If you run your own website or online store, you’ve undoubtedly come across either the term SSL or TLS. Have you wondered what those terms have to do with your website’s security? Both SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) and TLS (Transport Layer Security) are certificates that act as important components in your website’s security.
SSL/TLS certificates run in the background to protect all data that passes in and out of your website. These certificates encrypt sensitive data (such as credit card information or login credentials) to make it difficult for cybercriminals to intercept the information.
To make the terms more clear, SSL is an older version of TLS. When you buy an "SSL" certificate now, you always get the updated version - TLS. SSL is a more commonly used term in the industry, so the term SSL or SSL/TLS nowadays is used.
In this article, we'll discuss the importance of having an SSL/TLS certificate and how you can get it completely for free.
Why is SSL Important?
Simply put, an SSL/TLS certificate encrypts sensitive information. It is a crucial element that you must have on your website to protect it from hackers, bots, data leaks, and other emergent digital threats.
Additionally, SSL/TLS is a must if you operate an e-commerce shop since it makes confidential transactions possible.
One measure for this degree of security is outlined in the PCI Security Standards. Produced by the PCI Security Standards Council, this is an extensive list of what a website security system should be able to do in terms of protecting itself and its sensitive data from outside interference.
Implementing an SSL is one of the most crucial steps towards meeting these security standards.
A website that has the enabled certificate shows the “secure” badge visibly seen as a lock icon in the URL bar of most web browsers.
While your visitors may not understand the precise details of these security standards, the visual confirmation that your website is secure will definitely enhance their trust.
Especially if your site handles sensitive information, such as payment processing.
Improved user trust can additionally affect your Google rankings, which serves as a cornerstone for any effective SEO plan. In addition, Google has been known to give slight rankings boosts to those websites that are in compliance with contemporary website security standards (and punishing those who aren't).
As such, maintaining an up-to-date security system that incorporates an SSL certificate could make a difference in how high your page ranks. All in all, an SSL certificate impacts the user trust as well as your SEO ranks.
How Can an SSL be Free?
When you purchased your domain and hosting, you were likely offered to buy an SSL/TLS certificate for use on your new site. This is because web hosts are one of the primary proprietors of SSL/TLS certificates.
Because an SSL/TLS certificate is a piece of digital infrastructure, it doesn’t carry any value beyond what a gatekeeper (like a web host) may slap on it as an upcharge.
When a price is charged for an SSL/TLS, this generally implies that the web host is charging you for the operating and maintenance cost of the certificate. With this cost also comes responsibility if something is wrong or poorly maintained on this security protocol.
Without this degree of support and installation, an SSL/TLS certificate is completely free. In the end, you end up taking on those service and responsibility requirements, you carry out the installation as well as the maintenance.
Who Provides Free SSL Certificates?
SSL/TLS certificates are released by Certificate Authorities (CA). There are several leading players that are pushing for wider implementation of free SSL/TLSs but one of the most popular ones is Let's Encrypt.
It's a non-profit CA that issues the certificates completely free of charge. The main goal of Let's Encrypt is to create a safer web by giving out certificates to anyone who owns a domain name.
Additionally, some providers offer free automatically or manually enabled certificates. However, hosting companies usually offer free SSL certificates only on more expensive plans. Check with your hosting provider's customer support - maybe your site is eligible for a free certificate.
Is There a Difference Between Paid and Free SSL Certificates?
Knowing this, the old saying about there being “no such thing as a free lunch” might come to mind. You may assume that there are fundamental differences between paid and free SSL certificates. Isn't it safer to buy a certificate from your hosting provider?
But from an encryption and performance standpoint, paid and free SSL/TLSs provide the same degree of certified protection for your website.
The differences between paid and free SSL comes in the form of installation and maintenance. With a free SSL, it is your responsibility to follow the correct installation process (described below) and continue maintaining the certificate for future updates. Because this responsibility falls on you, you will also be held as primarily liable if something goes wrong in terms of your website’s security.
Paid certificates, on the other hand, generally come with the degree of support offered by your web host. As a result, troubleshooting during installation and maintenance is readily available from trained customer support.
Also, paid SSLs are sometimes able to attain EV (extended validation) status to keep your SSL certificate operating beyond a standard 90-day lifespan.
How to Install a Free SSL Certificate?
First things first, you might not need to install an SSL certificate yourself as some of the web hosting providers actually offer free SSL certificates with the cheapest shared hosting plans. Let's Encrypt offers an extensive and constantly updated list of providers that support free SSL certificates as well as those that implement them for free.
So before manually installing the certificate, check if your provider is on the list. You might just need to talk to the customer support that will guide you on how to enable it. And if your provider doesn't offer that, there are still ways to install it on your own.
Precise manual installation steps vary for different servers and web hosts, be sure to check with your chosen Certificate Authority for the step-by-step tutorials. For example, Let's Encrypt offers documentation that will help you with the installation process on different servers.
But in short, there are two main methods to install a free certificate.
Method #1: Using Shell Access (SSH Access)
To install an SSL certificate on your own, you will require two things: SSH access to the server where your site is hosted on and an ACME client.
Shell access is a method of connecting to a server where your website is hosted that enables you to make certain changes. Not all hosts give shell access, especially with cheap shared hosting packages. However, you can check if you have access to it and enable it in the web hosting control panel in your hosting account.
Once you enable the SSH access, you will need to install ACME (Automatic Certificate Management Environment) protocol. There are a variety of ACME clients to choose from, however, Let's Encrypt offers to use Certbot. This protocol is used to verify that you're in control of the domain name and automate the certificate installation process.
On Certbot website, choose the server type and an operating system that your web hosting server runs on (if you're not sure - contact your provider). Since the protocol installation is different for each server type and OS, you'll be given specific steps for each server and OS combination that you should follow.
Method #2: Without Shell Access (SSH Access)
If you don't have SSH access, the easiest way to obtain a free certificate is to contact your hosting provider and ask them to request it on your behalf. Not all companies will allow this, so refer to the list of providers that offer Let's Encrypt support.
If the company does, however, support third-party certificates from Certificate Authorities, they will install and keep it updated for you.
But if your provider does not support Let's Encrypt or other CAs, you still have an option of manual installation. It includes running an ACME client locally on your computer.
However, this method is not recommended as it is time-consuming, technical and should be repeated several times a year to update the certificate. If you're interested in the specific steps, you can refer to the manual installation guide provided by Certbot.
What are the Alternatives to SSL Certificates?
As for now - there are no viable alternatives to SSL/TLS at the moment.
One option is NSS from Mozilla, which holds the potential to really change public key cryptography.
One noted weakness in SSL/TLS protocols is that if a Certification Authority is compromised, the hacker gains the “keys to the kingdom” by acquiring the certification keys to every connected website.
NSS is working to improve how these certification keys are protected, allowing it to serve as an improvement on standard SSL/TLS protocols.
Blockchain technology has also been studied as an alternative to SSL alone. This is because blockchains decentralize the ledger where security keys are stored, preventing a single hacking instance from compromising a full system. This, too, can enhance required security protocols where SSL has fallen by the wayside.
An SSL Certificate is a Must for Every Website
All in all, an SSL certificate adds a powerful level of protection to a site by encrypting the confidential information, enhances the user trust and simultaneously affects the Google rank.
While hosting providers charge additionally, there are ways to get a certificate for free. Certificate Authorities are non-profit companies that aim to encrypt each and every website by providing free SSL certificates.
Whether you choose to buy an SSL certificate hassle-free with a website hosting pack or install it your own, it is definitely a security staple that every website must have.