By Tom Greenwood
I’ve known Rob and Marcus from Fountain Partnership for a few years. We are fellow digital agency founders who not only share a passion for delivering results for clients, but also care about creating a world that’s good for people and planet. After chatting to them about greening the web at a recent event, I asked if I could write a guest post on the topic and they kindly agreed. In this post I’ll explain how paying attention to the environmental impacts of our websites is not just good for the planet but actually can help us achieve better results from our online marketing.
What are the environmental impacts of websites?
You could be forgiven for wondering how environmental issues have anything to do with websites. It’s a topic that’s rarely discussed but the reality is that the internet uses a vast amount of electricity to store, process and transmit data. That electricity consumption results in large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions that total roughly 2% of all global carbon emissions, or as much as a major industrial country like Germany. What’s more, although most electronic devices are becoming more energy efficient, emissions from the web are rising fast due to our rapidly growing hunger for data.
What can we do about it?
Internet emissions might be growing, but we can take action to reduce the emissions of the websites that we own and manage. We can do this by looking at two key factors – where the energy comes from and how efficiently it is used.
Website Energy Sources
Websites use energy in the data centres where they’re hosted, in the telecoms networks that transmit data around the world and in the end user devices such as phones, laptops, and smart TVs. We don’t really have any control over the telecoms networks or end user devices, but we do have some control over the data centres which account for about 38 percent of the total energy consumption of a website.
Some hosting companies commit to using renewable energy to power their data centres and so we can choose to host our websites with these providers. Switching to a green web host is generally a fairly simple process that can significantly reduce emissions. A growing number of hosting providers are using green energy and with no impact to customers on cost or performance, it’s really a no brainer. A wide selection of green web hosts can be found listed on The Green Web Foundation website.
Website Energy Efficiency
Switching to a green hosting provider might be the easiest way to reduce website emissions, but the biggest impact can be achieved by focusing on energy efficiency. My team at Wholegrain Digital developed the world’s first carbon calculator for websites and one of the key findings is that there is a huge range of efficiency between websites. The most data heavy website tested, uses over 14,000 times as much data as the most efficient website tested to date – with the difference in energy and carbon emissions being roughly proportional.
As mentioned, websites use energy in the storage, processing and transmission of data. We can therefore improve energy efficiency by focusing on how to achieve the same goals with less data. A few areas in which this can be achieved are:
- Smaller files – File sizes can be reduced by writing clean code, minimising images and videos. CSS and SVGs are great alternative to add visual interest, and by compressing files as much as possible. Smaller files also take less time to load, making the website faster.
- Less computing – The energy used to process information can be reduced by reducing the number and complexity of queries that a website makes to the hosting server and to the user’s device. Processing queries takes time, so the more this can be reduced, the faster the website will load.
- Host nearby – It takes energy to transmit data through the telephone networks. The further it travels, the more energy it uses. Therefore, energy can be saved simply by hosting the website closer to the majority of your website users. For example, a company whose customers are mainly in the UK should host their website in the UK instead of using a US based hosting service. This also means that data takes less time to reach the majority of users.
- Streamline user journeys – Websites use energy every time a new webpage is loaded and then continue to use energy in the users device as long as they remain on the site. Of course, we want people to load our pages and spend time reading our content, but if we can design user journeys that drive the customer to the website goals faster and with less clicks, we can save energy.
How do greener websites benefit you commercially?
So we’ve seen that there are many viable ways to reduce website energy consumption and emissions, and in an ideal world, we would all take action just because it’s the right thing to do. It is however much easier to prioritise things when there’s a clear commercial benefit.
Luckily, greener websites are not just better for the planet, they are also better for users and can deliver better results for businesses in terms of improved SEO, improved conversion rates and positive brand reputation. Let’s take a look at these benefits.
One of the biggest benefits of making your website energy efficient is that it can make your website a lot faster. Using smaller files, reducing the number and complexity of queries and hosting your website close to your target customers are all things that reduce energy consumption and reduce the amount of time that it takes for your web pages to load. As a result, green websites are fast websites.
Search engines increasingly factor user experience in their rankings, favouring websites that they predict will deliver an experience that meets the user’s expectations. They do this by making quantitative measurements while crawling your site, of which page speed is one.
Slow page speed not only risks fewer pages being indexed, but generates poor interaction metrics like high bounce rates and low average time on page, and cumbersome websites are punished with lower search engine rankings, strangling organic traffic.
Alongside the immediate SEO benefits of a fast-loading site, the fact a fast site will reduce your business’s carbon footprint is a benefit that has long gone under the radar.
Improved Conversion Rates
Conversion rate optimisation is something that the team at Fountain Partnership talks about a lot, and for good reason. Identifying and implementing “quick wins” to improve conversion rate is a one-off piece of work that provides both an immediate and long-term boost to profitability.
Any point of the sales funnel can be optimised, from first touch-points like ad copy, to final steps; sales call scripts or check-out processes. A well-optimised user experience and conversion funnel is a win-win for everyone. It makes your website easier and more enjoyable to use, meaning that users can find and do what they want in less time and with less frustration. Streamlined user journeys therefore make users happy and increase the likelihood that they will convert into customers for your business, while reducing the amount of data that is loaded in their journey through your website.
Speed is also an important aspect of user experience and is good for business. Hubspot found that a one second delay caused a 7% reduction in conversion rate for the e-commerce clients in their study; £7000 of every £100,000 in online sales lost to slow loading product pages. Why? We know that if an experience shows signs of falling short of our expectations, we can quickly find an alternative online source. To say that customers in 2018 are more discerning would be an understatement: They’re ruthless comparison experts.
Well-designed conversion funnels and lightning fast site speed therefore create positive user experiences, better financial returns and lower carbon emissions.
Improved Brand Reputation
Finally, all aspects of a low carbon website contribute to positive brand reputation. In addition to the positive brand perceptions created by good search engine rankings and fast, streamlined user experiences, it has been shown that users like to know that they are buying from companies that operate responsibly.
A 2017 international consumer study by Unilever found that a third of consumers are now actively choosing to buy from brands that they believe are doing good for society and the environment. Making a clear public statement that you are actively managing and reducing your online carbon emissions and using web hosting powered by renewable energy can therefore deliver real financial returns.
At Fountain Partnership, awareness of energy usage extends as far as the bottom line, but every time someone visits a website, somewhere a server draws in more power to enable that visit. For large e-commerce websites or high-traffic publications, that could amount to millions of visits a day fuelled by non-renewable sources.
A highly optimised website therefore not only serves your key audience with a seamless experience, but also is a green credential your business.
Greener websites are good for everyone.
Tom Greenwood is a designer, environmentalist and the co-founder of the WordPress agency Wholegrain Digital, a Certified B Corporation focused on user experience, performance and web sustainability.
4 December 2018