5 best practices for switching your site to HTTPS for improved security

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Image: Andy Wolber/TechRepublic

Google wants the connection between Chrome and your website to be more secure. And, if you’re a webmaster, your upcoming deadline to increase security is January 2017. By that time, your site needs to serve pages with password or payment fields over an HTTPS connection. If you still serve those pages on an unencrypted connection—HTTP only, not HTTPs—Chrome will warn that the page is “Not secure.”

A quick visit to pages on your site will show you whether or not the site supports HTTPS. Open a page with Chrome and look at the URL bar. Click (or tap) on the lock (or info icon) to the left of the URL to view the connection security status. Then select “Details” for more info. A green lock and the “Your connection to this site is private” message indicates an HTTPS connection between Chrome and the page.

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The icon to the left of the web address of your website indicates whether or not the site supports a secure connection (HTTPS on left) or not (HTTP on right).

Image: Andy Wolber/TechRepublic

In the long term, Google wants every page of your site to support HTTPS—not just the ones with payments or passwords. Google search already prefers to return results from pages with HTTPS over pages that lack a secure connection.

To enable an HTTPS connection between your site and visitor browsers, you need to setup an SSL certificate for your website. Here are five things things to know that may make the process easier.

1. Your web hosting provider might already serve your sites over a secured connection.

For example, Automattic, which runs WordPress.com, turned on SSL for their hosted customers in April of 2016. Customers didn’t have to do anything at all—other than use WordPress.com to host a site.

2. A few web hosting vendors make certificate setup free and easy

Other web hosting providers offer a secure connection as an option, for free. Squarespace and Dreamhost, for example, both let customers choose to enable secure sites. Configuration of certificates used to be much more difficult, but these vendors streamline the process to a few steps.

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Some web hosting vendors make SSL certificate setup both free and easy.

Image: Andy Wolber/TechRepublic

Let’s Encrypt, a project of the nonprofit Internet Security Research Group, provides the certificates for all three of the vendors just mentioned (Dreamhost, Squarespace, and WordPress). Many other vendors offer easy setup, too. Look at the community-maintained list of web hosting providers that support Let’s Encrypt.

More notably, Let’s Encrypt certificate services are free. Yet, some web hosting vendors still charge significant fees for certificates. If you receive some additional authentication or security services, the fees may provide value. (For most non-technical organizations, I suggest you choose—or switch to—a web hosting vendor that supports Let’s Encrypt.)

SEE: Let’s Encrypt free certificate now trusted by major browsers (ZDNet)

3. If you’re on shared hosting, you may need an upgrade

The certificates won’t necessarily work in every hosting setup. In some cases, for example, a web hosting provider will only offer SSL with a dedicated server. That may mean a potential increase in hosting costs.

In other cases, the certificate will work, but won’t work with certain older browsers. For example, in the case of Dreamhost, you may choose to add a unique IP address to your hosting plan along with your Let’s Encrypt certificate. Doing this allows the secure connection to work with certain versions of Internet Explorer on Windows XP, as well as some browsers on older Android devices (e.g., Android 2.4 and earlier).

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If you’re on a shared hosting plan, you may need an upgrade to enable SSL or to support a secure the connection to older browsers or devices.

Image: Andy Wolber/TechRepublic

4. Check your login and checkout processes

Many sites rely on third-party vendors for registration, e-commerce, mailing list sign-up, and/or event registration. While most trustworthy vendors already deliver these pages over HTTPS connections, verify that is the case. Make sure your vendors offer your visitors the same secure connection your site does.

5. After the switch, check your links

Verify that your site links work. Follow your web hosting provider’s instructions to make sure that every request for an insecure page (HTTP), redirects automatically to one delivered over a secure connection (HTTPS). You may need to make some additional changes to your content management system. For example, at Dreamhost, you will need to make additional adjustments to WordPress settings.

Gone HTTPS yet?

At the time of this writing, we’re just two months away from when Chrome begins to deliver more aggressive alerts to warn of insecure pages. Hopefully, you’ve already secured the necessary pages on your site. But, that’s just the first step. For most websites, there’s little downside to moving to HTTPS as soon as possible.

Have you switched to serving your website from an HTTP to an HTTPS connection? If not, why not? If so, what did you do to enable HTTPS? Tell us in the comments.

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