What an SSL Certificate is and Why You Need One

In its purest sense, an SSL certificate is a form of identification for your website that provides a certain amount of information and, more importantly, establishes that it is secure. By having a certificate, your site becomes more trustworthy to search engines, users, and the rest of the internet. Not only are there visual indicators on web browsers that let a user know when a site is secure, but many browsers include warnings to alert users to insecure websites. In other words: an SSL certificate lets others know that your webpage is secure.

How this all works is a bit more complicated, and we’ll look more into this further on, but it all comes down to encrypting information. When you have an SSL certificate, you can show your users that you have proper security and encryption for their data. Not only does this protect you and your users, but it also increases confidence in your website among your visitors. You absolutely must have an SSL certificate if you plan on having your users provide you with sensitive information. Even if you don’t require such information, you should still have one to ensure user trust and help with search engine ranking.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at what an SSL certificate is, why it matters, and why you need one.

What is an SSL Certificate?

As we said, an SSL certificate is a form of identification, in this instance, a small file on your web hosting system, which shows that your website is secure. It relies on SSL or Secure Sockets Layer technology, which is a crucial part of modern internet security. To get into all of the details regarding how this works and the maths behind it would require more time than we want to spend. In fact, there are entire books dedicated to the subject. And, to be honest, you really don’t need to know all of that unless you’re working directly on updating or developing network security.

The simple version is this: SSL is used to ensure secure connections between your website and a user that is reading your content or shopping with you. This ensures that the user knows they are on your site and not a fake site trying to scam them, giving them confidence in shopping with you or accessing your content. And it lets you know that the information you receive from your users is genuine and provided through a secure connection. All of this is done through the use of encryption and “keys.”

A woman is working on her laptop at a table.

Public and Private Keys

When we talk about “keys” in encryption, we don’t mean a key that opens a lock as you might use for your home. In encryption, a key is something that allows you to encrypt and decrypt a message. A simple example would be if you wanted to say, “Good day” as a secret message to a friend. So you decide that rather than writing “Good day” on a note, you instead move every letter forward by five places in the alphabet, so it becomes “Ltti ifd.”

If your friend simply receives the message “Ltti ifd,” they’d likely think it is total rubbish and ignore it, unless you also gave them the system you used and the key. In this case, the system is that you shifted the letters forward in the alphabet. (This is actually known as the Caesar or Shift Cipher, and the key is “5”). With that information, the person that receives your message could easily decrypt it and understand it.

The same basic principle is used in internet security, but with much more complicated and lengthy encryption systems. Rather than using a single key, modern network security uses a pair of keys: one public, the other private. The private key is kept on your system, and only you have access to it, while the public key is just that, publicly available. Someone sending you a message uses your public key to encrypt it, but you can only decrypt it and understand the message using your private key––this ensures that if a hacker intercepted the message (such as a customer’s credit card information), they could not actually read it.

So what does this all have to do with an SSL certificate?

Information in an SSL Certificate

Your SSL certificate includes information about your identity, either your personal name or your business/organization’s name, as well as a serial number and expiration date for the certificate. It also includes your public key, allowing users to access it and send you encrypted information with it. As aforementioned, that public key is vital for sending secure information online, and your SSL certificate is a central part of that.

An SSL certificate also includes a digital signature from the Certificate Authority (CA) that issued you the certificate. If you imagine an SSL certificate as a form of official identification, then it’s only as reliable as whoever issued it. We trust passports because we know governments only issue them. SSL certificates that are issued by reliable certificate authorities are therefore more trusted by web browsers that inform your users that your site is secure.

The Importance of an SSL Certificate

A hand is clicking a virtual url that has an SSL Certificate to show https, on a black background.

Site security is at the heart of the importance of an SSL certificate. When you go to a website that has one, you’ll notice the web address will say “https” instead of “http” and your web browser will likely show a little padlock icon next to the address bar. This tells you, at a glance, that the site is secure and that it has an SSL certificate from a trusted CA.

The same is true for your users and customers when they go to your website. If you have an SSL certificate from a reliable CA, then they’ll see “https” and that locked icon, letting them know at a glance that your site is trustworthy. In fact, many web browsers now warn users when they’re on a website that doesn’t have an SSL certificate. At the same time, search engines like Google use these certificates in ranking sites in search results––websites that they consider more trustworthy due to a certificate from a notable CA will rank higher than those that are unsecured or have a certificate from a less reliable CA.

Research has shown that web users are less likely to use or stay on an unsecured website. Even when they’re not entering private information, such as their name or credit card numbers, a user is likely to leave a site if they see an unsecured warning from their web browser. You need an SSL certificate to make sure your website visitors and customers are protected, to keep your data secured, and to make your site more attractive to a large number of users.

How Do You Get an SSL Certificate?

You can get an SSL certificate directly from a reliable CA, either when you are making your website or any time after. Here at UKHost4U, we provide SSL certificates as part of our web hosting and design packages, and we can also provide you with a certificate as a separate service if that is best for you. Our certificates are provided by Comodo, a leading security provider, and a well-respected Certificate Authority. Contact us today to find out more and make sure your website is secure.

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