What Is a Proxy: Your Go-To Guide in 2020
Learn all about proxies, their types, and main use cases.
Each device that connects to the internet is assigned a public IP address. What if you don’t feel like broadcasting this information all over the place? Then you might want a proxy to change that.
A proxy is an intermediary between your device and the internet. When you’re not using one, any website can see your IP address. Not only that: it can also determine your approximate location, device information, and more. With a proxy, the website will see a different IP from your real one.
This guide will teach you all about how proxies work, their main use cases, different proxy types, and how a proxy compares with a VPN.
Think of a proxy as a middleman between you and the internet. Instead of connecting to a website directly, a proxy server will route your connection through itself, sending a request on your behalf. It will then return the website’s response, also through itself. Your own IP address will never be exposed in the process.
So, using a proxy lets you hide your identity online. Another benefit is that you can use many proxies at the same time. This enables you to perform a large number of automated tasks, which wouldn’t be possible with one IP address.
There are many different reasons behind using a proxy. Some apply more to individuals, while others are geared toward businesses. Let’s take a look at the most popular use cases.
Proxies for Individuals
Improve Your Online Privacy
It’s no surprise that nowadays fewer and fewer people feel safe online. If you want to reclaim your privacy and make sure your sensitive information isn’t getting into the wrong hands, then using a proxy is the way to go. Given that your IP address can already let anyone know your location, you shouldn’t think twice about reclaiming this information.
Access Localized Content
If you told me you’ve never been denied access because of the lovely We’re sorry, this content isn’t available in your country message, I’d have to call you out. Video content is the one restriction that we encounter the most often. YouTube, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, you name it – all have some content restrictions according to their users’ locations. The same goes for all other kinds of websites, most commonly including e-commerce and retail.
Overcome Website Blocks and Restrictions
Academic institutions, workplaces, and even some countries tend to put restrictions on what websites can be accessed. Proxies can help you go around them. For example, you can use them to unblock Instagram or Spotify.
Buy Limited Edition Items
This applies to all items that are high in demand and have limited supply. The most popular example would be buying shoes, widely known as sneaker copping. There is a big aftermarket for rare sneakers, and it’s very hard to buy a pair directly from the store without a sneaker bot and good sneaker proxies. Another example could be ticket scalping. Shopping for limited edition items can also be classified under businesses uses, depending on its scale.
Proxies for Businesses
Scrape the Web
Web scraping allows any business to quickly gather large amounts of data from public sources. It’s especially valuable when you need to collect data from a website that has no API or when its limits aren’t enough. In practice, automated data collection is very hard to do with a single IP because websites limit the requests you can make. This is where proxies come in. Rotating residential proxies will supply you with constantly changing IPs that belong to real devices.
Aggregate Data from Multiple Sources
A subset of web scraping, data aggregation lets companies efficiently collect data from several sources. Then, they process this data and selectively present it as a service. Such data aggregators include price comparison and travel fare websites, and they heavily rely on proxies to run their businesses.
Do Market Research
Market research includes collecting product data, pricing information, doing sentiment analysis, and other similar tasks. Proxies help not only by speeding up data collection, but also giving access to information in different locales. One particularly attractive target for market research is Amazon, but it’s also impossible to scrape at any reasonable scale without a proxy server.
Perform SEO Tasks
Proxies are especially relevant to the wide variety of SEO companies that work with keyword research, rank tracking, and SERP analysis. Their software continuously scrapes search engines – primarily Google, but also Yandex, Bing, and others – to produce insights for marketers and SEO specialists. Knowing how vigilant search engines are against bots, digital marketing would be much harder and slower without SEO proxies.
Manage Multiple Social Media Accounts
Social platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube strictly limit the number of accounts that can be run from the same IP address. Understandably so, many people want to overcome such restrictions in order for their business to operate properly. An example of such a business would be a social media management company that needs to run several different accounts daily without encountering any blocks or bans. Alternatively, maybe you have multiple social media accounts of your own and don’t want the risk of getting one or the other banned. Proxies can help you avoid this outcome.
There are several types of proxies with different characteristics. These differences could be what makes or breaks your projects and tasks.
Before going into technical details, you’ll have to choose between paying for your proxies and getting them for free. For many individual users, this will be the first and most important distinction they’ll have to make.
Free proxies (also called web proxies) can be found on various websites online. As the name indicates, you can use these proxy IPs without paying anything. However, they are often slow and overused. Free proxies can also cause you harm: log your data, inject malicious ads, or install malware on your device. Use them very carefully, and never trust them with your personal information.
Paid proxies will cost you money. On the upside, such proxies will give you a much better user experience: they will be faster than free proxies and experience fewer blocks. A trustworthy paid proxy provider will never steal your data, and it will commit to keeping the service running smoothly. If you’re not sure about using proxies or a particular provider, most of them offer a free trial or money-back guarantee.
Another important classification is by proxy source. Some proxies are IP addresses stored in data centers, while others come from real residential users.
As the name implies, datacenter proxies get their IP addresses from data centers and don’t belong to real-life devices. They are a bit more likely to get blocked when comparing them to residential proxies. However, a big advantage of using datacenter proxies is their speed, as well as a lower price.
Residential proxies are IP addresses that belong to real mobile and desktop devices. These proxies are particularly hard to block as when you make the connection via a residential proxy, the target website sees the connection coming from a real device. Residential proxies are a great choice for web scraping, data and market research, social media, and bot automation.
Both residential and datacenter proxies can also be classified by exclusivity. You can get proxies that are shared proxies, semi-shared, or private.
