Consumer VPN market overview
The consumer VPN market is a challenging one, with many players vying to be the top of the lucrative data privacy and security pyramid. According to a recent report by Global Market Insights, the VPN market is set to hit $54 billion by 2024.
Certainly, this number will be boosted by the increase in coverage of cybersecurity threats, Facebook data scandals, and much more. In fact, 2019 has already been rocked by news of Germany’s possibly largest (and highest-reaching) data breach on record.
According to the report, the growth is also aided by increases in mobile usage and IoT devices. Couple that with more accessible pricing by competitors, and it appears that VPNs are shifting away from a business-only or exclusively tech-savvy market to something that’s being adopted in wider use.
The Asia Pacific region is predicted to have the highest growth – 20% through 2024. Europe, the US, and other mature markets are still expected to hold the majority share in terms of revenue.
The most important takeaways
This is what we found after taking an in-depth look at the top 100 VPN providers:
- NordVPN is our pick for the VPN with the best market share based on brand recognition and awareness, high-intent keywords, momentum, and other metrics. Their current trajectory puts them in the #1 position – either now or in the near future
- ExpressVPN has better revenue from traffic it gets from organic search results. Out of all the VPNs here, it has the best SEO performance, as well as the most website visits
- PureVPN, PIA and CyberGhost need to work harder on their marketing strategy to be considered serious contenders
- The free VPNs (Hotspot and TunnelBear) have good metrics, but essentially these are less significant since a majority of their users pay no money at all
- Older VPNs, such as HMA and VyprVPN, are performing worse compared to the top VPNs. VyprVPN especially seems to be stage, as they are on a flat or possibly downward slope
To understand how we reached these conclusions, continue reading below.
The 10 main players
The question we want to answer is: which VPN is dominating the market at the moment? Well, if you look around at the software review sites around the internet, you’ll find a lot of varying opinions. At the moment, most will list NordVPN, ExpressVPN or even PureVPN as their #1 picks.
However, we understand how the game is played, and oftentimes money, sponsorship, affiliate commissions, and straightforward pay-to-rank schemes can muddy the waters. That’s why it’s hard to really find out which is the most popular VPN based on scanning review sites alone.
For that reason, we’re going to be looking at the 10 most popular VPNs currently on the market and see how they’re performing in a holistic way. The 10 VPNs are:
In order to analyze them, we’ll be looking at:
- how many people are actually searching for them
- what kind of momentum they have by looking at the increase in searches and servers
- how strong they are on social media
- their number of installs and ratings on the Google Play and Apple App Store
- their monthly estimated website visitors, organic traffic and organic traffic value
What we hope to find out at the end of this analysis is how popular these VPN providers actually are. For each section, we’ll crown the winner of the particular area. That way, we can crown the one VPN that stands out as being the most popular, the most visible, and the most engaging VPN provider on the market today.
Because we’re going with the 10 most popular VPNs, we had to eliminate a lot of VPNs that we feel are really great, but haven’t really gained a strong foothold yet. These VPNs include:
With that out of the way, let’s look at how the top 10 most popular VPNs perform according to our five crucial criteria.
The most popular VPN by keyword search
In this first part, we’re going to be looking at VPN popularity by search term in two ways. The first is by looking at how many branded searches (searches using the brand’s name) there are each month.
Secondly, we’ll be looking at which VPN provider ranks highest for high-intent, but unbranded, search terms, such as “best vpn,” “vpn for pc,” etc. We’ll do this for 5 countries, as the rankings can change from country to country.
VPN popularity by branded searches
We’re using the keyword research tool found in the Ahrefs suite to look at monthly keyword volumes for the popular VPN brands.
The analysis will look at 3 terms for each brand:
- the official brand name (such as “expressvpn”)
- a commonly misspelled or spaced variation (such as “express vpn”) or shortened (such as “hma” or “pia”)
- a higher-intent keyword, usually the brand name plus “review” (such as “expressvpn review”)
We’ll look at the global search volume as well as the US search volume for each term.
The logic behind using search terms
The reason we’re checking each brand’s search terms is that they estimate how many searches are being performed each month for a particular keyword or phrase. We can estimate that each search represents a person searching for that term.
Therefore, if there are 1,000 monthly searches for “pizza with pineapple,” we can assume that there are about 1,000 people who make very bad decisions every month.
