Making the web more sustainable

Making the web more sustainable

In November, I conducted a survey aimed at SEO professionals, delving into their perspectives on climate change.

This article unpacks the survey results, highlighting key findings and offering practical advice for SEO professionals looking to impact the environment positively.

But first, let’s explore why the link between SEO and climate change matters.

Why ask SEOs about climate change? What’s the link?

While we’re slowly transitioning toward a net-zero environment, many scientists believe this won’t be enough to halt the impacts that are felt worldwide due to human activity. 

I think it falls on all of us, whatever industry we’re in, to try and help limit our carbon emissions. And as SEOs we’re in a great position to help shape traffic on the web.

People will always demand to find information and products online that satisfy their needs – and as SEOs, we have a great opportunity to ensure any such requests are directed to environmentally responsible businesses. 

By choosing and supporting eco-friendly clients, SEOs can help shape demand in a more eco-positive direction – which has the potential to have a huge net impact.

I think lots of SEOs haven’t made the connection that when websites are visited and indeed through all of our digital actions, whether searching on Google or posting on social media, we are creating carbon emissions as well as using up valuable natural resources like water – especially when considering the environmental costs of using AI. 

What if SEOs can instead help push clients towards adopting more eco-friendly web practices, starting with curbing the emissions of their website?

The results of the climate change survey 

We had a total of 331 responses from around the world. Below, I will share all the results and pick out any interesting answers.

Backgrounds of the respondents

33% of respondents were based in Europe, followed by the UK (26%), North America (21%) and Asia (11%).

62% of respondents were male, 34% female.

There was a near-even split with respondents’ job positions, with 33% working on a freelance/consultancy basis, 31% working in-house and 31% working within an agency.

47% of respondents’ main area of SEO expertise was in technical, 34% content and 9% ecommerce.

Q1: How to reduce the environmental impact of a website?

While using a green web host was the winning option here, surprisingly, there were mixed results for low-carbon design websites, with many people (85) choosing that as the least impactful option. At the same time, many people (76) also chose that as the most impactful option. 

For those who aren’t sure, a green web host is considered to be powered by renewable energy – solar or wind, for example. If you want to find a verified green web hosting provider, use the Green Web Foundation’s Directory.

Despite blocking unnecessary bot crawling being the least selected option here, this might be one the easiest and most efficient ways of reducing the environmental impact for most websites.

That might surprise many, but for anyone who spends any time doing logfile analysis, most sites are now being hit by a huge amount of unrequested bots and web crawlers.

This was a broad question, and the subsequent feedback from respondents was that it was incredibly hard to answer accurately (more on this at the end of this article).

Q2: Have you ever used an online carbon calculator tool to estimate carbon emissions from a website?

Responses to “Have you ever used an online carbon calculator tool to estimate carbon emissions from a website?”

64% said no, 33% said yes and 3% weren’t sure.

While these online tools aren’t perfect (more on this in Q4 below), they are still a great starting point for those wanting to check the approximate emissions from their client’s website.

One of the most popular sites to test your website’s carbon footprint is Website Carbon. 

The Website Carbon calculator showing the carbon rating of the website

There’s also a great write-up on other website carbon footprint tracking tools that can help monitor the emissions from websites, including some options that go into a bit more depth than the WebsiteCarbon calculator.

Q3: Who in a business should be responsible for addressing their websites’ carbon emissions?

42% of respondents felt this was everyone’s responsibility, while 19% felt it should fall under management’s responsibility and 18% felt it fell under the IT and web development team’s responsibility. 

I was happy with the top response here, as I feel progress is only made if everybody is brought on board and is fully engaged – a bit like a successful SEO project. 

Sustainability or even reducing carbon emissions in this context shouldn’t just be considered a tick-box exercise.

Q4: If Google included web page carbon emissions in their Core Web Vitals initiative, would it encourage more SEOs to reduce the carbon emissions of client websites?

78% of people agreed, 12% weren’t sure and 9% said no.

Meaningfully tracking carbon emissions from websites is a fairly contentious topic. In a nutshell, it is not easy to do it 100% accurately, based on the current technology and available software. 