Shared proxies are… You guessed it, shared! Meaning that several people could be connecting via the same proxy at the same time. Shared proxies might not have the most stable connection and have a tendency of getting blocked easier. Even so, they are the cheapest type of proxies out there. Almost all residential proxies will be shared because they use a common pool of IP addresses between all users.
Semi-shared proxies are mostly the same as shared proxies. The only difference is that fewer people use them at the same time. So, they effectively provide a middle ground between shared and private proxies: they are relatively inexpensive and rather stable. But semi-shared proxies can still suffer from the bad-neighbor effect as you can’t fully control how they are being used.
Private proxies (also referred to as dedicated proxies) are exactly what the name implies – private. These proxies are dedicated to one user at a time while semi-dedicated proxies can have up to 3 users sharing the same proxy IP at the same time.
Common mistake, but private proxies actually don’t have anything to do with increased security. The private part of the name here just implies the technical specification. If you’re after an increased security connection, anonymous HTTPS proxies would be the right choice for you.
Proxies can be static – keep the same IP address for an indefinite period of time – or they can rotate.
Static proxies give you one or more IP addresses. You can use them however you like, for as long as you like. This works well when you want to keep the same identity for an extended period of time, for example, if you manage social media accounts. But static proxies are not very good for scraping tasks because websites can block them. By default, most datacenter proxies are static and residential proxies rotating. That said, a few providers sell static residential proxies.
Rotating proxies change your IP address giving you less of a chance getting clocked by your target website. Such proxies could be a great choice for those who want to scrape the web (e.g.Google, Amazon, LinkedIn, etc) because of the low block rate – no two connections would be coming from the same IP address. And even if an IP gets blocked, there’s no need to worry as the next one would be provided automatically.
The proxy protocol defines how you connect to websites or services on the internet. There are currently three main proxy types: HTTP proxies, HTTPS (SSL) proxies, and SOCKS proxies.
HTTP proxies are the ones you’ll encounter the most often. They use the HTTP protocol which is compatible with websites. HTTP has been largely phased out in regular use because it sends all traffic in plain text. However, it’s still used for many proxy use cases, such as sneaker copping. You should avoid HTTP proxies if you work with sensitive information.
HTTPS (SSL) Proxies
HTTPS proxies (also known as SSL proxies) are the most secure type of proxies. They use the SSL protocol to encrypt data, which makes it way harder for anyone to get access to the information transmitted. Otherwise, they’re technically the same as HTTP proxies.
SOCKS5 proxies work on a lower level than HTTP(S) proxies. That means they simply send your data without reading it. This allows SOCKS5 proxies to work with all kinds of traffic, not only websites. For example, you can use them for streaming, gaming, or torrenting. SOCKS5 proxies also support the UDP protocol, which allows transmitting traffic-intensive data much faster compared to TCP. However, they are not encrypted.
Each network request you make online via the HTTP(S) protocol sends headers. Headers provide information about your device. A proxy server can modify these headers, either informing websites that you use a proxy or hiding this information from them. Based on this, proxies are classified into transparent, anonymous (or semi-transparent), and elite proxies.
Transparent proxies clearly announce to everyone that you’re using a proxy. They also show your own IP address You can often find them in public Wi-Fi networks, where proxies route traffic and control which websites you can access. I’m sure you remember having to log in each time you connected to that airport wireless network. This is transparent proxies at work.
Anonymous proxies (also called semi-transparent proxies) do not disclose your IP address or location. But they still include headers which show that you are accessing a website via a proxy. Such proxies are a good choice if you want to browse anonymously, but they are easy targets for anyone who wants to limit proxy access.
Elite proxies disclose no information about you or that you’re using a proxy server. In other words, they attempt to disguise themselves as real users accessing the internet directly from their IP address. Most reputable proxy providers will sell you elite proxies, though they will sometimes call them ‘anonymous proxies’ for marketing or other reasons.
You can get proxies either in the form of explicit IP lists or gateway addresses.
As the name indicates, proxy lists simply give you a list of IP addresses to use. Proxy lists are static, so you’ll have to manage proxy rotation yourself. Up until recently, most datacenter proxies used to come in lists.
Backconnect proxies connect to a gateway server that accesses a proxy network. So, instead of getting a list of proxies, you get one IP address which automatically rotates proxies for you on the provider’s end. Backconnect proxies are much easier to manage than proxy lists, especially if you need proxies for tasks that require IP rotation, such as web scraping. Most residential proxies use backconnect servers.
Proxy direction defines which end of the connection benefits from a proxy server: the user that sends the request or the server that receives it.
Forward proxies simply route your outgoing connection requests through a proxy server. This is the type you’ll encounter when dealing with proxy providers. Most of our listed use cases apply to forward proxies.
Reverse proxies are the opposite of forward proxies. Instead of routing traffic that comes from your device, they capture all traffic that reaches a server. Websites use reverse proxies to achieve multiple goals: increase security, balance loads, save bandwidth, and protect themselves from DDoS attacks.
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and proxies follow the same principle: they put an intermediary between you and the internet. However, people mostly use proxies for bulk tasks, to establish many connections at the same time. Think of them as your personal online army. VPNs, on the other hand, create one connection with increased privacy and security. You can read more about the differences here.
When choosing proxies, I’d recommend having a solid idea what you’re going to use the proxies for. From here, you can start narrowing down the qualities of proxies that would be the most important for your tasks. Do you need a static IP or a rotating one? Is it better for you to have very fast proxies with several blocks or can you go for slower ones with less of a chance of being blocked?
If you’re still not too sure which proxies would work the best for your project, take a look at our Best Proxies list. We’ve compiled not only the best proxy providers according to types, but also according to use cases. Basically, we’ve done the thinking for you. You’re welcome!