Secure connections, faster web sites, better Google search rankings – and well before Google throw a switch that will disadvantage many other web sites in July 2018. I describe the process to achieve this for anyone running a WordPress Multisite Network below. Or I can do this for you.
Many web sites that handle financial transactions use a secure connection; this gives a level of guarantee that you are posting your personal or credit card details directly to a genuine company. But these “HTTPS” connections don’t just protect user data, but also ensure that the user is really connecting to the right site and not an imposter one. This is important because setting up a fake version of a website users normally trust is a favourite tactic of hackers and malicious actors. HTTPS also ensures that a malicious third party can’t hijack the connection and insert malware or censor information.
Back in 2014, Google asked web site owners if they could make their sites use HTTPS connections all the time, and provided both a carrot and a stick as incentives. On the one hand, they promised that future versions of their Chrome Browser would explicitly call out sites that were presenting insecure pages, so that users knew where to tread very carefully. On the upside, they suggested that they would positively discriminate secure sites over insecure ones in future Google searches.
The final step in this process comes in July 2018:
The logistics of achieving “HTTPS” connections for many sites is far from straight forward. Like many service providers, I host a WordPress network, that aims individual customer domain names at a single Linux based server. That in turn looks to see which domain name the inbound connection request has come from, and redirects onto that website customers own subdirectory structure for the page content, formatting and images.
The main gotcha is that if I tell my server that its certified identity is “www.software-enabled.com”, an inbound request from “www.ianwaring.com”, or “www.obesemanrowing.org.uk”, will get very confused. It will look like someone has hijacked the sites, and the users browser session will gain some very pointed warnings suggesting a malicious traffic subversion attempt.
A second gotcha – even if you solve the certified identity problem – is that a lot of the content of a typical web site contains HTTP (not HTTPS) links to other pages, pictures or video stored within the same site. It would normally be a considerable (and error prone) process to change http: to https: links on all pages, not least as the pages themselves for all the different customer sites are stored by WordPress inside a complex MySQL database.
What to do?
It took quite a bit of research, but cracked it in the end. The process I used was:
- Set up each customer domain name on the free tier of the CloudFlare content delivery network. This replicates local copies of the web sites static pages in locations around the world, each closer to the user than the web site itself.
- Change the customer domain name’s Name Servers to the two cited by CloudFlare in step (1). It may take several hours for this change to propagate around the Internet, but no harm continuing these steps.
- Repeat (1) and (2) for each site on the hosted WordPress network.
- Select the WordPress “Network Admin” dashboard, and install two plug-ins; iControlWP’s “CloudFlare Flexible SSL”, and then WebAware’s “SSL Insecure Content Fixer”. The former handles the connections to the CloudFlare network (ensuring routing works without unexpected redirect loops); the latter changes http: to https: connections on the fly for references to content within each individual customer website. Network Enable both plugins. There is no need to install the separate CloudFlare WordPress plugin.
- Once CloudFlare’s web site shows all the domain names as verified that they are being managed by CloudFlare’s own name servers with their own certificates assigned (they will get a warning or a tick against each), step through the “Crypto” screen on each one in turn – switching on “Always use https” redirections.
At this point, whether users access the websites using http: or https: (or don’t mention either), each will come up with a padlocked, secure, often greened address bar with “https:” in front of the web address of the site. Job done.
Once the HTTP redirects to HTTPS appear to be working, and all the content is being displayed correctly on pages, I go down the Crypto settings on the CloudFlare web site and enable “opportunistic encryption” and “HTTPS rewrites”.
CloudFlare do have a paid offering called “Argo Smart Routing” that further speeds up delivery of web site content. Folks are shown to be paying $5/month and seeing page loads in 35% of the time prior to this being enabled. You do start paying for the amount of traffic you’re releasing into the Internet at large, but the pricing tiers are very generous – and should only be noticeable for high traffic web sites.
So, secure connections, faster web sites, better Google search rankings – and well before Google throw the switch that will disadvantage many other web sites in July 2018. I suspect having hundreds of machines serving the content on CloudFlare’s Content Delivery Network will also make the site more resilient to distributed denial of service flood attack attempts, if any site I hosted ever got very popular. But I digress.
If you would like me to do this for you on your WordPress site(s), please get in touch here.