What Is an SSL Certificate and Which One Should You Get

ByVladana Donevski
June 24,2022

Did you ever notice a small black lock at the beginning of a website’s URL? Do you know what that is? Even those who don’t know the lock represents a Security Sockets Layer (SSL), know it means you can trust the website with your personal information.

But, what is an SSL certificate? How do you know if a website has one, and why are they essential for online security?

This blog post will explain what they are, how they work, the types of SSL available, plus the benefits of using them. We'll also provide you with tips on how to get an SSL certificate for your website. Read on!

Understanding SSL Certificates and How They Work

An SSL certificate is a digital certificate that uses encryption to secure information as it travels between a website and a user's web browser. When a website has an SSL certificate, the connection between the two is said to be "secure."

Any information exchanged- such as credit card numbers, passwords, or personal data - is encrypted and protected from hackers and other malicious actors. To have SSL certificates explained in full, let’s describe the verification process. It goes along the lines of:

  1. When typing in the address you would like to visit, your browser or server attempts to visit the web server the SSL-secured website is hosted on.
  2. The browser asks the web server to identify itself.
  3. The web server will provide a copy of its SSL certificate, which the browser or server will read. If it trusts the certificate, it will signal it to the web server.
  4. The web server will return the signed acknowledgment to start an encrypted session.
  5. The server and web server then share the encrypted data. This process is also known as the SSL handshake.

How To Know If a Website Has SSL Encryption

One way to tell if a website has an SSL certificate is to look at the URL. If the URL begins with "HTTPS" instead of "HTTP," the site has a valid SSL certificate.

Also, as mentioned before, you can look for a green or a black padlock icon in the address bar, which is another indication that the site is secure. If you want to double-check the certificate yourself, all you have to do is click on the lock icon.

Within the popup bar, you will see which person, organization, or device the certificate was issued to and by whom. You will also be able to see the issue and expiry date of the SSL digital certificate and the Certificate Authority’s digital signature.

Why Are SSL Certificates Important for Online Security?

SSL certificates protect your information from being intercepted and stolen by hackers. While it doesn’t protect you from major attacks, such as DDoS attacks, some of the sensitive information SSL certificates can safeguard is:

  1. Identity information, including names, addresses, or phone numbers
  2. Login credentials
  3. Credit card or bank account information
  4. Legal or sensitive documents uploaded on certain websites
  5. Medical records
  6. Other sensitive information sometimes required by institutions

The SSL ensures your data is scrambled and unreadable as it travels from your computer to the website's server. SSL certificate encryption makes it much more difficult for hackers to steal and use your information for nefarious purposes.

From a business standpoint, SSL certificates are required to obtain a web address starting with HTTPS, i.e., one your customers will trust. Nowadays, most browsers will signal to your customers that the “website is not secure” if your website starts with HTTP. This will have a detrimental effect on your credibility with your users.

How To Get an SSL Certificate For Your Website

You can purchase a website certificate directly from Certificate Authorities (CAs). These companies play a crucial role in maintaining the security of internet transactions by signing these digital certificates. Every browser has a list of CAs whose credentials it trusts, and most companies on those lists charge a fee for their services.

You can apply for an SSL certificate by generating a Certificate Signing Request on your server. If you are unsure how to accomplish this, contact your hosting company and ask for assistance.

Once the request is compiled, you or your hosting provider will submit it to the Certificate Authority to validate it. Once the CA validates it, you should install the certificate on the website’s origin server. If you are hosting the website yourself, you should be able to install the security certificate on your own. However, in most cases, you can rely on your web hosting services to handle the last step.

How Much Does Getting an SSL Certificate Cost?

The cost of getting an SSL certificate varies depending on the CA and type of certificate you choose. Of course, the stronger the certificate, the more expensive it will be. On average, you can purchase a certificate for $60 per year, but the prices range between $5 per year and $1,000 per year.

However, not all websites require the same type of certificate. Let’s briefly cover your options below.

Types of SSL Certificates

There are many SSL security certificate types, with different certificate validation levels. If you are not sure which one your website needs, read on to find out.

Single-Domain SSL Certificates

Single-domain SSL certificates are very popular. They are ideal for small businesses and personal websites that only need to secure a single domain name, but they still use strong encryption to protect information exchanged between your website and visitors' web browsers. Unfortunately, this solution doesn’t protect subdomains.

