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How can you make your website environmentally friendly?

Posted by Fiona Mellink on

How can you make your website environmentally friendly?


Reducing our carbon footprint and environmental impact weighs heavily on many of our minds. Whether making small changes like turning down the heating or bigger changes like switching your diet, things are happening all around us. I would not consider myself an eco-warrior by any stretch of the imagination, but I am very interested in sustainability. As part of the SEO team here at MindArc, I’m online for the majority of the day, combing through clients' and competitors' websites—but I’ve never really considered the impact of the websites themselves.

Where do website emissions come from?

As with most things, the answer to this question isn’t neat and tidy; rather, it is very subjective. For the purpose of this article, I’m summarising emissions into 3 “buckets”:

1. The User

The user has some form of an electrical device (e.g. a mobile or laptop), which they use to surf the internet and which requires power. Therefore, when a user is clicking onto your website and waiting for the site to load - no great surprise here - energy is being used.

2. Data Transfers/ Transmission Networks

From the user clicking onto the website and the webpage loading, a number of “requests” are made from the user’s browser to data centres. The transmission of these requests (think of them as packets of information) takes varying amounts of energy. The estimate from the International Energy Agency was that data transmission networks used a huge 1.1 - 1.4% of all global energy in 2020. This figure does include crypto mining so will be slightly lower in reality.

3. Data Centres

A data centre is a physical location that stores (you guessed it) data. It's where you can find all the “instructions” and assets that appear on the website and how they should look. The International Energy Agency found data centres to use about the same amount of energy as Transmission Networks (~1% of global energy).

While data centres and transmission networks are consistently becoming more efficient, global internet traffic is also increasing, so we must continue to innovate and look for ways to reduce energy waste from the online community.

What makes one website more eco-friendly than another?

There are several factors that impact how big a carbon footprint your website has. Unsurprisingly, the first thing on the list is size. In general, a bigger website has a bigger footprint. When I say size I mean it quite generally; the number of pages, the size of the pages (think videos and images), but also the amount of traffic.

There’s a long list of things that have an impact on how “green” a site is. Below are a few examples of factors to consider, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.

  • Does the site use a content delivery network (CDN)?
  • Is server-side caching used? And if so, what’s the cache policy?
  • Are Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMPs) used?
  • Is a CMS in use? And if so, which one?
  • How much JavaScript is there on the site?
  • Are images, videos and web fonts properly optimised?

How do I work out my website’s carbon footprint?

If you want to check the carbon footprint of your website, there are calculators available. The robustness of these calculators is hard to judge; however, they do at least provide a yardstick if you are interested in making your website more environmentally friendly.

The best one I’ve found is by WholeGrain Digital in the UK and can be accessed for free here. I’ve added a few screenshots from a test I ran on the MindArc website below. As you can see, the output is top-level information rather than anything too technical. What I like about this calculator is that it is quite transparent in what it measures and how.

 


What can I do to reduce my website's carbon footprint?

I’ve put together my top suggestions for increasing the energy efficiency of your website. While there are lots of different things you can do, I’ve tried to stick to things that are easier to implement and shouldn’t cost too much financially either.

Remove unused code

Removing unused code is one of those things that is good practice but often gets lost in amongst other business priorities. It takes time to do and can be complicated but can considerably reduce the load time and energy consumed.

In a previous role, I worked with an awesome dev team, but the backend of the website had been pivoted, played with and passed between so many different teams that the sheer amount of code was a nightmare to unpick. The tech debt was huge, and I hate to think how much avoidable energy was expended with that site.

An added bonus of keeping your website’s code nice and clean is an improved user experience. Not removing unused Javascript and CSS, and not minifying required files, is one of the single biggest contributors to sites failing core web vitals due to the largest contentful paint metric. Improving performance, boosting user experience AND reducing emissions—yes please!


SEO!


The good news (at least for me) is that SEO has a positive impact on how sustainable your website is. Why? Because we ultimately want to help users find the right information as quickly as possible, thus reducing how much energy is used.

Among the many examples I could give you, the simplest one is your content. There is very little point in serving information to your users if they don’t want or need it; it’s unlikely to improve your conversion rate and Google certainly doesn’t want to return something that doesn’t match the search intent. Therefore, ensuring that all of your content is adding value–i.e. written for your target audience with appropriate keywords, is fully optimised (including images) and is sensibly placed on your website–is a win-win for you and Mother Earth. Remember that everything you put onto your website will take energy to share with users, so if you include it, make it count!

Use a data centre close to your users or a CDN

Transmission networks use a lot of energy. Reducing the distance that data has to be sent is therefore a useful way to make your website more eco-friendly.

If your users are all clustered together, a data centre close to you might be the right answer.

However, as many sites have users spread across several regions, a CDN is often a better option. CDNs are networks of servers that work together to deliver content efficiently across regions, ultimately reducing the amount of time it takes to send and receive data. Local servers cache (store) assets like images so they can be delivered more quickly to end users.

Switch to a green host

This last point goes nicely with number 3, and might be something that you’re doing without realising, but it’s worth checking as data centres are highly energy intensive. Green hosting can mean many things: running on renewable energy, using the latest energy-efficient technology or tree-planting to offset emissions, to name a few. As a result, when switching to a green web host, it’s worth checking exactly what makes your host green before signing up as some are better than others.

The associated cost of green hosts was quite high in the past but has come down considerably and in many cases is on par with “less green” options. That said, the cost really depends on your website. Host Papa has a handy guide on green web hosting if you want to understand more and look at your options.

 

Wrap-up

This article only scratches the surface of eco-friendly websites but I hope it has given you a flavour of what to consider if you want to make your website more environmentally friendly. As internet usage grows and websites continue to evolve, I believe the green site conversations will become more prevalent, and I’m excited to see what happens next. The best part of writing this article for me is reaffirming that it’s not a choice between user experience and protecting the environment, but rather that the two go hand-in-hand and that there is a business case for reducing website emissions.