What Are SSL Certificates? How Do They Impact Site Security?

As a website owner welcoming people to your site, you have not only a responsibility to provide a warm greeting and relevant information, but to protect users and their information. Most visitors don’t keep web security on the top of their minds, but you should. 

Thankfully, you don’t need a full time team of security experts constantly on guard. A few basic steps and tools can take care of the majority of potential threats for the average website and its visitors. Today we’ll talk about two. 

The first is an SSL certificate — a non-negotiable tool that can encrypt information sent between your site and users. 

The second is a WordPress security plugin that provides everything from spam protection to site backups, malware scans, and more.  

What is an SSL certificate?

An SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificate is a tiny bit of code that provides security for online communications. Think of it as the lock on your front door. It secures the information that travels from your computer to the site you’re visiting and back. 

An SSL certificate enables an encrypted connection. It does this by establishing a ‘handshake’ between the user’s browser and the server. When this handshake is complete, a padlock or a green bar will appear in the browser’s address bar, signifying a secure connection.

Padlock icon verifying SSL for jetpack.com with a secure connection.

The different types of SSL certificates

1. Domain Validated (DV) certificates

Domain Validated Certificates are the ‘entry-level’ option. The verification process is quick and relatively easy, requiring only a check that the applicant owns the domain for which they’ve applied for the certificate.

These certificates are a good fit for small websites or blogs where financial transactions or the transfer of sensitive data don’t occur. However, their simplicity is also their limitation; DV certificates only certify domain ownership, not the legitimacy of the organization behind the website.

2. Organization Validated (OV) certificates

Here, the validation process is more stringent, requiring verification of the business’s existence and legitimacy. This can include things like checking the business’s registration, physical location, and the authority of the applicant.

OV certificates enhance your website’s credibility, making them ideal for businesses that require more trust from their visitors. The catch? The verification process takes a bit longer, and they’re more expensive than DV certificates.

3. Extended Validation (EV) certificates

For those who want the most stringent level of validation, Extended Validation (EV) Certificates are the answer. The process to obtain an EV certificate is rigorous, including all the checks of an OV certificate, plus some additional steps. 

One key benefit of an EV certificate is the visual cues it provides, such as the green address bar. These cues offer immediate trust to visitors and are particularly valuable for websites dealing with sensitive information or financial transactions.

4. Wildcard and Multi-Domain certificates

Think about Wildcard and Multi-Domain Certificates as the jack-of-all-trades in the SSL world. A Wildcard SSL certificate secures your main domain and an unlimited number of its subdomains, while a Multi-Domain SSL Certificate allows you to secure multiple distinct domains with a single certificate.

These are particularly handy for businesses with multiple subdomains or completely separate domains, offering a cost-effective, streamlined way to manage SSL certificates.

Why SSL certificates are essential for site security

1. Encryption and data integrity

SSL certificates turn your sensitive information into an unintelligible series of characters that can only be returned to a readable format by the intended recipient. This ensures data integrity by protecting it from being tampered with or intercepted during transmission.

2. Authentication and trust

Think of a handshake when you first meet someone. The handshake isn’t just about being polite, it’s also about building trust. SSL certificates do just that for your website, assuring visitors that they’re interacting with the authentic website and not a malicious clone.

The trust seal or green bar that appears in the browser is akin to a digital signature. It tells your visitors, “You can trust us. We’re not imposters.” 

3. SEO and trust signals

It’s not just about trust between you and your visitors, it’s also about trust between your site and search engines. SSL certificates are considered trust signals, and search engines like Google favor websites that are secure. As a result, having an SSL certificate can give your site a slight SEO boost. 

4. Machine-in-the-middle attack mitigation

In a machine-in-the-middle attack, a cybercriminal intercepts, and can potentially alter, the communication between two parties. SSL certificates help prevent these attacks by ensuring that communication between your site and its visitors is encrypted and secure.

5. PCI compliance

If your website accepts credit card payments, you need to be PCI compliant. One requirement of PCI compliance is having an SSL certificate. It’s a fundamental box to tick, the equivalent of making sure your car has an engine before you try to drive it.

How to get an SSL certificate

1. Choose the right SSL certificate for your site

Just like you wouldn’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, you need to choose the right SSL certificate for your needs. Use DV for small, non-commercial sites, OV for businesses requiring more trust, and EV for websites dealing with sensitive data. Multi-domain or wildcard certificates are your go-to if you’re juggling multiple domains or subdomains.

2. Find a provider

Many hosting providers offer SSL certificates as part of their plans or for a small additional fee. If that’s the case, they’ll usually also install them on your behalf. Bluehost, Pressable, and A2 Hosting, among others on our recommended WordPress hosting list, include SSL certificates at no additional cost.

Don’t want to use your hosting provider? 