Wildcard SSL Certificates

Wildcard SSL certificates got their name because they can be used to secure multiple subdomains simultaneously. Wildcard SSL certificates provide the same level of encryption as a traditional, single-domain secure sockets layer, but they offer the added benefit of convenience and flexibility and can be a cost-effective way to secure multiple connection points.

Multi-Domain SSL Certificates (MDC)

Multi-domain SSL Certificates (MDC), as the name suggests, are digital certificates that secure multiple domains with a single certificate. They're an excellent option for organizations with several websites, subdomains, or even different locations across the globe, since MDCs are issued to an organization's headquarters. This makes MDCs a more efficient and cost-effective solution for large organizations than several Wildcard certificates.

SSL Certificate Validation Levels

These are simply the steps of confirmatory due diligence a CA must perform before issuing an SSL certificate. Depending on the type of website you want to use the secure sockets layer on, there are three conventional levels of validation: Domain Validation (DV), Organization Validation (OV), and Extended Validation (EV).

Domain Validation SSL Certificates

The first and most commonly used validation level, Domain Validation, only requires the CA to verify that the applicant has control over the domain listed in the certificate. For example, when you visit a DV-secured website, the browser confirms that the certificate was issued to that domain by checking for a DNS record or sending an email to an address at that domain.

Organization Validation SSL Certificates

Organization Validation is a slightly more stringent validation of SSL certification, requiring the CA to verify that the applicant controls the domain and that it is a legitimate organization. The CA will check whether the organization is listed in a business directory and its domain is registered to a valid physical address.

Extended Validation SSL Certificates

The highest level of validation, Extended Validation, requires the certificate owner to be vetted by the CA to the highest standard. This process includes a thorough review of the applicant's business by the CA, which can take up to several weeks before you can use the secure sockets layer certificate.

The end result is that visitors to an EV-secured site can be assured it is operated by a legitimate organization that will keep their personal information safe.

The Pros And Cons Of Using an SSL Certificate

There are several benefits to using an SSL certificate on your website, so let’s discuss them first:

  1. It protects your visitors' information from being intercepted and stolen by hackers.
  2. It can improve your search engine ranking, as Google now factors in whether a site has an SSL certificate when assigning rank.
  3. An SSL certificate can give your visitors confidence in your website and build trust.

Now that we’ve covered the main question - What is an SSL certificate used for? - and sold you on its benefits, it’s important to mention there are also a couple of cons to keep in mind when choosing your certificate:

  1. It can be costly as not all certificates or authorities are the same. As mentioned before, it will cost you $60 per year on average. 
  2. Ensure that you’re using a reputable certificate authority, as there is a chance that your certificate could be fake and provide no security benefits whatsoever.
  3. SSL certificates do not guarantee 100% protection from all hacking attempts - they just make it much more difficult for hackers to steal your information.

In Conclusion

SSL website security certificates are a vital part of online safety. They help protect website information from being intercepted and stolen by hackers, improve your search engine ranking, and build trust with your visitors.

While there are some potential drawbacks to using an SSL certificate, such as the cost and possibility of fake certificates, the benefits outweigh the risks. If you're in the process of building a website for your business, or even already running an unsecured one, it's well worth your time and money to invest in an SSL certificate.

What is the purpose of an SSL certificate?

An SSL certificate protects your website from being hacked. It encrypts the information you enter - such as your credit card number or password - to make it unreadable to hackers. Employing SSL security makes it much more difficult for them to steal your information and use it for nefarious purposes.

How do I add SSL to my website?

Adding SSL to your website is a relatively simple process. You can either use a certificate authority like Cloudflare, GoDaddy, or Let’s Encrypt, or generate a self-signed certificate.

If you choose to use a certificate authority, it will verify that your website is legitimate and issue you a certificate. If you decide to generate a self-signed certificate, you must install it on your web server.

What happens if you don't have an SSL certificate?

If you don't have an SSL certificate, the question you first need to answer is: “What is an SSL certificate?” Without one, your website is vulnerable to being hacked. Hackers can steal your information by intercepting the data you enter into your website. This can include your credit card number, passwords, and other personal information. If you’re the one with a website, your customers’ data will be at risk.

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