Read on to find out: 

  • What website security is 
  • Why you should focus on it 
  • What the three levels of web security are 
  • Common security weaknesses 
  • The basics of securing your site 
  • How to test your site security 
  • How to prioritize security issues  

What is web security? 

Web security is the process of taking proactive steps to protect your site from malicious cyber-attacks or exploitation by hackers. 

This covers any use of tools, activities, and applications to strengthen your site’s protection level. 

Why web security is a priority for businesses

Any business with an online presence must take web security seriously. It’s not much different from having to protect your physical assets, documents, and employees. 

Let’s look at the most important reasons for keeping your site safe. 

Stop cybercrimes like hacker attacks and spoofing 

The most obvious reason to secure your site is to protect it from malicious attacks by hackers and other online criminals. 

Anyone gaining unauthorized access to your site can damage your business in multiple ways, including: 

  • Infecting your site with ransomware 
  • Redirecting your visitors to a different site 
  • Hijacking your hardware and software for their purposes 
  • Stealing your intellectual property and trade secrets 
  • Taking your site down completely 
  • ...and a lot more 

Having a secure site also makes it less likely to become a subject of spoofing. That’s when a third-party site poses as yours in order to fool your visitors. If your site is secure and displays the corresponding safety certificates, it’ll become much easier to distinguish from a knockoff. This will prevent your customers from mixing up the two. 

Prevent loss of sensitive data

Data breaches are a modern-day nightmare for businesses across multiple industries. 

First, you risk having criminals gain access to your company patents, guarded formulas, or other trade secrets. 

Second, third parties can steal sensitive customer data from your database. You’re likely aware of high-profile cases where giant corporations had their customer data seized by hackers, but data breaches impact small and medium-sized businesses too.  

Not only does this damage your reputation with customers and prospects, but you may also face legal action and fines under customer data protection laws like GDPR. 

Build trust in your brand

On a related note, signposting your site as secure is a simple matter of gaining customer trust.  

You’ll be hard pressed to convince customers to share their credit card details and sensitive information with you if they can’t see that your site has the right security measures in place. 

Similarly, most visitors will be hesitant to engage with a site that doesn’t display the right encryption protocols like SSL. Most modern browsers make it extremely easy to identify the lack of such protocols and display dramatic warnings to visitors who click on these sites. 

Protect your SEO standing

It won’t surprise you to find out that Google already uses security signals like SSL certificates as ranking factors. And all indications point toward web security having an even bigger impact on your search engine rank in the future. 

In extreme cases, poorly secured sites can even be blacklisted by search engines altogether. This can happen if they allow a high volume of user generated spam, invite a large proportion of external links from toxic domains, or become a gateway for malicious online activities. 

For all these reasons, you can’t afford to ignore web security if you want to run a successful online business. 

web security illustration

How to secure a website: know the basics 

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The three levels of web security 

You can broadly split the process of securing your site into three separate layers. 

Server 

This has to do with any potential security issues related to the server that hosts your website, such as vulnerabilities in the systems used by your hosting provider. 

This covers: 

  • Your hosting configuration 
  • Your database 
  • How your server is set up 
  • The type of Domain Name System (DNS) service you use 
  • How your Content Management System (CMS) is installed and run by the host 
  • Whether your servers run any outdated software or systems 

One example of a potential security issue in this category is a vulnerability in the Secure Shell (SHH) protocol, which allows network services to run safely over an otherwise unsecured network. 

Network 

This relates to the broader network that your domain is a part of. Even if your server itself is secure, other domains and devices within your network may be a source of potential security risks. 

Hackers can use any compromised devices within your network to attack or gain access to your website. You can usually protect yourself by putting in place measures to proactively monitor for such threats. 

Web application 

This has to do with what happens on your website itself, such as: 

  • Any on-page content that can be exploited 
  • Cookies with vulnerabilities 
  • Insufficient content encryption measures 
  • Expired or wrongly configured security certificates 
  • Lack of a Content Security Policy (CSP), which is designed to detect and prevent specific cyber-attacks like data injection.  

Remember: No matter how secure your server and network configuration, you’re only ever as safe as your web application. 

The three most common website security weaknesses

While there are many ways hackers can attempt to exploit your site, some are more frequent than others. The following three security threats are the most common. 

1. SQL injections

SQL stands for “Structured Query Language” and is the main method used to communicate with databases.  

When a user wants to retrieve data from a database, they’ll do so using a so-called “SQL statement.” This statement may specify the type of data the user is looking for, which table to pull that data from, and how to sort that data. 

So, what is an SQL injection? 

Simply put, an SQL injection is a method that lets hackers bypass any security measures you may otherwise have by directly manipulating your database using tweaked SQL statements. This tricks your database into accepting a malicious SQL statement as a legitimate command. 

From there on out, hackers can retrieve sensitive data from the database or even erase the database altogether. 

This method exploits known SQL vulnerabilities, so any website that relies on an SQL database is at risk. 

2. Phishing attacks via emails

Unlike SQL injections, which fool automated databases, phishing relies on fooling humans. 

At its core, phishing is any attempt to get someone to click on a malicious link or otherwise engage with compromised content in an email (or any other form of electronic communication).  

Hackers typically do this by posing as a trustworthy person or organization and tricking the target into treating them as such. You’ve likely received such emails, asking you to for example, fix a failed Amazon transaction or urgently update your bank details by clicking a link. 

Once you click such a link, you may give hackers access to your sensitive information such as passwords, login details, or credit card details. 

