content for). That hardware is likely going to communicate a good deal of information about the user — sometimes even a distinct signature.
Let’s look at how this works in practice.
Lots of people have Macs. Relatively few of those users are still using OS 10.8 (I am!). Of those users, fewer still are using two monitors simultaneously. Of those users, fewer are using my particular model of Acer in landscape and my particular model of LG in portrait, in this particular arrangement and with this particular screen resolution, with my particular browser and language preferences. To most sites, even if I were to visit anonymously, I would be pretty easily identifiable if anyone ever bothered to track me.
So, now that we’re through the core concepts of internet privacy (short answer: there isn’t much of it) let’s move on to some practical questions about what these privacy tools mean for digital marketers.
What Do Proxies Mean for Digital Marketing?
Well, surprisingly, they don’t have that big of an effect. That’s partly because most people still don’t use them, and partly because of the very selective impacts they can have on the various cogs in your digital marketing machine. However, though limited, the impacts they do have need to be understood and taken into consideration.
Proxies and Google Analytics
Data can’t be usefully interpreted without context, so it would be reasonable to expect that it’s here that proxies would have the biggest impact. However, even when it comes to the die-hard cyber-privacy enthusiasts (who will likely make up an exceedingly small percentage of your total audience) the data about language, browser type, device type, and so on will likely still be informative. The difficulty arises if those users are also blocking cookies, because you’ll not be able to track their behavior as they move about your site. You’ll still get page-level metrics, like page view duration and bounce rate, but they may be able to occlude the total scope of their behaviors.
Still, even that only applies to the very hardest of the hardcore anonymizers. For most users, even those with VPNs, there will be no appreciable difference for your analytics.
Proxies and Local SEO
This is where we start to get into trickier territory. We’ve written about the overwhelming importance of local SEO in the current digital marketing landscape before. Basically, local SEO (helping your page rank for users within a particular geographical area) is the darling of the SEO industry right now. It dovetails with the push for primacy for mobile (as opposed to desktop) interactions that Google has been spearheading. Proxies, including VPNs, do rather throw a wrench in that, since they can mask IP address and geographical location. A user’s location will read as the location of the proxy server.
But even so, it isn’t really that big a deal. A VPN subscriber in San Francisco will learn pretty quickly that searches for “Vegan food near me” that keep turning up results in Redmond aren’t especially helpful. If that user ever does have need of local search (if he or she is suddenly captivated in one of Google’s aptly named “Micro Moments” for instance) odds are pretty good that the proxy will be disengaged for the duration of the search, so no harm done. As for anonymous users, they may follow the better part of a conversion path before they make themselves known, but they will give up the pretense of anonymity if they sign up for a newsletter or make a purchase, so, even in the direst cases, the impact is still heavily mitigated.
Proxies and User Experience
Proxies make sites load weird.
They often leave text unformatted, or jumble up page elements. Even the more sophisticated ones still hiccough now and again, and even a proxy with perfect rendering will still increase page load times. This isn’t something you have a lot of control over, so you’ll just need to trust that your users are acting in their own best interests. If they’re willing to make the compromise in quality in the interest of security, they can’t exactly hold you accountable.
What you <i>can</i> do is make sure that your page is as accessible as possible. This is best practice anyway, but it bears restating here.
To make sure that your pages aren’t going to be the root cause of a bad user experience, make sure that they’re properly optimized. You want smaller image files (no one really needs the 500mb HD version unless you provide a dedicated download link), fewer flashy interactive elements (like menu animations), and clear layers and anchors in your layout so that nothing ends up aligned.
If you’ve done your part, to create a strong, user-friendly site, then any further complications will be voluntary compromises for a certain subset of your users. You’ll still have provided the best possible site.
So What’s the Bottom Line?
VPNs and proxies are becoming more common for even casual users every day, but from a digital marketing perspective, there isn’t significant cause for concern. If you’re building stable sites, and you’re using all the data you have available, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.
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Originally published at colibridigitalmarketing.com on November 3, 2017.