SEO Insights > Sustainability in SEO, saving the world one click at a time

Sustainability in SEO, saving the world one click at a time

Article highlights


The country of the internet


How can SEO help to reduce emissions?


Does one page really make a difference?


A quick way to see the carbon emissions from your website


What does this all mean?


How Blue Array can help

Tackling climate change is something that we all know is of the utmost importance, and is a topic that is virtually unavoidable today. From the rather harrowing metaphor of climate change as an apocalyptic meteor in the recent Don’t Look Up, or the heartfelt pleas of Sir David Attenborough to take climate action in “A Life On Our Planet”, it’s an issue that seeps into almost every facet of our lives.
 

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 internet

In 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.
 

Does one page really make a difference?

The answer to this is dependent on two factors: what volume of emissions did the page originally release per click, and how many clicks did that page receive in a year? The energy expended to load an average page on the internet results in the release of about 1.76g of CO2 for every click that page receives. To put this into perspective, the average car produces about 120g of CO2 equivalent every kilometre, so fewer than 70 clicks onto a page are needed to release the same emissions as driving one kilometre in your car. A site that receives 1,000,000 clicks in a year would release a total of 1,760kg of CO2 every year. If we were able to optimise the site to reduce page size by 15%, this could result in a reduction of 264kg of CO2 being released into the atmosphere every year. In the grand scheme of all CO2 emissions, this may not seem like a lot, but with over 1.7 billion websites out there, those 15% savings really begin to add up.    

A quick way to see the carbon emissions from your website

If you’d like to understand the carbon emissions from your own website, I’d recommend using this tool, Beacon. This is a fantastic free tool that lets you enter any URL, and be provided with a breakdown of the carbon emissions from each element of your page. You can then use this figure as a benchmark of the environmental performance across the site, and multiply this number by the total number of visits your site receives annually to see your total yearly emissions..  

What does this all mean?

The level of pollution that results from the internet and its supporting infrastructure is something that shocks a lot of people. Digital marketing practises, including a website, contribute towards this, and is often a hidden element in many organisations carbon footprint measurement. But it’s not all doom and gloom, the work that the SEO industry has been doing has been actively helping to reduce the impact that websites have on the climate, even if it wasn’t the reason they were doing it. This secondary climate benefit is starting to come into the limelight, and the impact of the internet on the environment is becoming much easier to understand.  

How Blue Array can help

At Blue Array, highlighting the environmental impacts that your site currently has, and providing detailed technical recommendations on how you can improve, is part of our standard site auditing process. If you’d like to take a climate positive step, and want to see what the carbon emissions produced from hosting your site are and how you can reduce them, don’t hesitate to contact us here.
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