When a website gets loaded, many resources must be accessed on a web host, including images, videos, CSS, HTML, JavaScript, fonts, tracking cookies, etc. 

These all have their own associated emissions because they are physically hosted somewhere in the world, with a data center powering them. 

If a full webpage load requires 4MB, while this is easy to convert into carbon emissions (in theory), we then have to figure out the kind of power being used by the consumer’s device. 

If they are using renewable energy, then emissions will be lower. But it’s hard (nearly impossible) to know what kind of energy source they use. 

The other issue is that these carbon emission reports take a static view of a website. If you put Netflix’s likes into the tool, they might get an A+ rating because the homepage isn’t big in terms of data usage.

However, we all know that when someone goes to a streaming platform like Netflix, they will have a long session duration (30 minutes minimum) and will be streaming high-quality video, which will have a bigger carbon footprint.

Fershad Irani, a digital sustainability consultant, explains the nuances of this topic in more depth in his piece, “Adapting Cloud Carbon Footprint’s methodology to website carbon estimates.”

When I wrote this survey question, I felt it would be a win-win situation – Google rewards sites that reduce their carbon emissions, and so SEOs (and businesses) will, therefore, prioritize doing this.

But as the above shows, getting meaningful data on a website’s true carbon emissions isn’t quite easy. 

Q5: For agency folks, would you feel comfortable declining to work with a client that was a known fossil fuel polluter?

There are arguments to be made around this question (specifically, how someone might know if a client was a known polluter or not). Still, it was nice to hear that around 75% of all respondents did feel comfortable speaking about this with their manager. 

I think it’s important that if someone isn’t comfortable working with a client, for whatever personal reasons they might have, they feel able to talk about it with their manager and find a suitable resolution. 

Q6: Why isn’t making websites greener a higher priority within businesses?

For this question, I allowed respondents to select more than one option, as it’s possible that there isn’t just one reason why this happens.

The most selected option was “due to limited knowledge of the environmental impact” – 38% of all respondents chose this as the main reason.

One takeaway from the above would be that further education is needed on the issue at hand – it sounds like business owners are simply unaware of the environmental impact of powering their websites.

At least if we are able to help educate business owners on the problem, it would then put them in a better position to be able to decide whether they do or don’t want to take further action to reduce their own environmental impacts.

Q7: Would SEOs purchase eco-friendly swag at SEO conferences?

Out of all respondents, 73% of people said yes, 19% weren’t sure and 8% said no. 

I do know that some SEO conferences like BrightonSEO already have made steps to allow attendees to support more sustainably minded initiatives, such as supporting certified tree planting schemes when purchasing a ticket for the event.

I think a lot of single-use plastic gets used for SEO merchandise and swag, with many items excitedly given away by companies that will ultimately end up in landfills. 

Looking at how many people travel very long distances to attend SEO conferences, I was curious if people would be willing to pay an additional fee (e.g., 5% more) for the conference to be live-streamed online, allowing people to watch remotely – making it more accessible and avoiding some travel. 

Of all respondents, 65% said yes, they would be willing to pay extra. 19% weren’t sure and 16% of respondents said no.

I have since realized that many big SEO conferences already record their shows, allowing those who’ve paid to watch from home after the event. 

Survey feedback here suggested that this responsibility should fall on the conference organizers instead of pushing the cost over to any attendees, which is a fair point. 

Q9: How many flights have you taken in the past 12 months as part of your work as an SEO?

67% of respondents hadn’t taken any flights, 22% had taken 1-2 flights, while 8% had taken 3-5 flights. 

While I realize for some SEOs that not flying might be unavoidable, and that there are a lot of benefits from in-person meetings or from attending conferences, I do still think it’s possible to operate as a fairly successful SEO without traveling by air. 

Q10: Do you think climate change will have an impact on you personally?

A huge 90% of respondents said yes, they do believe it would, 5% said they were not sure, and 4% said no, it would not impact them.

Even if we’re not aware of it, we’re already feeling the effects of climate change with an increase in the cost of food, brought upon partly by long periods of drought, flooding or some non-climate related issues.

