What is SSL?

Elisa Keller
Digital Marketing Strategist
January 29, 2024

In the digital realm, safeguarding sensitive information is paramount for both website owners and users alike. As you delve into the world of web security, understanding Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) becomes essential. This article will equip you with the knowledge about why SSL is a necessity for websites, delineate the distinction between HTTP and the secure HTTPS, and explore the different types of SSL certificates available. We'll also guide you through the practical steps of implementing SSL on your website, complete with actionable code snippets for common web servers, and underline the importance of ongoing certificate maintenance. Stay tuned as we demystify SSL – your first line of defense in cybersecurity.

Understanding SSL and Its Necessity for Websites

Understanding the role of Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) is crucial for maintaining the security of your website. Primarily, SSL is a standard technology that creates an encrypted link between a web server and a browser. This link ensures that all data transferred between the web server and browsers remain private and secure. When you implement SSL, you're essentially wrapping sensitive user information in a layer of complex encryption, which can only be decrypted by the intended recipient. This level of protection is paramount, especially when dealing with personal user details, login credentials, or financial information.

The encryption offered by SSL is vitally important because it protects user data from being intercepted by malicious actors during its transmission. Imagine sending a postcard through the mail — anyone who handles it en route can read the message. Without SSL, your users’ data is like that postcard. But with SSL, it's more like a sealed, opaque envelope, making it much harder for unauthorized parties to access the contents.

A visible indicator of SSL at work is the difference between HTTP and HTTPS in your website’s URL. HTTP stands for HyperText Transfer Protocol, which can be thought of as the foundational rules for transferring data across the web. However, when you add an SSL certificate, you're adding an 'S' to HTTP, making it HTTPS – 'S' symbolizing 'Secure'. This simple letter indicates that an SSL certificate secures your website, giving your users confidence that you're taking their security seriously. Websites using HTTPS also benefit from being trusted more by search engines, which can aid in search ranking efforts.

SSL Certificates: Types and How They Work

At the heart of a secure web exchange lies the SSL certificate, functioning as a digital passport that establishes an encrypted connection between your browser and the server. SSL certificates are issued by Certificate Authorities (CAs), trusted entities that validate entities and issue certificates. The authentication process involves the CA ensuring that the information within the certificate matches the server it's issued for, then your browser verifies this match to make a confidence-sustaining handshake. It's like making sure the person you're talking to is indeed who they claim to be before sharing any secrets.

There are primarily three types of SSL certificates, each with a different level of validation. Firstly, Domain Validated (DV) Certificates provide a basic level of security and are often quickly issued as they only need to verify ownership of the domain. You'll typically see these used on blogs or informational websites where transactions aren't processed. Secondly. Organization Validated (OV) Certificates require more rigorous checks as they also authenticate the organization behind the domain offering more trustworthiness. Lastly, Extended Validation (EV) Certificates represent the highest level of trust as they undergo thorough examination before issuance, including legal, physical, and operational existence of the entity making them ideal for banks or e-commerce sites.

Browsers play a critical role by using these SSL certificates to establish secure connections to websites. When you visit a website with SSL, your browser will request its certificate. If it checks out, an encrypted link is established using the public key enclosed within. If something's amiss, such as the certificate being out of date or issued by an untrusted authority, your browser will warn you, ensuring your online experience remains secure.

Implementing SSL on Your Website

Once you're conversant with the necessity of SSL, getting your own SSL certificate becomes a top priority. Here's a step-by-step guide on how to acquire and install one on your web server. First, you'll need to purchase or obtain a free SSL certificate from a reputable Certificate Authority (CA). After purchasing, the CA will require you to generate a Certificate Signing Request (CSR) from your server. This process varies based on the server software but generally involves entering commands into your server’s command line. For Apache, you'd use something like:

 openssl req -new -newkey rsa:2048 -nodes -keyout yourdomain.key -out yourdomain.csr

In this example, replace yourdomain with your actual domain name. This command generates a new private key and CSR. You'll then submit your CSR to the CA, wait for verification, and then, upon approval, they'll send you your SSL certificate for installation.

For Apache, you'd configure the SSL using the following lines in your httpd.conf or ssl.conf file:

SSLCertificateFile /etc/ssl/certs/yourdomain.crt
SSLCertificateKeyFile /etc/ssl/private/yourdomain.key
SSLCertificateChainFile /etc/ssl/certs/intermediate.crt

And for Nginx, you’d update the server block by adding:

ssl_certificate /etc/ssl/certs/yourdomain.crt;
ssl_certificate_key /etc/ssl/private/yourdomain.key;

Maintaining up-to-date SSL certificates is crucial to avoid potential website issues like warnings about insecure connections, or worse, complete blockage by browsers. Certificates usually have an expiration date so remember to renew your SSL certificate in good time. Automate the renewal process if possible to reduce the risk of overlooking it. Many web administrators use third-party monitoring tools to alert them when their SSL certificates are nearing expiration, ensuring continuous protection.


By now, you've navigated through the essentials of SSL, understanding its crucial role in maintaining website security and user data protection. You've learned that SSL turns the common 'HTTP' into the secure 'HTTPS,' which activates the padlock symbol and the 'S' for secure communications between browsers and servers. You've been introduced to the various SSL certificates available and the specific purposes they serve, from Domain Validated to Organization Validated, and the gold standard Extended Validation certificate.

The steps and code examples provided should empower you to securely implement SSL on your website, and with regular maintenance and certificate renewals, you can ensure ongoing secure connections. Remember, SSL isn't just a one-time setup; it demands your attention to maintain the trust of browsers and, more importantly, your users. With the ongoing support of a website monitoring service, you'll stay ahead of potential SSL errors and keep your website secure and reputable in this digital era.