SSL For Free and Let’s Encrypt are two providers that offer free, DV SSL certificates. To find more options, read our article about how to get a free SSL certificate.

Let’s Encrypt offers free, DV SSL certificates.

3. Activate and install the SSL certificate

You’ve chosen your certificate. Now, it’s time to install it. This process will vary based on the provider you choose, but each one should provide detailed documentation. Once installed, you’ll need to update your site to use HTTPS instead of HTTP. Most content management systems, like WordPress, offer tools to simplify this process.

Best practices for using SSL certificates

1. Choose the right SSL certificate for your needs

Choosing the right SSL certificate is not just about ticking a box. It’s about understanding the different types of certificates, their strengths, and their limitations. By selecting the most appropriate certificate for your needs, you’re signaling to your visitors that you value their security and trust.

2. Renew your SSL certificate

It’s simple: a lapsed SSL certificate equates to an unsecured website. This can lead to warning messages appearing in users’ browsers, deterring them from visiting your site. It can also cause search engines to lose trust in your website, and could even cause hackers to gain access to user data.

Most SSL certificate providers will email you when your term is about to lapse, while others have auto-renewal set up, so you don’t have to do anything. Make sure to know what the process is for your certificate and always stay on top of it.

3. Ensure full website compatibility with SSL

Every part of your website must align with SSL encryption. All your site’s elements, including images, videos, scripts, and CSS files, need to be served over HTTPS to avoid mixed content issues. Mixed content can undermine your site’s security and result in warnings being displayed in visitors’ browsers.

Tools like Why No Padlock? can help you debug and troubleshoot mixed content warnings.

Tools like Why No Padlock? can help you debug and troubleshoot mixed content warnings.

4. Enhance security with SSL and other security measures

Securing your website isn’t a one-time process. It takes continual monitoring and adjustments to stay ahead of threats. SSL certificates are just one part of site security.

This is where Jetpack Security shines, offering a comprehensive suite of WordPress security features that go hand-in-hand with your SSL certificate, like automated backups, malware scanning, and spam protection.

Frequently asked questions about SSL certificates

What is an SSL certificate, and why do I need one for my website?

An SSL certificate encrypts the data between your website and its visitors, ensuring it can’t be intercepted or tampered with. In today’s digital age, an SSL certificate is an essential component of any website, not just those that handle sensitive information.

What is HTTPS, and how does it relate to SSL certificates?

HTTPS stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure. It’s essentially the secure version of HTTP, and it’s enabled by installing an SSL certificate on your website. When your website uses HTTPS, it assures visitors that their connection is secure.

How does an SSL certificate work to secure data transmission?

An SSL certificate encrypts data in transit between your website and its visitors. It does this by creating a secure, encrypted tunnel through which data can safely travel. Without an SSL certificate, data is sent in plain text, making it easy for cybercriminals to intercept.

What are the different types of SSL certificates available, and how do they differ from one another?

There are several types of SSL certificates, each offering a different level of validation:

  • Domain Validated (DV) certificates offer basic validation by confirming domain ownership.
  • Organization Validated (OV) certificates provide an extra layer of trust by verifying the organization behind the domain.
  • Extended Validation (EV) certificates undergo a stringent validation process and offer visible cues, like a green address bar, to visitors.
  • Wildcard certificates secure a domain and its subdomains, while Multi-Domain certificates secure multiple separate domains.

How can I obtain an SSL certificate for my website?

You can obtain an SSL certificate from a certificate authority (CA). There are many CAs to choose from, and they all offer different types of certificates to cater to varying needs. Some hosting providers include SSL certificates in their plans or for an additional fee, while there are also external providers, like Let’s Encrypt.

Can I use a free SSL certificate instead of purchasing one?

Yes, you can. Free SSL certificates, like those provided by Let’s Encrypt, offer the same level of encryption as paid ones. However, they often lack some of the extras that come with paid certificates, such as warranties and the higher trust level offered by OV and EV certificates. 

What is the process of installing and activating an SSL certificate on my website?

Installing an SSL certificate involves several steps. First, you need to generate a Certificate Signing Request (CSR) on your server. You then submit this CSR to a Certificate Authority when you apply for your certificate. Once the CA has validated your details, they’ll send you your SSL certificate, which you then install on your server. 

In most cases, your hosting provider will take care of all these steps for you, automatically.

How often should I renew my SSL certificate, and what happens if I let it expire?

Most SSL certificates need to be renewed every 1 to 2 years, although the exact timeline can vary. SSL For Free, for example, requires a renewal every 90 days. 

If you let your SSL certificate expire, your website data will become unsecured and visitors will be greeted with warning messages. 

Can I use the same SSL certificate for multiple websites or subdomains?

If you have a Wildcard SSL certificate, you can use it for one domain and all its subdomains. If you want to secure multiple separate domains with one certificate, you’ll need a Multi-Domain SSL certificate.

