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Creating a Responsible, Earth-Friendly Website

bamboo trees in forestAccording to a stellar new report by Greenpeace, internet and IT services comprise approximately 2% of all carbon emissions — or approximately the same as that of the aviation sector. In other words, those crowded lanes in the sky are putting out as much carbon as the cable beneath our roads.

In the report, the authors point out that while there have been some improvements (and Apple comes out smelling great with a 100% Clean Energy Index), for a number of internet behemoths like Facebook and eBay, there is much to be done if we want to stay ahead of a sustainable growth curve.

The Internet is Expected to Continue Its Growth Trajectory

According to Doug Webster, Vice President of product and solutions marketing at Cisco “Cisco’s VNI Forecast once again showcases the seemingly insatiable demand for bandwidth around the globe and provides insights into the architectural considerations necessary to deliver on the ever-increasing experiences being delivered. With more and more people, things, processes and data being connected to the Internet of Everything, the intelligent network and the service providers who operate them are more relevant than ever.”

Highlights from Cisco’s Visual Networking Index:

  • By 2017, there will be about 3.6 billion internet users – more than 45% of the world’s projected population.
  • In 2012, there were 2.3 billion internet users – about 32% of the world’s population.
  • By 2017, there will be more than 19 billion global network connections, up from 12 billion in 2013.
  • By 2017, the non-PC share of Internet traffic will grow to 46% from 26% in 2012.

In its report, Greenpeace goes on to summarize: “From music and video to communications and mail, more and more of our ‘offline’ world is moving online. We can expect that trend to continue and accelerate as the global online population reaches 50% of the world’s projected population.”

All of this leads to one conclusion: In the short term, the Internet has helped offset carbon emissions through greater connectivity leading to less travel worldwide. However, access in the long-term will demand as much if not more energy to keep the infrastructure sound and safe. And we need to keep our sites, tools, and applications online as green as possible if we expect to have a chance at reducing carbon emissions.

So how do we create a more sustainable web? How can we design our internet lives and websites to minimize, if not negate, our impact? And what can designers, marketers, and web serfs do to keep it green?

There is one basic premise on which everyone seems to agree when designing any website and especially a green one – Keep It Simple. This was always one of the most basic rules to follow from day one. When I designed my first (and crappy) website in 1995, the web forced us to keep it simple. There wasn’t much we even could do. And in 2001, designer Steve Krug wrote the book on KISS – called Don’t Make Me Think (and now in its third edition). These principles of design are still highly relevant to all digital interfaces not only for ease of use and human engagement but also in determining energy consumption that powers our online behaviours.

Don’t Repeat Past Mistakes in Designing for the Web

Given the increase in bandwidth and speeds over the last ten years, many designers and developers ignored the ‘KISS’ principle. Flash scripts created bulky downloads. Larger and larger images are currently used to showcase product lines. Massive JavaScript libraries are being served to control features and functions on websites, often with varying success. Slideshows of large images can create performance slowdowns, making users wait for information and forcing servers to use unnecessary energy.  (Our own homepage featured heavy images requiring large downloads; this is something we addressed in the past few weeks.)

The euphoric response by designers and developers to faster online speeds have made websites bigger (or heavier, when thinking about data and performance). This might have been fine if billions of internet users hadn’t also been added to the mix — straining networks, demanding additional infrastructure, and consuming more energy.

Three Reasons (As If One Isn’t Enough) for Increasing Site Performance

First, heavier, more complex content requires additional infrastructure, bandwidth and energy to move data from point A (a server) to point B (your device). With more people using mobile devices to connect, speed is at a premium.

Second, as noted earlier, a greener web will create less carbon emissions and a healthier planet for all of us.

Finally, Google and other search providers are starting to prioritize the rank of those sites that are speedy. There may come a time when a bandwidth-heavy site will be penalized in search results.

The hard and wonderful reality is this: Mobile performance, green web design, and SEO are all interconnected.

We need to return to a simpler and bandwidth-conscious time. We know that lots of data-consuming animation doesn’t get a visitor’s attention but great content and design does.

Simple Recommendations for Greening Your Site

Without further ado, here are five simple recommendations that just about everyone agrees to make your website a greener place.

Clean out the closet: Sites can and should be regularly updated. We need and want new content. The bi-product of these updates, however, can be a clutter of old and unused files. These files might include out-of-date photos, videos, or pages that have been retired, and other media that are just sitting around doing nothing. Removing these old files frees up space on a server reducing the energy needed to maintain that storage.

Lighten the load. Avoid dark colours in your website design. In the olden days of CRT screens, many designers recommended using darker colours or black backgrounds as they required less electricity. Today, LCD screens run most efficiently with a lighter color palette. Of note, CRTs use about 200% more energy than a comparable LCD screen, so if you haven’t already, upgrading your monitor will dramatically help lighten the energy load.

Smaller is better. Use optimized files and smaller images to get your point across. No need to stage a Broadway production on your home page. With faster speeds and improved connectivity, many designers were enticed to use bigger, better, and brighter images and longer videos. Unfortunately, this reaction comes at a high-energy cost. According to Harvard University physicist and award-winning scientist and entrepreneur, Dr. Alex Wissner-Gross, viewing a basic web page generates about 20 milligrams of CO2 per second. Videos and large images increase the amount of CO2 per second to 300 mg. So, let’s all agree to leave those fancy JavaScript intros behind. And, when possible, we should work to optimize large images to decrease page load and energy usage. (The image above is a hefty 348K. Not small. But it’s also optimized at 60 JPEG. We’re doing our best here.)

Speed up your site. Optimize pages and images to increase download speed. Web developers of large sites should utilize CDN networks to distribute content closer to the end-user. CDN networks (not shorthand for Canadian social engagements) are an interconnected system of servers located in various geographies. When someone wants to download a website from a faraway land, a CDN will send the request to the closest server and speed up delivery times. It’s just like the pony express but it’s on the World Wide Web. It is estimated that CDNs can save up to 18% in energy use over conventional data-centers.

Choose a green energy hosting company. Web hosting companies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are more committed than others to energy efficiency. For example, some companies locate large servers in hot climates. These servers will utilize more energy to cool than servers in more northern locations (like Canada).

To help understand some of the differences between web hosting companies, Manoverboard commissioned Third Partners, a full-service sustainability advisory firm in New York, to produce a research assessment of the environmental merits of several hosting and data center providers. We are a web design and development firm based in Winnipeg, Canada, and a Certified B Corporation. Part of our mandate: “To meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.”

At Manoverboard, we seek to help our clients evaluate the environmental performance of their web hosting choices, so we are making this research available on request. You can download your free copy here.

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