With this information, we can then say that if a VPN brand has the most searches per month, then they have the most people searching for them per month, which means they are the most popular VPN by search engine.
As you can see above, NordVPN has the most searches per month for their 3 branded search terms, as well as the most from the US. However, for exact match brand term, Hotspot Shield has the most searches per month.
ExpressVPN is a close #3, with a combined 872,000 monthly searches and about ⅓ of that is from the US market. While NordVPN leads in absolute numbers for both the global and lucrative US markets, when you look at how much of their monthly searches are from the US, NordVPN is bested by both Private Internet Access (61% of searches from US) and IPVanish (56%), while Nord has 42%.
This is fairly logical, since both PIA and IPVanish are US-based. For a non-US provider, NordVPN does particularly well with their US presence. However, based on these 3 terms, we can see that NordVPN still has the most US-based searches of all these providers, and the biggest overall.
The flip-side of that is VyprVPN, which only has 180,000 searches worldwide, and a mere 54,000 coming from the US.
Branded search term conclusions
Since we’ve drawn a correlation between the number of monthly branded searches performed for a particular VPN and how popular that VPN is in reality, we can assume that NordVPN is one of, if not the, most popular VPN brands.
At the least, we can safely say that it’s the most searched-for VPN brand in the market today. Beyond that, it has the highest number of US searches than any other brand, which is the most lucrative region for the VPN industry.
Although Hotspot Shield has more global searches, it has to be taken into account that a lot of those are free.
Even then, they were outperformed by Nord for US-based searches.
VPN popularity by country for high-intent keywords
We’re going to take a look at the biggest, most lucrative countries for VPN services and see which VPN providers rank higher for high-intent keywords.
The logic behind checking high-intent keywords by country
Google’s search results have grown more complex as their algorithm improves. Search results are now based on a combination of factors, including past user searches and location.
For that reason, we wanted to check the highest-intent VPN keywords to see which VPN providers rank the highest. It’s important to note that we’re not looking for results in the first position or even on the first page necessarily.
Those are usually dominated by VPN review and tech sites for such great keywords as “best vpn.” Instead, we’re looking for which VPN shows up first for any given keyword, which can provide valuable insight into how popular they are in the given location.
We’ll be looking at not just the lucrative US market, but also Russia, the UK, Australia and the emerging Turkish market.
|vpn for pc||ExpressVPN||NordVPN||NordVPN||NordVPN||NordVPN|
|vpn for mac||ExpressVPN||ExpressVPN||Hotspot Shield||Hotspot Shield||ExpressVPN|
|vpn for android||ExpressVPN||NordVPN||NordVPN||ExpressVPN||NordVPN|
As you can see, NordVPN and ExpressVPN own most of these keywords, when compared to other VPN provider domains.
For “best vpn,” ExpressVPN wins in 3 of the 5 countries, while NordVPN takes up the rest. NordVPN absolutely dominates the “free vpn” keyword, even though it doesn’t offer any free plans. Similarly, “vpn for pc” is almost all Nord.
With “vpn for mac” we finally see some variety. This keyword is taken by ExpressVPN for USA, Russia and Turkey. However, Hotspot Shield manages to come out on top for “vpn for mac” in both the UK and Australia, which are not bad markets at all.
For “vpn for android,” it’s back to the same story: here NordVPN has 3 of the 5 markets, while ExpressVPN keeps the US and Australia.
Country-specific VPN search term conclusions
The field is a lot narrower, and it comes down to ExpressVPN vs. NordVPN. Again, NordVPN wins this one for overall numbers.
ExpressVPN has the highest rank for keywords in the US, while that’s flipped for Russia where Nord ranks higher. In UK it’s more Nord, in Australia it’s a tie, and in Turkey it’s Nord again.
Hotspot Shield shows up here too rarely to really matter.
The VPN with the biggest momentum
We’re looking at momentum in two ways. The first is front-facing, by using Google Trends to see by how much searches for a provider’s main branded keyword (“nordvpn,” not “nord vpn”) have increased or decreased over 2018.
Secondly, we’ll look at the pace at which each provider’s servers have grown.
The biggest VPN Google Trend
We’ll use Google Trends to see which brands have grown in their own branded keyword relative to the other brands.
