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Sustainability is more than just “green technology”

Websites have a wide range of goals. The obvious ones are marketing and selling a product or providing information. But efficiency and improving workflows are also high on the list, especially for B2B companies.

Integrations and automation on your website can save a ton of time when scaled across larger businesses. Would you make a case for a less “green” website if it can save a ton of time across your organisation?

Offline, or at least “off-website” activities, have a real impact on the environment, too. They waste resources, but most importantly, they steal our precious time. Time that we could spend on social and environmental activities instead.

Keep that in mind when it’s time for your next batch of website improvements. There’s more to website sustainability than meets the eye.

The hidden environmental cost of your website

The impact on your website isn’t limited to the data and time consumed when people visit it. There’s a cost that most people are not aware of, and that’s the cost to… Google. It might seem marginal due to the size of the company we’re talking about. But the operation that allows them to rank websites is equally massive, with proportional cost to the environment.

We’re talking about the crawl budget. What is it exactly?

To rank websites, Google uses robots that “crawl” the Web to look for changes and to understand your site. They download text and multimedia from your website to do this, so you can see how quickly it can get out of hand.

With billions of websites around and a lot of spam, crawling has its limits. This means that at some point, Google might decide not to crawl your website – for a number of reasons. How to avoid that, at least to an extent? The usual suspects: a lean and green website, with a great user experience – which is what we’ll cover next.

Offer a wonderful experience to people

We’ll go back to green technology, but this is too important to put it lower down the list. A surprising number of websites are a pain to browse. It’s almost as if user experience is a fad to them.

But a wonderful experience isn’t just the on-site UX. It’s a broad subject which also touches the ways people discover your site. We’re talking about SEO, social media, paid ads, and so on.

Google introduced the Helpful Content update for a reason. They want people to be less frustrated with the Google search results. The update was their next step to cut down on low-quality content and websites with poor experience. Even though there are new methods to filter out the bad websites, the mantra stays the same: be helpful and relevant, with good user experience.

Optimise your images properly

A sustainable website starts with the tech, and optimising images is the easiest thing you can do. You’ll only need free tools and a flexible content management system, which is the expectation these days.

Compressing images will have the biggest impact on your website. This reduces the size of files, meaning it loads faster for people, takes up less space and consumes less energy and data (yes, that’s still a thing). What’s not to like?

Well, in some cases, you might frown upon the quality. But that’s rare. So what exactly is compression if it can reduce the quality? And how to make sure your compressed images are flawless? Here’s one example of what compression can look like.

Let’s take an image that is 1000 pixels wide and 1000 pixels high. In total, that image has a million pixels. You can imagine that with that number, a lot of the pixels will have similar colours. Each unique colour is a piece of information that takes up space and increases the file size. Compression approximates the nearby pixels with very similar colours and averages them out, often cutting down from a dozen of colours to just one.

Then, it cuts out any other data that might not be useful. Image files often include information about the camera, or even the place where the picture was taken. We don’t need any of that.

In the end, you can save as much as 70% of the file size using compression alone. But that’s not the only thing you can do. Learn more in our full guide to optimising website images, where you’ll also learn about the exact settings to use when compressing images.

90% of web development changes are not beneficial – test them

Only one in ten website experiments brings a positive change to the business.

Eight out of ten will retain the status quo, and another one in ten will be detrimental to your business. The conclusion comes from a large data set at Harvard Business School, as explained by professor Stefan Thomke in “Experimentation Works”.

When changing things on a hunch, 90% of the time you’ll waste your resources. Your and the planet’s. So while split testing requires a fair amount of traffic and conversions, you should always consider some testing methods before launching changes. Depending on the feature, there’s a host of website user testing methods – both moderated and unmoderated.

Do this especially for videos!

Videos increase conversions… or do they? There’s a ton of case studies showing that they do. But that’s not always the case, and the performance and sustainability tradeoff can be significant. Test it first!

Green hosting is still the foundation

There are a few more tech aspects to go through later, but this one is… evergreen, no pun intended.

No amount of optimisation will make your site green if your hosting doesn’t use renewable energy. Some platforms get a “green certificate” for being carbon neutral thanks to offsetting. While important, offsetting isn’t truly sustainable – more on that later.

For now, double-check if your hosting is using renewable energy. It’s not always possible for them to go 100% green, but most platforms will have detailed breakdowns of the energy usage. You might need to ask for them, but it’s becoming increasingly popular to make them available to the public.

But what about the types of hosting? Should you use shared platforms or get a dedicated server? Unfortunately, it depends. Shared hosting has technical disadvantages but it can also offer worse performance. On the other hand, renting an underutilised server just for your website can be quite wasteful. The differences are marginal here, but every little counts.

For the most part, you’ll be okay using shared hosting – but make sure to get a second opinion on the pros and cons, especially if you already need to switch to green hosting.

Keep your website accessible

Millions of people with disabilities browse the Internet every single day. What is their experience when using your site? Try using your site with a screen reader, without a mouse pointer, or with no sound.

