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Web filtering: Types and benefits

A web filter is a common approach used by IT administrators to block access and increase web security on any device that connects online using their internet access. But aside from simply blocking access to possibly malicious content, web filtering (and web filtering software) can be a useful tool to help employees become more productive and for internet users to stay safe online. Here’s an explainer on why web filtering is such an important service.

Web filtering: Types and benefits

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

What is web filtering?

Web filtering refers to software, device settings, or other approaches that can block access to specific web pages or domains. Web filters are most commonly used in workplaces that need to restrict access to the internet for productivity or security reasons. They’re also used by internet service providers working with parents or schools to block child access to mature or malicious content.

Web filters are not firewalls. While firewalls usually work on a network level by consulting block lists, web filters examine websites, web pages, and domains more closely. Both protect users but in different ways. Essentially, firewalls will usually allow all traffic unless otherwise defined, while a web filter will actively detect and respond to queries in real time.

Web filters can restrict access to web content at multiple points, from browser-based filters to the network itself. Certain websites (usually search engines) also give internet users options to filter the content they want to see via search engine filters. However, this process isn’t as streamlined as dedicated web filtering software or other similar web filtering solutions.

Benefits of web filtering

The primary benefit of web filtering is administrators having oversight on the web traffic that the users in their network expose their system to. With web filtering, they can take preemptive solutions like blocking access to known types of websites with dangerous, offensive, and distracting content.

However, these aren’t the only benefits of using web filtering. There are plenty more use cases that organizations and administrators should consider that make web filtering essential to their online security.

Protecting users from malicious websites and phishing attacks

Web filtering software allows for better web security since it often builds on a database of already-known blocklisted sites and IP addresses. These lists carry a real-time and updated record of sites that have been proven to deliver malware, hijack the user’s computer, or otherwise cause significant damage to the user and the network once they’ve managed to establish a connection.

These types of websites usually rely on a single method of entry: when the user is accessing content from their site or domain. A web filter automatically works on blocking content before a user ever has the chance to interact with the domain, minimizing the risk to them or any sensitive data their device may have access to.

Enforcing acceptable use policies in organizations

Some organizations deal with significant amounts of personal, financial, and private data, which can be tempting targets for hackers and other cyberattackers. To counteract this, organizations often deploy acceptable use policies (AUPs), which are security methods that limit the risk of a data breach or other cyberattacks.

Web filtering software often plays a crucial role in these AUPs because they’re a built-in security measure that can be easily integrated into the technology that an organization uses. By modifying or changing their filtering service, organizations can help their employees better adhere to security protocols without affecting productivity.

Limiting access to inappropriate content

Web filtering software is also widely used by schools and parents that need to monitor web traffic, usually to block websites with adult content. Detailed filtering of malicious URLs can prevent children from accessing inappropriate sites without the active intervention of a server administrator, which can protect children while also helping them have a safer online experience.

Web filters in schools can also be used to help students study by blocking distracting websites or alerting administrators about the overall flow of web traffic on the campus premises. This can translate to higher-level administrative decisions that take into account what students do online.

Promoting productivity and focus

Web filters are also heavily used by most corporate workplaces to prevent employees from slacking off by visiting websites that interfere with their work or distract them from the workplace. This type of web filtering service is often highly detailed and consistently maintained to keep up with the ever-changing list of distractions, dangers, and other unsafe online spaces employees may accidentally or intentionally visit.

By using a web filter, administrators can also draw employee attention to the sites that can help them be more productive in their tasks. This can be useful for a variety of situations, from enforcing acceptable online browsing habits in the workplace to training employees to become accustomed to using specific websites and/or online platforms for work.

Drawbacks of web filtering

While mostly advantageous, there are specific drawbacks to using web filters if companies start using them without integrating them into their operations or informing their employees. Some concerns or complications that can arise from using web filters include:

Incorrectly blocking legitimate websites

If not configured correctly, web filters can restrict or block access to web pages or domains with important information. Because of the different ways that users use language, keywords can sometimes be incorrectly flagged even if they’re meant in legitimate contexts.

Incorrectly blocked websites deprive users of the information that they need to find, which can result in frustration. This can inadvertently encourage behavior like attempting to bypass the web filter entirely or slow down their efficiency during work or study.

Requires trust in a third party

Most organizations using a web filter service need to do their research before settling on a provider, mostly because of concerns about data privacy and the potential access a third party has to their web traffic and other relevant data. Without trust in a provider, companies may find it difficult to implement web filtering services into their IT infrastructure long-term.