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9 ways SEOs can drive climate change action

From doing this survey it became clear that I am definitely not the only SEO who cares about this topic a great deal. Here are a few more suggestions for those keen to take this further.

1. Check out the Green Web Foundation – and check if your website is hosted using green energy

Many great initiatives already exist in this space within the field of web development, such as the Green Web Foundation.

The Green Web Foundation has also created an open-source JavaScript library called CO2.js, which enables developers to estimate the emissions related to the use of their apps, websites and software. 

You can quickly check whether your website runs on green energy or not using another of their tools, as shown below.

2. Use a log file analyzer like Screaming Frog and check your site’s CO2 emissions

Screaming Frog has included the Green Web Foundation’s CO2.js within a recent update to their Log File Analyzer, and this can be configured to find the CO2 impact of both bots and users. 

Total CO2 emissions from Googlebot and Bingbot as shown by Screaming Frog’s logfile analyzer.

You can see CO2 emission estimates from the traffic going to your own or your client’s websites and check that of bots, scrapers and third-party SEO tools hitting your site and eating up valuable resources.

Carrying out log file analysis would be a great way to determine a plan to reduce unnecessary resource consumption on your web host. 

3. Educate your clients about their websites’ carbon emissions

Once you’ve used a tool to check how much carbon emissions a website generates, why not use the report or output to start a conversation with your client?As shown in Q6 above, many clients likely lack education about the emissions caused by their website. Sharing a report from one of these tools might be a great way to bring the topic up.

The Website Carbon Calculator by Wholegrain Digital is a simple and visual tool. I asked their digital sustainability lead, Marketa Benisek, to share her thoughts on the calculator.
“We launched Website Carbon in 2017 with a singular objective: to raise awareness about its negative environmental impact of technology. The actual calculations involved are incredibly complex and rely entirely on the latest research, drawing from both academic studies and insights from industry experts. Despite the inherent imperfections in these calculations, we like to stick to the mantra ‘don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.’ 

The key focus doesn’t lie in achieving absolute precision but rather in striving for progress. 

Whether the calculated emissions stand at 0.68 gCO2e or 0.71 gCO2e, the key goal remains consistent: to help people collectively create a sustainable internet that is good for people and planet. 

Sustainable websites offer a multitude of benefits beyond environmental concerns, including improved performance, accessibility and the potential for improved search engine rankings (when implemented effectively).”

Marketa Benisek, Digital Sustainability Lead at Wholegrain Digital

4. Continue to track emissions using a tool like Ecoping

Knowing your website emissions is great, but what’s even better is having a dashboard that can track the emissions daily, allowing you to monitor changes over time.

The resource overview from Ecoping shows the breakdown of website resource changes over a 7-day period.

Ecoping is a great tool that allows you to do just that. Compare your emissions against other competitors and easily share reports from Google Lighthouse and Core Web Vitals with development teams to help prioritize any improvements.

5. Be more vocal about web sustainability amongst peers and within communities

Why not raise this topic with your peers and any other communities you belong to? Even bringing this up on social media can be a good starting point. 

You can also try joining other web communities. I’m sure you would find more people passionate about this topic within the world of web development. They’ll probably be happy to see SEOs showing an interest, too. 

Don’t forget there’s no substitute for real communities. Try attending local digital marketing MeetUps or other events – finding someone local with similar interests can be a great way to build a strong network. 

I think just by talking about this subject more openly, you will find others will do the same and that will create a snowball effect. 

6. Be more mindful about your own digital actions and the impact they have

While there’s a lot you can do offline to reduce your own carbon emissions, there’s also a lot of online-related activity you might not be aware of.

Buying new devices – such as mobile phones, laptops, tablets or even desktop computers – has huge associated manufacturing costs, with equally large carbon emissions.

Research shows that up to 91 kilograms of CO2 (a little more than 200 pounds) is released for every cellphone manufactured. Almost half of the CO2 (43%) created or used during a cell phone’s life cycle happens during the raw material phase, caused by the machines used to discover, extract and refine petroleum needed to make the plastics. These machines use much energy, usually gasoline or diesel fuel, which releases CO2.

