What is an SSL certificate used for? Do I really need one for my website?
Before understanding the purpose of an SSL certificate, let’s consider this simple scenario. Suppose you’re completing your tax return on the official IRS website (irs.gov). That means you’re supplying your financial information, social security number, tax identification number, and other employment-related data on that website.
How can you make sure your information is only going to be received by irs.gov’s server? How do you know your information isn’t being redirected to someone else’s server, or that someone isn’t reading, stealing, or modifying the information while it is in transit?
The answer is “you don’t” — unless, of course, the website is using an OV or EV SSL certificate.
It sounds scary, doesn’t it? Now that you have at least a basic idea about the importance of the data security, let’s talk about the purpose of an SSL certificate.
What Is SSL Used For?
SSL (or, more accurately, TLS) stands for secure sockets layer (or transport layer security) and represents the web protocol that’s used to keep website data safe in transit. This protocol helps to ensure that the data reaches the intended website server using a secure, encrypted connection. An SSL certificate is what helps you to establish this secure connection.
In this article, we’ll cover everything that you need to know about the purpose of an SSL certificate and its benefits.
What Is an SSL Certificate Used For?
An SSL/TLS certificate serves multiple purposes and offers multiple benefits to organizations and users alike. These are the main uses of an SSL certificate:
Purpose of an SSL Certificate: Offering Greater Security of Data in Transit
The primary purpose of an SSL certificate is to protect the data while it is traveling between two parties (such as between the client and the server, or between two servers) through the use of the protocols we mentioned earlier. When a person shares any sensitive information on a HTTP website, that data travels using an insecure internet network until it reaches the intended website’s server. The data must be protected in transit because it’s very easy for attackers to break the internet network and read, alter, and steal the data.
An SSL certificate enables a secure, encrypted connection (HTTPS) between two parties. An SSL certificate from a reputable brand, such as Sectigo, supports up to 256-bit encryption strength and 2048-bit signature keys for data and session key encryption. So, no hacker (or man-in-the-middle attacker) can read, interpret, steal, and modify your customers’ sensitive data.
Purpose of an SSL Certificate: Asserting and Assuring Organizational Identity
Another essential reason an SSL is used for is identity verification of the website.
In our previous example, what stops someone from applying for an SSL certificate for irs.gov? The answer is “Nothing!” Anyone can apply for an SSL certificate for any website on the internet. However, it’s the job of the SSL certificate’s issuer (i.e., the certificate authority, or CA) to verify the applicant’s identity before issuing a certificate to any given website. All the sites have their unique public key and its corresponding private key. It is the CA’s job to attach the right public key to the right hostname (website’s domain name) in the SSL certificate. That’s how the CA makes sure that all the encrypted traffic reaches to the correct website’s server.
Fortunately, any applicant must prove to the CA that they own the domain for which they have applied an SSL certificate (as a minimum). For organization validated (OV) and extended validated (EV) SSL certificates, on the other hand, the CA also must verify a business’s legal existence before issuing an SSL certificate for a website.
The CA takes all the precautions to ensure your users’ data reaches the right website’s server.
Know more: Certificate Authority
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Purpose of an SSL Certificate: Improving Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Since 2014, Google considers an SSL certificate one of its important ranking factors. In today’s competitive world, organic traffic has enormous value. There are almost 200 criteria Google takes into consideration while ranking a webpage. One of them is an SSL certificate. The other ranking criteria, such as backlinks, exceptional content, age of the domain, higher domain authority, technical SEO requirement, etc. take a long time to attain.
While an SSL certificate is a low-hanging fruit among them, if all factors are equal, the search engines will rank the site with an SSL certificate higher than the one without it. So, an SSL certificate is an easy and quick SEO factor that can contribute to your website getting better search ranking.
Purpose of an SSL Certificate: Warranty for When Things Go Wrong
As we said earlier, it is the CA’s job to make sure the web traffic is redirected to the right website’s server. If a CA attaches a wrong public key to the wrong hostname (domain name) in the SSL certificate, it’s called the mis-issuance of the certificate. When the CA makes a mistake in its verification process and mis-issues an SSL certificate, the SSL warranty comes handy. If a user suffers from financial loss due to such mis-issuance, the CA must reimburse the legal penalty (up to the warranty amount) to the victim. The SSL certificate’s warranties can range anywhere from $10,000 to $2 million!
Please note that only commercial certificate authorities— like Sectigo— offer a warranty on their certificates. You won’t get warranties with free SSL certificates.
Purpose of an SSL Certificate: Legal and Regulatory Compliance
- have an ecommerce business or
- run an online fundraising campaign or
- have paid subscription/paid membership revenue model or
- accept, process, store, and transmit credit and debit card information,
you must comply with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) or risk consequences.
It’s important to note that the PCI Security Standards Council (PCI SSC) itself doesn’t enforce compliance, nor does it impose consequences, fines, or penalties for non-compliance. Those responsibilities are handled by the payment card companies themselves — brands such as Visa, Mastercard, and Discover. For example, Visa states that “any service providers that are not compliant to PCI DSS may be liable for non-compliance assessments starting at $10,000 USD per service provider.” And non-compliance fines aren’t just one-off charges — they’re imposed monthly until the business is compliant!
One of the core requirements it stipulates is that the merchant must install an SSL certificate to encrypt and protect cardholder’s information such as card number, cardholder name, expiration date, secret pin or CVV, ATM pin and service code while these types of data are in transit.
The use of encryption is also required to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and other regulations.
Purpose of an SSL Certificate: Gaining Customers’ Trust
Another purpose of an SSL certificate is to make the users safe and gain their confidence. Nowadays, people are becoming more security-savvy. They won’t like to share any sensitive details such as card numbers, email addresses or phone numbers on a site that’s labeled “Not Secure.”
This is particular good to know considering that all browsers show some type of “Not Secure” warning right in front of the domain name in the address bar for sites lacking SSL certificates. When a user clicks one of these “Not Secure” messages, the browser shows a dialogue box that tells them that their connection to the site is not secure.
To get rid of such pesky security warnings and get a padlock symbol in front of your domain name, you need an SSL certificate. The padlock sign is the first thing people see when visiting a website.
Bonus point: If you have installed site seals on the checkout pages or footers, it is a huge plus. Site seals, also known as TrustLogos, are the small images having the certificate authorities’ name on it. They work like the visual indicator of trust. TrustLogos are available for free with any commercial SSL certificate.
Now that you know the purpose of an SSL certificate (and what SSL is used for in general), we can assume that the next questions that must be circling in your mind would be related to cost and types. As far as cost is concern, you we have good news for you! An SSL certificate is available for an unbelievably low price. On SectigoStore, a standard SSL certificate starts at just $8.78/year! To know which type of SSL certificate is the most suitable for your website, check out our article on SSL certificate types.
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