The logic behind using Google Trends for momentum
The main thing we’ll be looking at here is comparing a VPN’s momentum to its other competitors’ so that you can see how it fares in the market in general. By putting all the brands on the same trend graph, we can make some good conclusions.
The leader again is NordVPN. 2018 was really their year, as they were able to overtake the free giant Hotspot Shield, at least in terms of Google Trends.
Hotspot had a huge spike in interest around May, but it was quickly overtaken by our current trend-setter. ExpressVPN’s interest, relative to these 2 other giants, seems to have increased only slightly.
Other brands, however, have either had flat interest or lost interest as time goes on. This kind of trend doesn’t really bode well, as the interest in a brand (by which we mean brand awareness) is a strong indicator of future success.
VPN brands’ Google Trends conclusions
From these trends, we can safely assume that NordVPN will continue its brand awareness assault. After all, it’s one of the few VPN brands that have TV commercials. ExpressVPN also seems to be on the upward trend, though not at the intensity of their archrival.
Hotspot Shield lost a lot of steam in the second half of the year, leveling out in the last few weeks. It will be interesting to see if they gain back their composure.
As for the other brands, it is possible that the flat interest will continue on into 2019.
Change in server counts
We’re going to be looking at server counts for the last 3 years for each VPN brand. We’ll be using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to do this. We’ll select the date closest to the end of the year for which a web page is available in the Wayback Machine (that could either be the last month or, in some cases, the middle of the year).
Hotspot Shield and TunnelBear don’t offer their number of servers. For some reason, Private Internet Access has blocked access to the Wayback Machine. We were able to find server counts for PIA and Hotspot, but not for TunnelBear.
The logic behind using server count for momentum
Here, we want to check the server growth to determine company growth.
After all, the connection is pretty clear: if they have more customers, they’ll need more servers to serve those customers. If their server count is growing rapidly, it’s likely their user base is growing rapidly. And, alternatively, if it’s stagnant or decreasing, then their user base is similarly stagnant or decreasing.
|Private Internet Access (PIA)||0||3000||3180||6.00%|
There are two important things to note here: the number of servers offered at the end of 2018, and the change in number of servers (from beginning to end). For the first number – the absolute value – we can see that NordVPN has the most amount of servers, at 5079 (the number has grown since then). VyprVPN is the lowest, at 700+ servers.
But more interesting is the % change in server count. While ExpressVPN has only 2,000+ servers at the moment, they started with only 136 at the end of 2016. That represents a 1,370% increase. NordVPN is second with a 600% increase, and PureVPN and CyberGhost have good increases as well.
Surprisingly, HMA has had a decrease in server counts: at the end of 2016 it listed 940 servers, but at the end of 2018 only 880+ servers. That’s a 6% decrease. Another interesting point is VyprVPN which has a flat 0% growth from 2016-2018. In fact, looking back to the furthest available date on the Wayback Machine, we can see that it’s been promoting its 700+ servers since 2013!
Interesting, to say the least.
VPN server count conclusions
In absolute terms, NordVPN is best when it comes to server count. Their 5,079 servers (today already at 5,200+) is almost twice that of the second-place CyberGhost, which has 3,134 servers in their arsenal.
Express’ growth is amazing (+1370% over two years), but is less impressive in comparison to Nord’s present numbers and overall growth. Nonetheless, it seems that PureVPN, CyberGhost, NordVPN and ExpressVPN are doing quite well in terms of growth. IPVanish is not doing nearly as well, and HMA is the only one with negative growth.
However, VyprVPN’s stagnation is an issue that might need further investigation. What does it mean when a VPN provider hasn’t added to their server count in over 5 years?
One of two things:
- The number isn’t reflective of reality, and they’ve just been using it as a marketing tactic. That’s bad on their part for misleading the customers.
- The other possibility is that it’s real and they haven’t had a need to grow their server count. That could be because they haven’t had the large user growth – over 5 years – to warrant needing more servers. That’s probably bad for their revenue growth.
The VPN with the best social media presence
We are looking at each VPN’s Facebook, Twitter and Youtube average views to determine their social media presence and popularity.
The logic behind using social media presence
We’re looking here at each of our brands’ entire marketing strategy and how that strategy is working. Now, we’re only looking at the big ones: Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. Of the first two, Facebook is more important for engagement, while Twitter seems to act as just a news-sharing tool.
YouTube helps us see how interested people are in the brand’s video content, as well as how much emphasis the VPN brand is placing on video marketing.