If we could all keep our smartphones for longer (not constantly upgrading or renewing them) and opt for refurbished models, as well as choosing devices that are repairable and are made with the environment and people in mind (such as the Fairphone), we’d be able to reduce our carbon emissions greatly. 

By using a phone for at least five years, instead of the typical 2-3 years, the carbon impact per year of use could be cut by 50% and the water impact could be halved.

7. Learn more about (or transition towards) a low-carbon website design

While this might not be accessible to everyone, transitioning to a low-carbon website design or even simply making your website less carbon-heavy would be a great way to reduce your own carbon emissions.

Nick Lewis, a sustainable web developer, has also created a website that showcases low-carbon websites. When I asked him about the subject, he said there’s a lot that goes into creating a lower-carbon site:
“From planning through to user experience, interface design, development, hosting, content and SEO, the most important thing is to be curious, to ask questions and do some research. Begin with small but important steps, such as moving to a hosting provider that uses 100% renewable energy. Once you start you’ll be amazed at how much more you want to do, how far down the rabbit hole you want to explore to make your websites as low-carbon as they can be.”

I was also keen to understand the difference between having a fast site and having a low carbon site – and were they the same thing:“While a fast website and a sustainable website certainly share some common traits, I would argue that they aren’t quite the same. The biggest difference is the approach and desired outcome. A website purely aiming to be fast may employ certain techniques to force some elements to load only once the main thread has been loaded – so the website looks fully there, but some elements are then programmatically loaded after this. While this technique may produce an initially fast loading webpage, it may be hiding the fact that the webpage is actually very heavy and the final result being very resource intensive.

A more sustainable website is different. The whole aim of the design and build is to use less energy, to produce less carbon per click and while the result is often a fast loading webpage, it is not the sole focus.“

Sustainable web developer Nick Lewis

8. Pitch conference talks about SEO sustainability and making the web greener

I’m hoping that from the survey’s interest and feedback, you will notice a lot of interest in this topic and that this will only grow. 

So next time an SEO, digital marketing or web developer conference accepts new talk topics, why not pitch one on making the web greener?There are so many different topics I’d love to see covered. Some SEOs have done this, including Ellie Connor, who covered measuring SEO sustainability at BrightonSEO last year.

I’d argue there are many other ways this topic could be covered more, which should help get more people on board with the movement.

This advice doesn’t have to be conference-specific either – it might make for great blog posts, podcasts and even social media content.

9. Watch this video on building a greener web by Michelle Barker

If you would like to learn more on this topic, I recommend you watch the following YouTube video by CSS expert and passionate digital sustainability expert Michelle Barker.

Screenshot from Michelle Baker’s talk at HeyPresents in Leeds, 2023 taken from YouTube.

Climate survey appendix: Feedback, pitfalls and thanks

Your feedback on the survey

I left one question open at the end of the survey for people to give feedback, ask questions or share any other comments. I read through every one of these responses – here is the main feedback:

On Q1:  “what is the most effective way to reduce emissions on a website” people felt it was incredibly hard to fairly answer. Because I’d asked people to rate these factors, asking for 1 item per rating, people felt forced to rank items when they might have actually been on a similar level. In hindsight I should have asked this in another way to get some fairer, more meaningful responses.

On Q8: “would you pay extra to attend an SEO conference so they can be live-streamed” a few people said this responsibility should really stand on the conference organisers themselves, not on the attendees. 

On Q4: “If Google included web page carbon emissions in their Core Web Vitals initiative it would encourage more SEOs to reduce the carbon emissions of client websites” I had some valid feedback that tracking carbon emissions from websites was incredibly complex and this is probably why the metric has been slow to get adopted fully. That’s not to say progress isn’t being made – there are some great tools that are looking at tracking carbon emissions from websites. But for those who want to understand why this is so complicated, this article is a great read. 

Generally, many people shared that they loved that this topic was being talked about and that they wished it was discussed more often. This is exactly how I feel and my hope from the survey is that more people get involved and start having these conversations – with fellow SEOs, clients and anyone else who works online.

Pitfalls of the survey

One of the obvious issues of the survey here comes from the significant bias that might have been achieved by focusing my efforts on sharing the survey through social media channels. 