Are SSL certificates compatible with all web browsers and devices?

Yes, most SSL certificates are compatible with all major web browsers and devices. That said, the visual indicators of the website’s security (like the padlock icon or green address bar) can vary between browsers.

How can I verify if my SSL certificate is properly installed and working correctly?

You can use an SSL Checker tool, which will analyze your SSL certificate and report on its status, expiration date, and any potential issues. 

SSL Shopper has an SSL Checker tool, which will analyze your SSL certificate and report on its status, expiration date, and any potential issues. 

What is mixed content, and why is it important to address it for a secure website?

Mixed content occurs when a secure (HTTPS) webpage includes unsecured (HTTP) elements. This can create a weak spot in your website’s security, allowing hackers a chance to exploit it. It’s like having a fortress with one unguarded door — the entire fortress becomes vulnerable.

How can I fix mixed content issues on my website?

To fix mixed content issues, you need to ensure all elements of your website are served over HTTPS. This might involve updating links in your website’s code or configuring your server to automatically redirect HTTP requests to HTTPS.

Are SSL certificates only necessary for websites that handle sensitive information?

While it’s especially critical for websites handling sensitive information, such as payment details or personal data, every website will benefit from the added security and trust an SSL certificate provides. An SSL certificate tells your visitors that you care about their safety and is important from an SEO perspective as well.

Some browsers will even display a warning for users who try to visit sites without an SSL certificate. So, for all intents and purposes, SSL certificates are required for every site regardless of its size or purpose.

Can I transfer an SSL certificate from one hosting provider to another?

Transferring an SSL certificate between hosts can be technically challenging and is often unnecessary. Instead, it’s usually easier to simply apply for a new SSL certificate from your new host or a third-party CA.

What are some common SSL certificate errors, and how can I troubleshoot them?

Common SSL certificate errors include an expired certificate, a domain name mismatch (where the domain name in the certificate doesn’t match the domain it’s installed on), or a certificate that’s not trusted (usually because it’s self-signed, or the CA isn’t recognized). Troubleshooting these errors usually involves renewing, reissuing, or replacing your certificate.

Can I have multiple SSL certificates on my website for different purposes?

Yes, you can. For instance, if you operate an ecommerce store with a blog, you might use an EV SSL certificate for the store and a DV SSL certificate for the blog. This allows you to tailor your security measures to the specific needs and risks of different parts of your website.

Jetpack Security: a full security suite for WordPress sites

Now that we’ve gone through the nitty-gritty of SSL certificates, let’s take a moment to switch gears. Because while SSL is vital for site security, it’s not the only tool in the toolbox. You need a comprehensive workshop to create and maintain a secure environment for your site and its users.

That’s where Jetpack Security comes in. It’s the all-in-one security solution that takes care of your WordPress site’s security needs. 

SSL certificates secure data between the site and its visitors. Jetpack Security focuses on protecting your site itself.

While SSL certificates secure the transmission of data between your site and its visitors, Jetpack Security focuses on protecting your site itself. It offers a suite of powerful security tools that can help you fend off attacks, monitor your site’s health, and recover quickly if things do go wrong.

For instance, Jetpack Security’s automated real-time backups ensure you always have a safe point to revert to, should the worst happen. 

The WordPress malware scanning feature performs regular checks to sniff out any potential security threats. It’s your dedicated security guard, keeping an eagle eye on everything that’s happening on your site.

The spam protection feature is like your personal doorman, keeping out any unwanted, spammy “visitors” that might try to wreak havoc in your comments section or contact forms.

The activity log allows you to keep an eye on everything that happens on your site and even restore a backup to a specific point in time.

Last but certainly not least, the downtime monitoring feature keeps tabs on your website’s availability. It’s the equivalent of a neighbor keeping an eye on your house while you’re on vacation, alerting you if something seems amiss.

As we’ve shown, security is not a one-and-done deal. It’s an ongoing commitment that requires attention to many different facets. SSL certificates are a cornerstone of that commitment, providing a critical layer of protection for the data traveling between your website and its visitors. But they’re just one part of the picture.

By using SSL certificates in conjunction with a comprehensive security solution like Jetpack Security, you’re doing your part to build a safer, more trustworthy internet.

So tighten the bolts, check the locks, and turn on the alarm. Welcome to Jetpack Security. Start your journey by discovering more here: https://jetpack.com/features/security/

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Jen Swisher profile

Jen Swisher

Jen is a Happiness Engineer for Jetpack. She has been working with WordPress and Jetpack for over a decade. Prior to starting at Automattic, Jen has helped small businesses, local non-profits, and Fortune 50 companies create engaging web experiences for their customers. She is passionate about teaching others how to create on the web without fear.

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