Marketers need to pull their weight on making search sustainable
Marketers should be assessing how they can fine-tune site management, server choices, and digital operations for greater green good.
The illusion of ‘clean’ digital has long since shattered. Following reports that devices, back-end systems, and the web drive around 4% of global greenhouse gases, it’s clear everything we do carries its own carbon load – especially larger scale activities, such as online search.
Exact emissions can be hard to define. In 2009, Google estimated each search fuelled 0.2g of CO2 equivalent; driving the impact of two trillion annual queries to 400,000 tonnes. More recent research suggests searches may weigh in at 0.01kg, based on 47,000 average requests driving 400kg in CO2 per second. Either way, however, there is one key conclusion for brand marketers: they need greener ways of boosting online visibility.
With consumers extremely unlikely to ditch their digital habits, high rankings remain vital for strong awareness and engagement. But the need for change is growing. While part of this will involve significant infrastructure overhauls from site owners and internet providers, there are also many ways marketers can pull their weight on making search sustainable.
Lightening the web crawling load
Over a decade ago, Google was among the earliest players to start exploring ways of reducing emissions, including cooling its servers with outside air. Now, the tech giant is looking at steps that may directly affect search engine optimisation (SEO) activity and online content creators of all varieties; with focus specifically centred on web crawlers.
The two main crawler types, Discover and Refresh, have a shared basic purpose: scanning site content to find pages for indexing. But it’s their key difference that poses the biggest digital pollution issue. Although running crawlers to identify new content is key, returning to pages and checking for updates — and using more energy — arguably isn’t quite so crucial. Google’s plan to limit Refresh crawls therefore makes environmental sense, but it will have notable impacts, particularly for large enterprise-scale sites.
With pages reviewed less frequently, changes made throughout the day may not be indexed; meaning they have a smaller chance of displaying in response to queries and fuelling traffic.
There is, however, scope for site owners to help reduce the workload for crawlers and boost the likelihood of indexing for core pages by cleaning up sites. Conducting a robust audit will allow them to pinpoint and adjust any content adding unnecessary weight, as well as wasting crawler time.
For example, cutting back surplus parameter pages by consolidating them into master pages or creating redirects for the best performing page in a category can be highly effective. Additionally, removing low value pages that haven’t driven visits or search volume in some time has similar benefits, as long as no rogue 404 pages are left behind.
Optimising for greener engines
As demand for sustainable digital services soars, planet-friendly search engines are growing; with one of the best-known being Ecosia. Donating 80% of profits to reforestation, this tool is about enabling users to do good as they search; making it an appealing prospect for ethical audiences and brands aiming to enhance exposure in the right green places.
While offsetting approaches aren’t always perfect, Ecosia’s mission to plant trees where they are needed most keeps environmental and social needs carefully balanced. Amplified by rising climate change concern, its emphasis on responsible action is gaining popularity: winning over 16 million active users and default search engine status at multiple universities. All of which means there is a fast-growing opportunity to reach increasing numbers of eco-minded users.
Moreover, size isn’t the only reason to factor Ecosia into search strategies; there are also the dual benefits of relevance and efficiency, especially for eco brands. Since audiences have made an active choice to use a dedicated green engine, marketers will already have a defined view of overall interests and the ability to engage with receptive users who are further along the funnel for eco products. On top of holding its own high environmental bar, Ecosia also rewards sites it sees as genuinely committed to saving the planet, displaying a green leaf beside eco-positive brands — and coal factories next to high polluters.
Leveraging the alternative engine together with Google can therefore be a smart move; allowing brands to achieve broad reach using Google’s mass scope, while harnessing Ecosia to enhance engagement and click-through rates (CTR) from core target users.
Answering the accountability call
Today’s consumers stand in a difficult position, keen to live out their sustainable values but often hampered by financial pressures, particularly as inflation balloons globally. Alongside the shift forwards sustainable search options, however, our own research shows this push and pull scenario has far from dampened green ambitions.
More than three in ten (37%) of consumers are searching for green retailers; highlighting that even if sustainable products are out of their affordability range now, interest is still climbing. As a result, any brand hoping to consistently capture attention must align activity with green keywords and queries, or risk losing impression share and credibility.
An integral element of that will be incorporating broader terms such as net zero and carbon neutral into campaigns. But even more important in the age of accountability — where 67% of consumers are paying more attention to the sustainable actions of brands — is illustrating commitment. For example, brands should be looking to determine what questions users are asking about their sustainability efforts and creating high-value content to answer those queries, including precise details about company practices and green initiatives.
Where do we go from here?
We’ve already seen Google curb polluting processes and develop mechanisms for choosing greener technology options, such as its Cloud Region Picker. So, it’s not impossible that the search heavyweight will go further still and build algorithms for ranking the emissions of servers and companies. Since most industry players tend to follow where Google leads, that could create a climate where search accountability is not only the norm, but more brands also feel spurred to make infrastructure choices with the environment in mind.
In the meantime, marketers need to begin proactively pulling their weight on making search activities sustainable; assessing how they can fine-tune site management, server choices, and digital operations for greater green good.
Eilish Hughes is SEO account director of independent digital performance marketing agency Tug.