3. Attacks via outdated CMS, plugins, and scripts

Content management systems (CMS) like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, etc. are used to help web editors publish and update content on their websites. 

While CMS providers take measures to ensure that their software code is secure from cyber-attacks, those measures are not always successful. 

Your CMS may have vulnerabilities lurking in its code that allow hackers to bypass your other security measures. While CMS providers will usually quickly act to fix any discovered vulnerability, you won’t be protected until you download and install their latest patch. 

But even if your CMS itself is highly secure, you may still face security risks by running additional plugins or scripts on your site.  

WordPress, for example, is notorious for high-profile breaches via user-installed plugins. That’s because such plugins are usually made by third-party developers who may overlook vulnerabilities in their code. Anyone installing a vulnerable plugin puts themselves at risk until the issue is patched up. 

web security score illustration

Securing your website: The basics

Now that you know the risks you face by having a vulnerable website, how do you go about securing it 

Start with the following five actions. 

1. Get an SSL certificate

SSL stands for “Secure Sockets Layer” and is a security protocol that helps encrypt and authenticate data transmitted via the internet.  

To make sure your website uses this secure protocol, you’ll need an SSL certificate. 

This certificate will do several things: 

  • Authenticate your domain and certify you as its owner. This helps to prevent spoofing attacks. 
  • Encrypt any data sent via your site, so that hackers can’t easily access or manipulate it. 
  • Switch your site from displaying an unsecure “http://” prefix to the secure “https://” one. This gives you an extra layer of credibility in the eyes of your site visitors (and search engines). 

Getting an SSL certificate doesn’t have to cost you money. Many hosting providers will often include an SSL certificate for free with their hosting plans. 

Additionally, you can always request a free certificate from Let’s Encrypt, which is nonprofit certificate authority helping to secure the web. 

However you go about it, make sure you run an SSL-enabled website from the start.  

2. Use secure passwords

Make sure that access to your CMS is protected by highly secure passwords.  

This is especially true for any webmasters or system administrators working on the backend of your site. If their passwords are easy to crack, there’s nothing to prevent a hacker from hijacking their identity, logging in to your CMS, and doing anything from changing your content to deleting it outright. 

You can encourage the use of strong passwords in a few ways. 

First, educate your site’s users on the need to pick passwords that are more complex than “123456” or simply “password.” 

Second, you can enforce strong passwords by putting in place automated checks or plugins that won’t let a user create a password that doesn’t pass certain minimum requirements. 

3. Keep your CMS and any add-ons updated

As explained earlier, your CMS and any plugins, scripts, and add-ons with vulnerabilities can be a source of security risks. 

Developers behind them will frequently release updates with patches that address known vulnerabilities. It’s therefore crucial to always have the latest versions installed to make sure you’re not exposing your site to unnecessary risk. At the very least, admins should regularly check for updates and install new versions of CMS, plugins, etc. 

An safer way is to automate the process, so that the latest versions are updated as soon as they’re released. 

4. Run automated daily backups

The worst-case scenario in the event of a cyber-attack is that your site goes down or is completely deleted. If you don’t have a recent version of your site saved as a backup, you risk losing all your new content and data forever. 

That’s why it’s absolutely critical to set up automated backups, which save a secure copy of your site and/or database on a regular basis. Typically, this is done daily, but you may decide that more or less frequent backups work best for your site. 

While a site backup won’t undo the damage from potential sensitive data breaches, you will at least be able to restore your site to the latest backed-up version. This means you’ll only lose any new content or data added since the last backup. 

5. Manually approve files or comments

As we’ve seen, a hacker can use SQL injection to run a malicious command within your database.  

Similarly, cyber criminals can use your contact forms or comment fields to hack your site. This can involve exploiting vulnerabilities in those forms or trying a phishing attack by posting harmful links that your other visitors may click. 

That’s why it’s a good idea to make sure that any new submissions in the form of comments, file uploads, or commands are manually reviewed before being approved. This way, you can catch and delete them before they have the chance to go live and do any harm. 

website security checks illustration

How to test your website security 

After the basics are in place, you should find a way to measure just how secure your site is. For that, you have two options: 

Manual checks 

If you run a small site without many plugins and scripts, you might be tempted to manually keep tabs on the most critical security risks. This entails staying updated on common security and checking that your site has the necessary protocols and settings in place to address them. 

However, this approach can quickly become a time-consuming and complex, especially for people who aren’t security experts. 

Automated checks 

If your organization operates a complex site with numerous users, or a large network of sites, checking for security issues manually becomes practically impossible. It’s simply not realistic to monitor for emerging threats and keep track of that many moving parts. 

In such instances, the far better solution is to automate your security checks using specialized software. Dedicated web security tools will automatically detect any potential issues on all levels: server, network, and web applications. 

If you’re serious about protecting your business from data breaches, a damaged reputation, and loss of revenue, look for an automated way to identify and fix website security issues. 

How to prioritize issues when securing a website 

How do you know which website security issues to tackle first? 

Siteimprove Web Security is a tool designed to help you answer that exact question. 

Web Security automatically scans your site for vulnerabilities and potential security weaknesses. It checks for issues on all three levels of site security, from server to network to your web application. 

In addition to highlighting these security weaknesses, Siteimprove Web Security assigns a so-called “severity rating” to each of them. The four severity ratings are: 

  • Very low 
  • Low 
  • Medium 
  • High 

This information helps you prioritize the most critical security issues first before moving on to the less pressing ones. 

You can schedule the Web Security check to be updated once a week. This will automatically keep you informed about any new threats or vulnerabilities.