What does it have to do with sustainability? People who can’t use your site will go elsewhere to find the service or information. These might not be “your” emissions, but your also responsible for them.

If you’re skeptical, designing for accessibility first helped humans invent some of the key appliances we rely on to this day. Two notable examples include the typewriter and the telephone.

Use the right content management system

Choosing a sustainable CMS often flies under the radar. We’ve mentioned that sustainability is also reflected in the efficiency of workflows adjacent to the website. Your content management system is the most obvious part of the puzzle.

We don’t have to preach to the choir. Being able to edit things on the fly, without requesting development work, is the best use of your resources. It’s common for companies to redesign websites because their CMS is hard to manage, which speaks volumes.

There are even more factors to highlight here. As an example, you can’t easily migrate out of some platforms. That doesn’t say “sustainability”, does it?

But we wanted to highlight one technical aspect, and it’s using the CMS or the website template “for everyone”. While these are getting better and better, most of the time you’re getting a ton of bloated code and unnecessary features that load in the background. And if they don’t, your admin interface is still cluttered by all the extra things you don’t need. No matter which way you look at it, there’s unnecessary complexity involved.

With some content management systems, you can avoid this. If we’re working with WordPress, we basically gut the entire thing out and only include the bits important for our clients. The WordPress bloat rarely affects the end users, but it’s detrimental to the experience of editors and administrators.

How to keep your code clean?

This will be the toughest thing to ensure, especially for smaller and non-tech businesses.

The first thing you should do is ask your agency about their process for deploying changes. Here’s a high-level overview of how we do it:

  1. Take the requirements from you (usually as a problem statement, not a proposed solution)
  2. Validate the business case of the requirements
  3. Establish success metrics
  4. Test a simple prototype (sometimes this is optional)
  5. Implement the MVP
  6. Have a second developer validate the code & make adjustments if needed
  7. Quality assurance
  8. Run automated tests to see if the code meets programming & platform standards
  9. Preview the new feature
  10. Double-check QA
  11. Launch the new feature
  12. QA on the live website
  13. Measure the impact

On top of that, number 5 contains several other steps, such as developing and testing locally, checking for technical debt, and more. But that’s too detailed.

Our list is not the only way to get things right, and it’s entirely possible to follow it to the dot and still produce messy code. However, you should be able to compare the typical agency approach to the above list and see the first orange flags if multiple steps are missing.

The second thing to watch out for is the aforementioned technical debt. Do you ever talk about it with your developers? If not, this is a good indicator of the quality of the code.

Using cache and Content Delivery Networks (CDN)

Have you even worked with websites if you didn’t have something break only to hear “it’s because of cache”? That’s half serious, of course. Caching has tremendous benefits to performance and saving data – and in turn, making your site more sustainable.

Cache saves parts of your site so that you don’t have to load it the next time. It happens locally on your device, but also on remote servers. Mobile phones have exceptionally aggressive caching policies since you’ll often use them with limited data transfer available. Disable caching on your phone and you might chew through your monthly data plan within a week or two. Not to mention the slow loading.

Many hosting platforms come with caching enabled by default, but in some rare configurations, you might not have access to caching at all. Make sure it’s covered by a third-party solution if that’s the case.

Content Delivery Networks aim to do the same thing, just all over the world. Imagine hosting a global website in New York and having people from all over the world access it. This would be a nightmare for loading times, often exceeding ten seconds per page.

CDNs effectively cache the website content on servers all over the planet, and then they connect users to the nearest cached server. This is also a common solution these days, but it’s not included by default as often. On some budget hosting platforms, it might come as a premium, or you might need to manually enable it. Many people won’t know that they need to do it, saving the host money, while keeping the optics of “CDN is included in the price”.

Consolidate your tools

These days, it’s easy to get caught up in subscriptions. New tools pop up every other day, and some of them are fantastic. Is it really possible to resist the temptation to use them?

We’re fans of specialising and wouldn’t recommend one tool that does “everything”, but fragmentation isn’t the way to go either. We’ve seen companies pay for multiple landing page tools. This was a nightmare to manage across their teams and came at a huge cost to consolidate the tools after years of use.

Are there similar overlaps in your technology? Get rid of them to unlock more budget and optimise your workflows.

As a last resort, offset your emissions

It’s hard to estimate the carbon emissions of your website. Ecologists always recommend “reducing” first, but if you’ve run out of options after reading this article, planting trees or getting rid of plastic in the oceans still works.

How green is your website?

If you’re struggling to make your website green, we have a non-profit initiative, World With Web. Our goal is to give website managers actionable insight on how to make your website more sustainable.

Instead of calculating emissions and collecting money to plant trees, we tell you exactly how to reduce the impact of your site. We use benchmarking tools to assist the process, but the report is manual and fully bespoke – written and sent to your inbox by a member of our team.

Originally published Jul 24, 2023 12:29:17 PM, updated November 13 2023.

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