What is an SSL certificate?

What is an SSL certificate?
(Image credit: Pixabay)

An SSL certificate is a digital certificate that is used to verify the identity of a website and to encrypt information sent to and from the site. SSL certificates are issued by certificate authorities (CAs), which are organizations that have been verified by a trusted third party (such as a web browser) to issue certificates.

When you visit a website that uses SSL, your browser will check to see if the site's certificate is valid. If it is, your browser will display a green padlock icon in the address bar to indicate that the site is secure. Additionally, the information sent between your browser and the website will be encrypted, making it more difficult for third parties to intercept and view.

SSL certificates are typically used on websites that handle sensitive information, such as online stores or banking websites. However, any website can use SSL to encrypt information and to build trust with visitors.

Why use SSL certificates?

There are many reasons to use SSL certificates on your website. They can help to increase security and build trust with your visitors. 

Here are some of the benefits of using SSL certificates:

Improve website security

The main purpose of using an SSL Certificate is to improve website security. It encrypts all the communication between websites and visitors so that no one can intercept and steal sensitive information such as credit card details, login credentials, etc.

Build trust and credibility

Another important reason for using an SSL Certificate is to build trust and credibility among customers. Customers are always looking for a safe and secure website where they can enter their sensitive information without any fear of being hijacked by hackers. An SSL Certificate helps to instil this confidence in customers.

Improve SEO rankings

Another benefit of using an SSL Certificate is that it can help to improve your website’s SEO rankings. Google has announced that it gives preference to websites which have an SSL Certificate over those which don’t. This is because Google wants to promote safe and secure websites so that users can have a better experience while browsing the internet.

Avoid browser warnings

If you don’t have an SSL Certificate, then visitors to your website will see a warning message in their browser whenever they try to access your website. This warning message can be very off-putting for visitors and can make them leave your website immediately. On the other hand, if you have an SSL Certificate, then this warning message will not be shown and visitors will be able to access your website without any problem.

Meet data protection regulations

If you are handling sensitive information such as credit card details, login credentials, etc., then you need to make sure that this information is properly encrypted so that it cannot be accessed by anyone who is not authorized to do so. An SSL Certificate helps you to meet this requirement as it encrypts all the communication between your website and visitors.

(Image credit: Barclays)

What does an SSL certificate contain?

An SSL certificate contains several key pieces of information, including the name of the organization that owns the website, the expiration date of the certificate, the name of the Certificate Authority (CA) that issued the certificate, and a serial number. 

The certificate also contains a public key and a signature that is used to verify the identity of the website. 

Who issues SSLs?

SSLs are issued by trusted third-party Certificate Authorities (CAs), who verifies the identity of the website owner and issue a certificate attesting to this. 

The most well-known SSL providers are Symantec, Comodo, GeoTrust and GlobalSign. When a user visits an SSL-secured website, their browser will check that the certificate is valid before establishing a secure connection.

A root certificate is very valuable since any SSL certificate signed with its private key will be automatically trusted by the web browsers. Conversely, if the CA isn’t trusted, the browser will present untrusted error messages to the end user.

Companies such as DigiCert, IdenTrust, GlobalSign, and Let’s Encrypt are known as trusted Certificate Authorities. Web browsers and operating system developers such as Microsoft, Mozilla, Google, Opera, and such, trust these CAs and by extension any of the SSL certificates signed by their private keys.


(Image credit: Digicert)

Types of SSL certificates 

There are three types of SSL certificates: Domain Validated (DV), Organization Validated (OV), and Extended Validation (EV).

Domain Validated (DV) certificates are the most common type of SSL certificate. They're typically issued within a few minutes after your order is placed. DV certificates provide encryption and help build trust, but they don't offer much in terms of identity verification.

Organization Validated (OV) certificates offer more robust identity verification than DV certificates. In addition to verifying your organization's contact information, OV SSL issuers will also verify that your organization is legitimate. As a result, OV certificates usually take a few days to issue.

Extended Validation (EV) certificates offer the highest level of identity verification. In addition to verifying your organization's contact information and legitimacy, EV SSL issuers will also verify your organization's legal existence. As a result, EV certificates usually take a few days to issue.

When choosing an SSL certificate, it's important to consider your needs. If you're looking for basic encryption and trust, a DV certificate may be sufficient. If you're looking for more robust identity verification, an OV or EV certificate may be a better option.

What is a self-signed SSL certificate?

A self-signed SSL certificate is an SSL certificate that is not signed by a recognized Certificate Authority. Self-signed certificates are free to create, but because they are not from a recognized CA, browsers will generally show a warning when encountering them. 

This means that self-signed certificates are not suitable for use on public-facing websites. However, they can be used for internal applications where security is not as critical.

Let's Encrypt

(Image credit: Let's Encrypt)

How to get SSL certificates?

Thanks to their role in search engine ranking, it’s a good idea for everyone to get themselves a SSL certificate. 

The first step is to determine what type of certificate you need, largely depending on the number of domains and sub-domains you need to secure. The process is a lot more crucial for companies in regulated industries such as banking, who need to make sure their SSL certificate meets the defined requirements.

There are several SSL certificate providers and depending on the type of certificate and the reputation and trust of the issuing certificate authority, the costs of SSL certificates can range from a few dollars to several hundred dollars per year.

These days however you can get one for free as well, thanks to the Let’s Encrypt CA. It was founded by EFF, Mozilla, and the University of Michigan, with Cisco and Akamai as founding sponsors. 

Let's Encrypt is a non-profit CA that has been handing out SSL certificates at no charge since April 2016. Its certificates are valid for 90 days, and can be renewed anytime during this validity period. As per Let's Encrypt’s own research, its certificates have been largely adopted by cost-conscious users, which include smaller sites, such as personal blogs, and small businesses.

 To get an SSL certificate, you will need to generate a CSR (certificate signing request) and then submit it to a CA (certification authority). The CA will then issue you with a certificate.

If you want to get an SSL certificate for your website, you will need to:

1. Generate a CSR (certificate signing request)
2. Submit the CSR to a CA (certification authority)
3. The CA will issue you with a certificate
4. Install the certificate on your web server
5. Test the certificate to make sure it is working correctly
6. Renew the certificate when it expires.

Essential for online security

SSL certificates are an important part of website security. They help to encrypt information sent between your website and visitors, making it more difficult for third parties to intercept and view. Additionally, SSL certificates can help to build trust with your visitors by indicating that your site is a safe and secure place to enter sensitive information. If you are handling any type of sensitive information on your website, then you should consider using an SSL certificate. 

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Ruby has been a freelance technology writer for over four years and has a passion for information technology and the Internet in its entirety. She has a wide range of specialities including web hosting, streaming (Firestick, Kodi, and APKs), VPN, information technology, and affiliate marketing. Ruby is a graduate of Bachelor of Science in Commerce from the University of the Philippines, and regularly codes in her free time.