Sustainability in SEO
the difference between greenwash and actual change.
By ROSARIO ARCE
Talking about sustainability in digital marketing invites us to tread a dangerous tightrope.
The line between greenwashing and doing small, meaningful actions that can make a difference is thin but not invisible.
That's why we're in a position to write sticking to concrete numbers, and take practical actions that make a real impact, no matter how small.
We do not seek to tell who we are or sell what we do: today, we only intend to inform and raise awareness.
Does SEO "pollute"?
To answer this question, we must take a few steps back and understand the impact of the Internet as an essential resource to exercise SEO and other Growth activities.
According to a study by The Shift Project, the Internet infrastructure is responsible for approximately 3.7% of global emissions. Although it sounds like almost nothing, it is a bigger impact than that of the aviation industry (3.5%).
And that percentage was calculated before the pandemic, without considering the 53.8% more users who shopped online as of 2020.
In addition, experts predict that the Internet will account for 14% of total emissions by 2040.
Much of this percentage is attributed to data centers: there are more than 1.7 billion websites (you can check the updated information here), and the accelerating rhythm of new content generation fuels this projection.
Of the 3.7% of the global impact of the Internet, 2% corresponds to data centers. As the demand for digital content grows, so does energy consumption.
As long as it depends on the Internet for its execution, poor management of the SEO strategy and its application on websites is an indirect contribution that fuels this percentage of global emissions.
So if you thought SEO was carbon neutral since it doesn’t involve paper or waste, we invite you to keep reading this article.
The evident bond between SEO and energy consumption
Talking about SEO as an absolute solution for reducing energy consumption and global emissions is greenwashing. There are still many opportunities to explore, and, at present, we are in a research stage rather than one of statements and slogans.
We did find an apparent relationship between SEO and this cause, which is logical when we understand that a "heavy" site represents a higher negative impact on the planet.
When SEO sets objectives such as reducing click depth, getting the user to visit only one ecosystem to access their search, and creating faster lightweight sites, it helps data centers reduce their emissions.
Loading speed is one of the essential factors in performance and SEO. All strategists know that the faster a site's pages load, the easier it will be to climb in the SERP. The connection is directly proportional.
For some people, image and video optimization and its correct encoding in more efficient files is a small contribution to helping the environment.
Even so, the most precise rule to understand SEO contribution is the following:
This result will allow us to carry out a comparative analysis of “before and after SEO.”
Let's remember that the energy involved in loading an average page on the Internet results in an estimated release of 1.76 g of CO2 for each click received.
If this site receives 1 million clicks in a year, it will release a total of 1,760 kg of CO2.
Optimizing a 15% reduction in your website size would imply, in this case, 264 kg less CO2 released into the atmosphere annually.
Of course, the impact may seem small to us if we’re only talking about one website, but remember that there are more than 1.7 billion sites. If everyone achieved this 15 % reduction... Would we still be talking about an insignificant contribution?
That is why self-centeredness and individual strategies fit within the realm of greenwashing. The contribution of SEO to sustainability is in community, at scale, and through constant research.
Before you go, check your website's carbon emissions
Before proposing any sustainability strategy, the first step is to understand where we stand and the amount of damage we produce today.
Undoubtedly, this estimate will be the starting point for setting down-to-earth goals and the schedule to achieve them.
In this sense, we recommend a quick visit to Beacon. It is a free tool that will allow you to enter any URL and receive a breakdown of the carbon emissions produced by each element on your site.
Consequently, you will have a simple resource to calculate the environmental performance of the entire site and multiply the emissions by the visits, to dimension your total annual emissions.
Beacon works as a practical extension for Chrome or Firefox that, just by clicking once on the page you are interested in measuring, will show you a report with information like this:
You will find the equivalents with other everyday activities, such as watching your favorite series in HD on Netflix or driving a certain number of kilometers in your car.
You will also get the curious fact of the number of trees you should plant to offset your carbon footprint in a year. No excuses!
Other axes to investigate as a community
Sustainability consists of ensuring the needs of the present without engaging those of the future. This definition applies to all types of human-powered projects, physical or digital.
Professionals and companies must commit to the triple impact: environmental, social, and economic sustainability.
No business model will be able to survive in the future if it does not actively rethink its commitment to the triple impact.
We have already seen what we can do from the SEO field to work on reducing environmental impact.
What could we do to boost our positive social and economic impact? How can we establish solid accessibility structures on the websites we run? What are the urgent problems of the SEO community that discourage these efforts on a day-to-day basis?
We must address these questions and ideas as a community, under a collective and expansive logic. Do you dare to tread this tightrope that will change the world?