First of all, it may seem a bit strange that any VPN provider would have a particularly large social media following. After all, let’s be honest: VPNs aren’t very sexy. They’re technical, a bit harder to understand, and consumers generally need to be educated on their need and usage in order to appreciate them.
However, as we can see from the image below, some of the VPN brands are doing quite well on Facebook.
The top 3 VPNs in terms of Facebook fans are Hotspot Shield (4.1 million), Private Internet Access (1 million) and NordVPN (97,000).
The others hover between 30,000-70,000, with VyprVPN having the lowest at just 12,000 fans. This is surprising – or telling – seeing as Golden Frog’s VyprVPN is actually one of the older VPN providers here.
When analyzing the average engagement in each brand’s 5 most recent Facebook posts, however, we noticed that there was something a bit strange with PIA’s page. Although they have 1 million Facebook fans, they have only about 10 interactions (likes, comments and shares) on each post. Hostspot Shield, with 4 times as many fans, averages 10 times the interactions (98 per post), while NordVPN – which has 10 times fewer fans – has 140 interactions per post on average.
There isn’t much to say about Twitter here as far as engagement is concerned:
However, you can see that generally everything is similar as with Facebook with the exception of TunnelBear, which has the strongest presence on Twitter.
We checked the average views of the 5 most popular videos on a brand’s YouTube channel (not including sponsored posts). This is what we discovered:
As far as enjoyment of the brands’ videos, we see that NordVPN wins again with 1.3 million average views. Hotspot Shield is a close second with 1.2 million, and Express is a distant third with 792,000 views on average.
Social media conclusions
Hotspot Shield and PIA are far and away leaders when it comes to Facebook, with PIA also faring quite well on Twitter.
When it comes to YouTube, we’ve written before how impressed we were with NordVPN’s viral video marketing tactics. This seems to be extending to their owned YouTube videos. However, they’re followed closely by Hotspot Shield.
For that reason, we can safely give the best social presence award to Hotspot Shield.
App installs and ratings
We’re looking at VPN apps on the US Google Play and Apple App Store in terms of installs and their average ratings.
The logic behind using app installs and ratings
This gives us insight into how many users have installed mobile clients for any particular VPN provider. We can make a safe assumption that the more users a VPN has, the more mobile installs they’ll also have.
Therefore, by looking the install numbers, we can see which VPN brand may have more users and therefore be more popular.
However, there’s something important to be reminded of: free VPNs will have more installs than paid VPNs. Therefore, free VPNs like Hotspot Shield and TunnelBear will probably have better numbers than Nord or Express – especially since the latter is one of the more expensive VPNs out there.
When it comes to Android clients on the Google Play store, we see that Hotspot Shield has unsurprisingly the highest number of app installs, with 1 million. But here we’ll have to make a small addendum: Hotspot has two VPN apss in the Play store: Hotspot Shield Free VPN Proxy & Wi-Fi Security and Hotspot Shield Basic – Free VPN Proxy & Privacy, and this is a total of the average installs for both. The second most downloaded VPN is, surprisingly, not the free VPN TunnelBear, but actually NordVPN with about 445,000 installs. In fact, TunnelBear is beaten by not just Nord, but also Express and IPVanish.
Ratings-wise, only Hotspot Shield and TunnelBear have 4.5 ratings (maybe the free angle affects the rating?), while Nord is close with an average of 4.4. The worst rating goes to PureVPN – who also has two VPN apps on the Play store, and we took the average of those apps (the same that we did with Hotspot’s average rating).
Of the paid VPNs, NordVPN has the most installs, almost four times as many as the #2 ExpressVPN, which has about 100,000 installs. The lowest for app installs is PureVPN, which just manages to get 11,900 installs.
On the App Store, we see immediately that there’s no PureVPN. On PureVPN’s site you can get the iOS app, however, but then you’ll have to install it manually. It’s not clear why the VPN was removed from the App Store.
Beyond that, the most popular VPN on the App Store is Hotspot Shield (by a mile), NordVPN and then ExpressVPN – pretty much the same order as with the Play store. Surprisingly, all the apps have the same 4.5 rating on this platform. The worst performer here is VyprVPN, with only 3,000 iOS installs.
App install conclusions
Hotspot Shield, as a free VPN, has the best installs on Google Play, while the other freebie, TunnelBear, has surprisingly mediocre or even very low numbers.
