What is SSL?

By Kevin Quia  | 

In the world of cybersecurity, SSL stands for Secure Sockets Layer. It’s an encryption technology for scrambling messages between networked computers so the message can’t be intercepted by hackers and sensitive information stolen in transit.

This isn’t the same as virus software or any other protection for your website. The purpose of SSL is solely to protect from prying eyes the transmission of messages sent from one computer to another. It will keep hackers from breaking in to see the communication while it’s being sent. All they’ll see is gibberish if they successfully intercept.

You still need firewalls and all other relevant forms of protection for your own digital properties.

Who Needs SSL?

At the very least, any website that is soliciting and exchanging sensitive information must have SSL or, rather, the current iteration of the technology (more on that later).

That means, for example, that it’s a must-have for e-commerce websites to get electronic payment information and names and shipping addresses from customers. For banks and other financial services organizations collecting that sensitive information from clients as well as possibly receiving social security numbers, employment and income records, and other super-sensitive data.

SSL protection is also critical for social media platforms and email account providers. And don’t forget corporate websites that must shield employment records, client information, product data, payment processing details, and much more from industrial spies, competitors, cyber thieves, and other bad actors.

In fact, as an internet user, you probably wouldn’t feel comfortable providing passwords or any other information to any site where you felt the risk was high of that data to be stolen, read, and acted upon.

Now imagine owning a business of any kind where the communication with customers or clients is conducted online (and that’s almost all of us in business). Let’s say you don’t have an SSL certificate. You’d have a lot to explain if that communication was exploited, and those who entrusted private data to your company suffered for it in any way, large or small.

The point is, just about any website needs to add this level of encryption protection. That’s why more than half of the world’s websites have SSL certificates.

SSL? There’s No Such Thing … Sort of

Ready for a little irony? SSL technically doesn’t exist anymore. The software launched in 1995 and immediately offered state-of-the-art encryption protection. However, that technology was superseded by a more advanced digital solution — a next-generation upgrade called Transport Layer Security, or TLS — more than 20 years ago. TLS has been updated a few times since then to stay reliably protective.

Nevertheless, most of us still use the name SSL when we refer to that newer technology, much as we might refer to a facial tissue of any brand as Kleenex because that’s the brand most people know best. Even if Kleenex went out of business tomorrow, we might use its brand name generically for years to come.

TLS basically does what the original SSL did, but it offers stronger and more reliable protection. While the name never really caught on with the industry, TLS is still sometimes used. You might also hear the term SSL/TLS. But more often, we simply go with the original form of the name.

Now, we need SSL … or TLS, SSL/TLS, or whatever you choose to call it … more than ever.

Google is Another Reason You Need SSL

Whether a commercial website is the engine that powers your business, or you use a personal site to promote your hobbies or to occasionally post your thoughts, you want traffic. Otherwise, what’s the point? That’s why you use search engine optimization (SEO) strategies to attract the attention of Google and other search engines.

The strategy behind SEO is to use the kind of language that search engine users are likeliest to use when searching for the sort of web content you provide. If the way you structured your content hits this mark, you’ll rank at or near the top of the first search engine results page (SERP). Or at least that’s the goal because study after study has shown that search engine users typically don’t go much farther than the first few results to find the information they seek. They assume that the “best” sites are at the top.

That’s what Google assumes, too. Their algorithm draws the sites where they assume the highest quality and most highly trusted and comprehensive information on the queried topic can be found.

As of 2014, Google has penalized sites that don’t have SSL certificates by ranking them lower than SSL sites. Without a high Google ranking, your website virtually disappears in the virtual world.

In 2018, Google struck again, by announcing that on its Google Chrome browser, sites without SSL protection would receive a “Not secure” notice on the address bar. Ouch. That’s like a “go away” warning to a lot of smart web users.

Google’s reason for taking these steps is to keep the search engine from directing online traffic to unsafe sites, which would negatively impact its own reputation.

How Do I Know if a Website has SSL Certification?

That’s easy. Just look for the lock icon in the address bar at the top of a web page you land on. The odds are you’ve seen that icon so frequently that your brain has forgotten it’s there. That’s because most of the sites you visit have this layer of protection added.

You’ll also see a lower-case abbreviation just before the colon and two slashes that precede the web address when you’re visiting any site. In the dinosaur days of the web, all pages carried the abbreviation “HTTP.” This stands for HyperText Transfer Protocol. Today, websites with SSL protection carry an almost identical prefix, but with a critical difference: “HTTPS.” That final S stands for Secure.

If a page is not SSL-protected, you’ll see no lock icon in the address bar, and it will show the four-letter prefix instead of HTTPS. If the site does not have an SSL certificate, think twice (at least) before transmitting any information to it.

How Do I Get an SSL Certificate for my Website?

That’s easy, too. Simply go online and conduct a search for “SSL certification authority providers.” A CA is a third-party company that provides SSL certification services. Your website will look and operate exactly as it did before you got the certification, but you’ll have that critical layer of protection added.

As you can see, the only way to stay visible to the visitors you want, and to keep them safe while protecting your own reputation, is to get SSL certification on your web property if it isn’t already protected. Fortunately, that’s a fast, easy, and affordable pursuit.

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