Sustainability in SEO, saving the world one click at a time
However, as an industry, digital marketing often likes to think of itself as relatively emissions free when it comes to climate change, not requiring the extensive transportation, raw materials harvesting, cutting down rainforests, or manufacturing processes that many other industries, and even other marketing disciplines require. We’re in an industry of people who are currently largely working from home, using their laptops to create content, send emails, analyse data and access tools on the internet; surely that’s fairly emissions free right? Unfortunately, that just isn’t the case. Throughout this article we’ll look at what the impacts of our industry are on the climate, and how SEO can, and has been, helping to mitigate these impacts as much as possible.
The country of the internetIn 2019, a study by the Shift Project, estimated that the internet, and the infrastructure that supports its functioning, was accountable for 3.7% of global emissions. While 3.7% may not sound a lot in the grand scheme of things, let’s put that into context. The entire aviation industry accounted for around 3.5% of global emissions, and if “The Internet” was its own country, it would be listed as the 6th largest polluting country on the planet, sitting just below Japan. On our current trajectory, by 2040, the internet could be responsible for a whopping 14% of global emissions, which if we once again consider the country of The Internet, would position it as the second most polluting country in the world.
The contributing sources of these emissions are too numerous to list them all, but a huge contributing source of emissions comes from data centres. With now over 1.7 billion websites out there, and digital content being published on the internet continuing to increase at exponential rates, it is the data centres that are required to store this data that produces vast quantities of emissions to keep operating. On their own, data centres produce 2% of global emissions, and are likely to increase their energy consumption by 9% annually over the next few years as the demand for digital content grows.
Evidently, the internet is a huge polluter, and as an industry that relies solely on the functionality of the internet to operate, what we do as digital marketers has a direct impact on the climate.
How can SEO help to reduce emissions?We’ve seen that over the past few years, the general trend in website design and function has been moving towards more high resolution images, videos and animations being used. While from a design perspective this looks great, from both a user perspective and in the eyes of search engines, this isn’t necessarily a positive trend.
These additional elements on sites increase the volume of data that has to be stored in data centres, and loaded by users, both of which results in more energy consumption. A study from HTTP Archive shows that the size of websites has been growing continuously for years.
So what can SEO do to help? Well, following the Page Experience Update from Google in 2021, we know that page load speed, and page experience as a whole, are direct ranking factors. They are known as “breakeven” ranking factors, where with all other factors being the same, a page that loads faster than it’s competitor will rank above the slower page.
So how do you meet the criteria to rank well for page experience? By having pages on your site that load quickly and eﬃciently. And how do you achieve a quick loading page? By reducing the size of your pages.
This is something that SEO’s, in particular, technical SEO’s, have been recommending for years, and is a standard best practice known in the industry. Some of the most common technical SEO recommendations include: optimising images to be smaller and encoded in more eﬃcient formats; and reducing unused scripts on the page which slow the loading of a page. These are both issues that aﬀect almost every website, and if ﬁxed, helps to reduce page size and improve load eﬃciency.
There are of course a multitude of other ways SEO can impact server load and reduce the strain on data centres. The very nature of SEO aims to try and ensure that users need only visit one site, or in some cases, require no click at all, in order to satisfy a users query. However, in terms of the most direct impact, technical SEO specialists have, in their own way, been contributing towards helping the planet, by reducing the size of websites stored within data centres, and ultimately reducing the amount of energy required to power the internet.