Using a web filter service also requires trust that the provider will do their due diligence in making sure that their filters are working as intended. If they fail to update their filter definitions, it can result in incorrectly blocking legitimate websites or letting users access/be exposed to malicious websites or content.

Reduced user experience when going online

If poorly integrated, web filters can significantly impact the ease of access that users often expect from browsing online. This can lead to dissatisfaction with the service and potentially affect their overall performance at work or school.

Without proper integration or onboarding, employees will also find it difficult to adjust to the restrictions that a web filter may have on their work conditions. It’s crucial for organizations to give their users the time and training (if applicable) needed to understand how their web filters will affect how they spend their time online.

Types of web filtering solutions

The way a web filter operates is fairly straightforward. Here’s how it works:

  1. A user requests access to a website.
  2. The web filter scans the specific page, domain, or website against its index of allowed content.
  3. If no violations are found, the user is granted access. If a flag is triggered, the website is blocked and the connection is severed.

A useful feature of web filtering solutions is that they’re highly flexible in both deployment and filter criteria. This gives administrators better flexibility in looking for (and implementing) a specific web filter service or software to meet their needs.

Here are some types of web filtering solutions:

Keyword-based filtering

Keyword-based filters are some of the simplest web filters that organizations can employ. When used, the filter will automatically scan the requested website or web page for specific keywords on its blocklist. If any of these keywords or like terms are detected, access is blocked.

While robust, keyword-based filtering also has one of the highest probabilities for error. Keyword filters are far more likely to flag legitimate content as malicious since the way humans use keywords can be open to interpretation by the accessing user. As a result, keyword-based filtering is often used with other types of web filters for better security.

URL blocking

URL blocking is a straightforward filter where access to specific websites and their associated web pages is blocked based on HTTP/HTTPS traffic. These filters are often applied to a network for ease of deployment, especially with a network that sees plenty of users with high amounts of traffic.

URL blocking works particularly well for blocking adult websites since many of them are required to disclose their online identifiers to stay compliant with security regulations. While it’s an approach that requires constant upkeep and maintenance (since websites may sometimes need to be entered manually by administrators or block lists must always be updated), URL blocking is generally an effective way to block offensive or adult content.

Content-based filtering

Content-based filtering will block access to any websites that fall under a certain category. These include social media sites in the workplace or websites that have been tagged with violence.

Unlike URL blocking where specific URLs are compiled into a list that’s consulted every time a user requests access, content-based filtering is a more general approach to blocking specific types of websites altogether.

DNS filtering

DNS filtering is similar to URL blocking where it consults a block list of restricted content. However, DNS filters work on entire domains, not just specific websites or web pages. It specifically scans for the servers (and the associated IP addresses) that a website is connected to and allows or blocks connections from there.

This type of block is less useful if administrators only want to block a specific web page on a website, as it will apply a blanket restriction on all web pages and websites associated with a domain. However, it can be useful for a proactive security policy to minimize the risk of malware attacks and other damage to a network and its users.

How to choose the right web filtering solution

Content filters are easy to remove if they’re part of a browser’s settings. However, if they’re implemented on a network level, users won’t be able to remove filters on their own. This means administrators need to implement the best web filter solution that can still work as intended without negatively impacting anyone on their network. There are three specific concerns that they should watch out for when considering a web filter solution:

  • Compatibility: whether the web filter service works across multiple devices, connections, and traffic
  • Flexibility: how much control does the service allow them with blocking websites
  • Convenience: how much investment they’ll need in terms of time, resources, and manpower to keep the filters running efficiently.

The ideal setup for most administrators is a cloud-based web filtering solution since it removes the need for on-premise hardware and oversight. Many third-party web filter service providers will often have comprehensive packages that can be adjusted to the organization’s needs while also fulfilling all the essentials of a web filter solution.

Administrators can also look into other strategies like VPNs to keep online communications in their organization private and less exposed to risk. While not as robust at protecting users from malicious websites, these other security protocols are best practices to integrate with any security strategy.

Web filtering for a safer and more secure browsing experience

NordVPN’s Threat Protection provides web filtering along with many more features, making it an effective tool to help users have a more secure experience when browsing online. Not only can it address key concerns like data privacy, but it can also help protect users who may not be the most knowledgeable about reducing their risk of visiting harmful sites.

With a robust web filter, any organization and its administrators can implement better web security with minimal oversight. Consistent use and constant updates for web filters are the key to making sure that any connection made online — from any device regardless of the user — is safe for everyone.

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