We all operate within our bubbles. While I was trying to reach other SEOs solely, I realize that because of my own leanings, I may have attracted responses from those who are biased toward climate change being an important issue. That is to say, I attracted responses from people who are like me and care about climate change, too. 

I didn’t know a genuine way to reach SEOs outside my bubble or the many SEOs who steer clear of social media without paying a lot to use a third-party survey tool. 

Another issue was my decision to include prizes as part of the survey. By doing so, I may have inadvertently encouraged “dishonest” responses. That is, people who were answering without considering the question, solely because they wanted to breeze through and complete the survey to be in with a chance of getting a prize (note that I can’t say I noticed any of that from the responses I saw, although it is obviously still a possibility).

I also had feedback that one of the figures I’d quoted when sharing the survey on Twitter, LinkedIn and at the top of the survey page itself was not actually accurate. I’d shared a figure from “The Shift Project” that carbon emissions from the internet sector were 3.7% and were likely to outgrow that of the entire aviation industry within the next few years. 

While further research shows the comparison still stands, the actual figure for emissions is estimated to be between 1.5 and 2.7%. This is another complex subject when you take into account carbon emissions related to the manufacturing of devices too. If you would like to read up on this further, I recommend this excellent piece by researcher Gauthier Roussilhe, “Explaining the environmental footprint of the digital sector.”

Special thanks to everyone who helped me

It might not look much, but this project was a huge undertaking, and as a freelancer, I struggled to find time to get it right. Without a doubt, it wouldn’t have happened without some help and a few nudges from various people.

John Mueller was among the first people I’d asked to share feedback on the survey questions. He thoughtfully gave some detailed responses (while he was traveling by train, I should add!) when I’d rather speculatively asked if he could help. He was honest but fair and without his initial interest, I may not have pursued the initiative. 

A huge advocate of the survey from the early days was Moz Editor Miriam Ellis. She gave me plenty of feedback and was really supportive throughout. She’s tried to open various doors for me and is clearly also very passionate about this topic. 

While he might not openly admit this is a cause that’s close to his heart (I hope to change his mind one day), Simon Howland was a keen proofreader and gave me some very wise feedback. He might be the wisest SEO I know (and I know he hates being referred to as an SEO). 

Volodymyr Kupriyanov (a.k.a. VK) came to my aid when I struggled to visualize and present some findings from the survey. He was super helpful in ensuring my data was presented in the right format. He’s a super smart data visualization expert by trade – and it shows. 

Conversion optimization consultant Ryan Webb was a huge help in giving feedback on a later version of the article and connecting me to the lovely Wholegrain Digital team. 

Owen Rogers runs the .eco domain registry Big Room and is passionate about all things relating to digital sustainability. He was kind enough to give me some great last-minute feedback about the shape of my article and about the important role that SEOs can have in making the web greener. 

Gerry McGovern, who is a very vocal and prominent voice on all things relating to digital waste and making environmentally friendly websites and apps (and has written several books on the topic, including “World Wide Waste”), was kind enough to provide me with various statistics on the cost of mobile phone production when my own research hit a dead end. 

Screaming Frog Director Dan Sharp was kind enough to give away a license code for their excellent Screaming Frog crawling software for a random participant of the survey, and it’s clear from speaking to him that he’s also very keen on this topic and has been busy taking steps to make Screaming Frog HQ greener. 

Rival (but in a good way) SEO software company Sitebulb’s very own Patrick Hathaway was another person happy to give away a license code for their equally excellent Sitebulb crawling software. He’s also keen on this topic, and they’re taking steps to talk about climate-positive SEO auditing on their website.

Technical SEO genius Patrick Stox was also a huge help here, as he was kind enough to help me reach someone at Ahrefs, who was kind enough to donate a few copies of their book on SEO as part of the prize fund. 

Finally – a big thanks to Search Engine Land Managing Editor Danny Goodwin for being open to publishing the results of this study and my write-up. I hope other SEO publications would be willing to follow suit and give more time to cover the same topic. 

While I was incredibly generous to have received all this support, I take full responsibility for any of the issues or mistakes in this article. (Don’t blame any of the above people, basically!)Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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