Of the paid apps, NordVPN wins with 518,000 total installs, followed by ExpressVPN with 135,000. And, remember, each of those installs is worth some money. This means that it’s less of a let’s-try-it-and-see whim (as with all free apps) and more intentional for the paid VPNs.
However, on average, based on installs and ratings alone, the free VPN wins.
The VPN with the most valuable website visitors
We’re looking at how many estimated monthly visitors each VPN brand’s website has. These estimates come from SimilarWeb for November 2018 and Ahrefs.
The logic behind using website visitor numbers
The more popular a brand is, the higher the website visits are, at least for IT services. This is due to the amount of current users and almost-users that are visiting the VPN’s domain for various reasons.
ExpressVPN here edges out NordVPN for the most monthly visitors. ExpressVPN has almost 17 million monthly visitors, while NordVPN has almost 1 million less – 16.1 million.
The other VPNs fall way behind in terms of numbers. The closest is CyberGhost, which gets roughly 5.7 million visits per month and IPVanish close behind with 5.6 million. The lowest performer is VyprVPN, which has only 2.1 million monthly visitors – 8x lower than Express.
However, that’s only half the picture. We can’t really see from these numbers how much monetary value that traffic brings. For that, we’ll turn to Ahrefs.
Here we can see Ahref’s own estimates for how much organic monthly traffic the VPN domain brings in. Beyond that, it also shows us what the monetary value of that organic traffic is. According to Ahrefs:
“This metric shows the equivalent value of the organic search traffic, should that traffic have been acquired via Google AdWords.”
Using that, we can get a fair understanding of each VPN’s success in not just bringing traffic, but also valuable traffic.
As we see from the results, ExpressVPN dominates – in agreement with SimilarWeb’s stats. ExpressVPN’s monthly organic traffic value is estimated at $2.5 million, whereas the #2 NordVPN brings in $1.8 million. None of the other VPN apps have managed to cross the million-dollar mark. This is surprising, seeing as both Hotspot Shield and HMA have organic traffic in the millions.
The worst performer here is – again – VyprVPN which has just 114,000 monthly organic traffic that’s valued at $126,000.
VPN website visitors and traffic value conclusions
Of all the other metrics in this article, this one is closest to the pure measurement of success in any market: money.
ExpressVPN has more organic traffic, and that traffic is also good traffic, so that they have the highest monthly traffic value of all the others. NordVPN is a close second. However, the SEO game seems to be a bit harder to catch up on, and it seems that ExpressVPN still has more lucrative keywords in its arsenal than Nord does. Can we clearly state that Express has better revenue than the others?
Not entirely, because we can’t really see the conversions for this traffic (from browser to buyer). What we can see is that Express does valuable website traffic better than anyone other VPN brand here.
Conclusions: which VPN has the greater market share?
You’re probably aware of how difficult it is to make such a conclusion based on any of these factors alone. Nonetheless, when you put the parts together, you begin to get a picture that may very well be close to reality.
So, what’s that picture? Based on these factors, we feel confident in concluding the following:
- NordVPN has a current trajectory that either positions it or will position it as the #1 VPN provider in the world
- ExpressVPN has greater success in high-value organic traffic. Beyond that, their average subscription price is almost 3x as much as Nord’s – meaning they need fewer paying customers to have similar or higher revenues
- While PureVPN is often listed as a contender for the top VPN position in many review sites, from these metrics we can see it has a long way to go to be #1 in any practical sense
- The free VPNs (Hotspot and TunnelBear) have good metrics, but essentially these are less significant since a majority of their users pay no money at all
- Some of the older VPNs, such as HMA and VyprVPN, have not performed very well in the intervening years and their growth is almost flat, which can be dangerous for them going forward
- The other VPNs (PIA and CyberGhost) need to do a lot more work if they want to reach the top
- VyprVPN seems to be in a very long-term rut, in terms of almost every single metric we’ve looked at here. That seems quite bad for their business, as an apparent 0% growth rate in an increasingly competitive market doesn’t mean many good things.
Overall, we’re confident giving the crown for the VPN with the greatest market share (based on publicly available information) to NordVPN.
What do you think of our in-depth VPN market share analysis? If you’re a VPN brand, is there anything we missed? Let us know in the comments below!