Environmental impact online: It’s easy being green – and it can help web performance

By Olga Andrienko, VP Brand Marketing, Semrush on

Olga Andrienko, VP Brand Marketing, Semrush

The internet has many dark corners. Just one of these, which is barely considered, is its environmental impact. So intrinsic has the use of the internet become to business and personal lives that it’s almost as if the technology powering it is just viewed as an always on flow, as necessary and unlimited as sunlight. Just think of the problems when a wifi router goes down! Internet access has become as expected by most people as basic services.

And yet – the global IT sector ranks third overall when it comes to sources of top electricity demand when you take into account the environmental impact of hardware production, and energy consumption to run and use – only beaten to the top energy demand spots by entire countries, the US and China. Every search online requires multiple server involvements. A user may just see one device, one search bar and their request – but that query involves a network of other devices, all drawing on the power grid. It may seem small, but the carbon emissions coming from delivering the internet, video streaming, voice and other online services is responsible for 3.7% of global emissions, or 4 grams of CO2 per email sent[1].  

All of this is occurring against overt pushes for greater personal and corporate environmental responsibility. A lot of big tech brands have taken steps to commit to using 100% renewable energy including Apple, Microsoft and Facebook. Still, demand for cloud-based data center’s and associated technologies is expected to continue to grow. If greater environmental responsibility is seen as a common goal, the scale of the issue has to be acknowledged by all, both creators of the information and the consumers of the information.

If a journey like this of a million miles begins with a single step – what could those steps be? How can we all acknowledge our roles in this process and make it easier for everyone to lessen this largely undiscussed impact on the environment?

There are a few natural places to start, which could at least get processes in motion and encourage more considerate use of technology when it comes to the environmental impact online.

For example, cloud storage. How green are providers? Look at where, how and who is the storage provider. Are there hosting companies more locally based, that have committed to reducing their carbon footprint? Is a business’ hosting instead located far away from the company and its customers? Can you reduce the server to client side by reducing that distance? If your customer base is more widespread, can a CDN (content delivery network) serve the largest assets, to reduce reliance on data centers and their power consumption? Are you paying more and using less cloud storage than you need?

Still more practical are steps which can be taken in the business’ own online backyard, such as site speed. We all know that this is a key ranking factor but it also is a key eco factor.

The good news is, making your site faster is a win/ win for both! The faster a site loads, the less energy it needs to do it. All the standard SEO rules apply here: optimise. Reduce image size, use lazy loading so the site only delivers what is needed, check the technical SEO to make sure the site doesn’t have any issues that are causing further delays. Check for broken links and redirect chains that can slow the whole site down. Also – really look at the code, is it blotted? Do you have extended redundant JavaScript? Reducing and eliminating unnecessary code will also make the site easier to crawl, more likely to meet CWV requirements and decrease your site’s environmental impact. It’s all about cutting down on unnecessary time. The better news is that this should also work for customers reading the page too.

Then, look at site design. Simple, clear and easy to navigate – all of these are equally good for users as for the environment. Map the user journey with less friction points. Reducing the number of clicks needed to deliver the information the user needs. Fewer clicks, happier customers, happier planet. Fewer images and moving components use less energy needed to render the site. Of course it is easier to do this with a B2B site than an ecommerce site.

Simply removing some extra elements will drive a small change. Review and audit use of animations and video; are they all really needed? Simply removing the older video content, which may no longer be attracting views, will have an impact. If we all collectively drive and implement these small changes we could be removing the equivalent of a commercial plane from the sky every day. Filtering and optimising for mobile is equally powerful – and again good practice that should also remove site performance overall. Audit the site and remove (or recycle) old content. Implement an EOL (end of life) process so your site does not get really bogged down over time with out-of-date information. Redirect all EOL pages to higher performing, fresher pages. Think about length of content – do we really need it to be 2,500+ words on a page or could we deliver the same message and meet searcher expectations with fewer words?

The challenges we face in reducing environmental impact are numerous, and some seem too large to even consider. But making a start is easier through taking smaller, simpler steps and acknowledging that individual changes can combine to make a bigger difference. Many businesses commit to sustainability goals, and broadening that thinking out to consider how their energy footprint can be lessened has a number of economic and operational benefits in its favour too. When it comes to online functionality what’s good for the business is also good for the planet. It’s the definition of a no brainer decision to take steps to lessen the digital wastage of online operations.     


Semrush are members of The CMA. Find out more about the work they do on their member page.

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