You’ve probably heard about the deep web in the media, where it’s often confused with the very different dark web (we’ll get to that in a moment). But what is the deep web and is it something that can be useful for ordinary internet users?

The deep web isn’t anything illegal or particularly dangerous. In fact, the answer to the question what is the deep web is fairly simple. It’s just the huge amount of data held on web-connected servers which hasn’t been indexed by major search engines.

This could include a wide range of content. Some streaming sites index their content in ways that Google can’t see, email services conceal users’ inboxes to provide security, and many companies, schools or medical bodies bury data behind log-in portals.

Everything behind those barriers is referred to as the deep web, in distinction to the Surface Web, which can be searched easily via tools like Google. So if you want to get behind corporate filters and walls, using the deep web is essential.

What is the deep web used for?

The deep web is used for a variety of purposes. Most commonly, businesses use it to create a barrier between their own landing pages and search portals and the products that they want to sell.

So, for example, assume that you are buying hotel accommodation in Boston on a site like Booking.com for a set of specific dates. You may be able to find individual hotel pages in Boston via Google, but there’s no way you can use Google to find a link to all of the available hotels between two dates. In this way, companies can make sure that customers use their sales systems (or sales funnel) to find prices and make purchasing decisions. And they can also use cookies to deliver prices that suit their business model.

But making money isn’t the only use of the deep web.

Another answer to what is the deep web used for is security. By protecting confidential data behind encryption and authentication portals, site owners can keep users’ data safe and confidential.

In case you were wondering, this isn’t a tiny fringe of the internet. We don’t know exactly how much of the web is off limits to search engines, but a fair guess is around 90-95%.

Much of that is obsolete data or held by companies for their own purposes. But many academics have sought to use deep web data in their research, while services like Archive.org seek to preserve old online content as a kind of digital museum.

Deep web and dark web – understanding the difference

While the deep web seems fairly benign, the same cannot be said about the dark web. The two terms are often used interchangeably by commentators and the public, leading to confusion about where the dividing line between them lies. But it’s essential to know the differences if you want to know how to access the deep web safely.

While the deep web includes all data held on the web that isn’t indexed by search engines, the dark web only includes information that has been consciously hidden via sophisticated encryption tools. That doesn’t include corporate sites which erect barriers to search engines.

Instead, the dark web relies on tools like Tor, a web browser which functions a little like a VPN, spoofing the identities of users and unlocking encrypted content.

The unprecedented level of privacy delivered by the dark web led to it becoming associated with activity that would be deemed illegal on the surface. Sites like the Silk Road became notorious for users dealing in narcotics and other banned materials. It’s been used to dump personal details from site hacks, and as a repository for illegal images.

But there has always been a positive side to the dark web as well. For example, because of the privacy it guarantees, Tor has been used by dissidents in totalitarian societies to protect their communications.

Nevertheless, it helps to keep a clear idea in mind about what is the deep web and how it differs from its “darker” cousin. The two are connected, but they aren’t the same.

Finding the ideal VPN for deep web browsing

If you want to use the deep web to remain anonymous, bypass corporate filters or set up private web sites, there are some things to remember about how to access the deep web safely.

Most importantly, it’s vital to protect your online identity at all stages. Even if a website isn’t accessible to Google, if your IP address leaks or your computer itself isn’t secured, your online activity can be vulnerable to outside snooping.

Because of this, it’s important to find the right VPN for deep web browsing. When choosing a VPN, go for options which keep zero logs, are based in privacy-friendly jurisdictions, use high-level OpenVPN encryption, and deliver solid speeds. You might also want to choose a service which accepts bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, as using these currencies is the best way to ensure that your payments remain anonymous.

All of these VPNs should deliver on those counts:

  • NordVPN
  • IPVanish
  • ExpressVPN
  • Perfect Privacy
  • TorGuard

As the name suggests, TorGuard specializes in dark web connections, so if you have to use Tor, then it could be the ideal solution. But for general deep web usage, all of these VPNs perform well, minimizing IP leakage and respecting the privacy of users as much as possible.

For more VPN providers, refer to our Best VPNs list.