The internet is a wild place, and sometimes you’ll come across stuff you wouldn’t necessarily want your grandma to see. So how do you prevent people from snooping on your searches? Will a VPN do the trick?
To answer that question, let’s take a look at exactly what a VPN does to better understand how it helps bolster your online privacy.
How Does a VPN Work?
More on this in our VPN buyers guide, but that well-known acronym is short for “virtual private network.” Without getting too technical with it, they essentially get your data from one place to another online via a secure, private connection. They do so by assigning you a new IP number and routing your traffic through the service provider’s servers while encrypting your data.
Think of it this way: If you walk to the store on the corner, your neighbors can all see you’re out, where you’re going, and what you’re buying. They can then make assumptions about you based on that information. If you were to wave a magic wand and somehow use a physical VPN, you’d travel through your own private tunnel to the store, and you’d be wearing a disguise so even if someone could see inside your secret passageway, they wouldn’t recognize you.
Pro Tip: VPNs will help increase your privacy online, but they are not a silver bullet. There is no way to be truly anonymous online. If someone with unlimited time and resources — cough, the government, cough cough — wants to track you down, they will.
It’s an imperfect metaphor, but that gives you a general sense of how VPNs work without having to get a master’s degree in computer science. So that begs the question: Does a VPN hide your search history too?
Will a VPN Hide My Search History?
The short answer is no. The longer answer is that it depends on what you mean.
Short answer first: No, a VPN will not prevent your browser from logging your search history. That means if you visit somethinguntoward.com, whoever has access to your computer can check your browser history and see that you’ve gone there, even if you’re running a VPN.
The longer answer is yes, a VPN hides your browsing history — but from your internet service provider. If you’re running a VPN, there is no easy way for your ISP to track where you’ve been or what you’re doing online. Why would they track your behavior in the first place? Money is the long and short of it. Your ISP will sell your data to whoever is willing to pay for it, and business is booming.
FYI: There’s a lot of legal gray area surrounding the sale of data to third-party vendors. AT&T, for instance, says it doesn’t sell browsing data to third parties, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the company for allegedly breaching that promise. T-Mobile, on the other hand, admits it sells data to third parties to create targeted ads but allows customers to opt out.
Now that you understand the distinction, you may still be wondering how you can keep what you’re doing online private from folks on your side of the screen.
How Can I Hide My Search History?
Again, it depends on what you’re asking. If you want to hide your online behavior from snooping ISPs, a VPN is the way to go. If you don’t want your grandma looking at what you just saw on Reddit:
- Delete your history and cookies. In your browser’s toolbar, there should be an option to clear your history. It will include your browser and download history, your cookies, your active logins, your cache, and your search history. You can usually set the time range to clear, and, depending on your browser, you can set it up to perform the action automatically.
- Use private browsing. Most modern internet browsers have private options for specific sessions. In Chrome, it’s called Incognito Mode. Microsoft Edge calls it InPrivate, Safari calls it a Private Window, and Firefox decided it didn’t need to be creative and just called it private browsing.
If your goal is to prevent your internet traffic from being logged locally, these are the steps you should take. Keep in mind, though, that your ISP will still see everything you do, whether you’re incognito or not.
This is a roundabout way of getting to our next question:
Should I Use a VPN?
We’re all about safety and security here. Whether it’s increasing your physical security through deploying one of our favorite alarm systems or setting up an identity-theft-protection service to protect yourself digitally, we feel like protection is a layered approach. If you’re interested in protecting yourself online, a VPN is another excellent tool to do exactly that.
Will a VPN protect you from viruses? No, not necessarily. You’ll want a good malware blocker for that. Will they protect you from scammers? No, not totally. For that, you’ll need to be aware of modern social-engineering processes. What a VPN will do is increase your anonymity online and help prevent bad actors from getting their hands on your sensitive data. If that’s something you’re concerned with, then yes, you absolutely should use a VPN.
There are a ton of options on the market, so it may be difficult to choose exactly which one is best for you. Don’t worry: We have you covered on that front.
What Is the Best VPN?
As you may expect, different VPNs are good for different things. Some VPNs are great for streaming, some VPNs are good for torrenting. Some are extremely fast, some are extremely secure. It just depends on what you’re looking for.
Pro Tip: Want to cut to the chase? Check out our review of NordVPN. It’s one of the most well-rounded VPN providers in the industry today.
To help you comparison shop, we put together a list of our top-rated VPNs of 2023. There you should be able to find something that checks all your boxes.