Sustainable SEO: Processes and Practices
In this post, we explore how to design a sustainable SEO strategy that meets your organization’s marketing needs while also considering the broader social and environmental ramifications of search.
Digital marketers strive to set and achieve KPIs that help organizations thrive in an increasingly competitive search landscape. Oftentimes, relentlessly focusing on growth creates a gap between organizational capacity and long-term marketing goals. Plus, the digital waste created by unused or outdated marketing data increases emissions and makes data centers the virtual equivalent of landfills. But this doesn’t need to be the case.
With the ongoing challenges that search poses, sustainability principles can help marketers forge effective, responsible, and resilient digital strategies that stand the test of time. Let’s explore how.
Designing More Sustainable Search Marketing Practices
First, sustainable SEO strategies are grounded in the idea that your efforts should:
- Provide measurable benefits to target communities, helping them find information they need quickly and without barriers.
- Achieve organizational marketing goals efficiently with a focus on quality over quantity.
- Drive processes that can be realistically measured and maintained over time through continuous improvement.
- Reduce the amount of data collected and stored.
- Minimize marketing’s impact on people and the planet, taking steps to reduce negative effects where possible.
Additionally, more sustainable SEO strategies tackle important questions such as:
- How should we balance the need to consistently produce good content with limitations imposed by organizational resources?
- Are my search marketing efforts reaching the right audience and helping them to make better decisions and more sustainable choices?
- What should we do with old or otherwise outdated content to maintain relevance?
- Do I need to hold onto search data from seven years ago? Or even three?
- How might AI and other emerging technologies help us execute search campaigns more efficiently?
This post aims to answer these questions and more. So, let’s get started.
Defining Unsustainable Search Strategies
90.63% of all pages in our index get zero traffic from Google, and 5.29% of them get ten visits per month or less…The vast majority of published pages never rank in Google and never get any search traffic. That’s why so many businesses are desperate to improve their SEO.— Tim Soulo, Ahrefs
In the past, Google has said that a single search on its platform uses as much energy as turning on a single 60W light bulb for 17 seconds, which generates about .02 g of CO2. With 8.5+ billion searches conducted per day, it’s easy—and shocking—to do the math.
Plus, while Google dominates search with a market share of around 85%, it’s not the only search engine. Microsoft’s Bing, now powered by Chat GPT, Ecosia, and a handful of others still have loyal users. Also, with the addition of generative AI and Large Language Models (LLMs) to both Google and Microsoft’s search products, the climate impact of search grows exponentially.
With that being said, both Google and Microsoft are industry leaders in transitioning their operations to renewable energy and helping people make more sustainable choices. Also, data centers are only part of the picture. The internet ecosystem includes network traffic, end user devices, and embodied emissions too, not to mention the vast amount of resources needed to build hardware, cool servers, and combat e-waste.
The Problem with Content Marketing
What’s more, some estimates claim that roughly 252,000 new websites are added to the internet daily, contributing to 328.77 million terabytes of additional data (again per day) added to databases and data centers all across the internet. That’s significant. And problematic.
Unfortunately, some of this content can be low quality, or worse, specifically published to trick search engines or spread disinformation. This compromises the internet experience for everyone.
Plus, many of these pages are often bloated with ads and trackers that undermine security and user privacy while obscuring access to answers people need. In turn, this leads to a lot of unnecessary searching and clicking, which not only frustrates people and undermines trust but also—you guessed it—contributes to the internet’s massive environmental impact.
AI, Search, and Content Marketing
Additionally, as AI and other emerging technologies make search engines increasingly better at identifying high quality content, that which showcases real human experience will inevitably rank higher.
In other words, sustainable marketing and SEO efforts must focus on the highest quality, most trustworthy and authoritative content that an organization can produce based on its experience and expertise. Anything less is contributing to the problem rather than being part of the solution.
You can influence how search engines crawl your site to improve both search and sustainability. You can also redesign your content and search marketing efforts to make your processes and practices more efficient and carbon-aware.
Elements of a Sustainable SEO Strategy
More sustainable SEO practices work within an organization’s means while also measurably meeting its goals and improving social and environmental impact. Here are several common elements that inform a more sustainable SEO strategy.
E-E-A-T stands for Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness. It is how Google describes their criteria for what constitutes helpful, relevant information—the core objective in successful search. To quickly define:
- Experience refers to the level of first-hand experience an author has on a given topic. This is the newest criteria released, in response to the influx of AI-generated content online.
- Expertise is about the depth of demonstrated knowledge on a topic, within a piece of content, or by the writer themself.
- Authoritativeness is the notion that the author is the right person to answer a question. For example, a baker might be able to explain the concept of quantum computing to you as well as a mathematician. However, they are not an authority on the topic whereas a mathematician might be.
- Trustworthiness is the cornerstone of E-E-A-T. This refers to a few things: factual accuracy, the placement and intrusiveness of ads, website security, and so on. In essence, it is an indicator of whether or not a layperson should trust you based purely on your website.
But what does this mean for your website? The essence of E-E-A-T is that you should create content on your site that is helpful, answers a question, and that comes from a qualified expert.
Beyond that, your website should be professional. It should communicate clearly who is speaking and why you should listen to them. Also, pages should use secure encryption to transfer data. Above all else, content should be written for humans, not algorithms.
Defining Stakeholder Impact
Understanding stakeholder needs within your business ecosystem is critical to better understanding their pain points and working to solve their problems. For example, UX research tactics like customer personas and journey maps help organizations align messaging and interactive features with the specific needs users and target communities have.
In turn, these efforts inform content clusters meant to solve user problems and help search engines better understand your areas of expertise. These are all important elements to designing an impactful content strategy.
Plus, because these exercises are collaborative in nature, they can also help you get stakeholder buy-in for a proposed digital marketing strategy.
Don’t Forget Secondary and Non-Human Stakeholders
However, this doesn’t mean you should ignore secondary stakeholders. While you can’t control who visits your website, you can take steps to ensure that everyone has a meaningful experience regardless of ability, gender identity, education level, economic means, and so on.
Next, and perhaps most importantly given the existential climate crisis we’re currently in, the environment is a stakeholder for every organization, albeit a non-human one. Considering the potential environmental impact of all organizational activities, including marketing, is something that every organization must embrace.
Understanding Organizational Capacity
Many organizations create SEO strategies that follow common wisdom but don’t adequately address the ability for their team to execute. For example, writing a blog post every week versus once per quarter might help you reach your goals more quickly. However, this may be impossible for some teams to achieve.
Sustainable strategies take capacity into account. Rather than fail at producing a post per week, you might consider how to make your best content work as hard as possible to meet specific goals over time.
Similarly, you don’t have to measure everything. Save time and measure only what’s most important to meet your goals. In other words, focus on quality over quantity to help you produce within capacity, which brings us to our next point.
Operational Efficiency: Quality Over Quantity
Understand the metrics that matter to your organization. Use those metrics to craft marketing strategies that focus specifically on the people you’re trying to reach. While you can’t control how many visitors come to your website, you can focus on specific needs they might have.
The goal is to simplify. Create an effective digital marketing strategy that is easy to measure, govern, and most importantly, improve upon over time. This includes devising more sustainable data strategies, which use less resources and create less waste.
However, it is also important to note that improved efficiency often leads to increased use, which results in more energy and resources needed. How might you find a good balance between the two? This is a common sustainability question.
Page and Website Optimization
Similarly, page size and data transfer rates also influence content accessibility and search performance. This is a cornerstone of sustainable web design. Modern web pages are huge. Larger than necessary pages load slowly for people in low-bandwidth areas and on older devices. They also adversely impact digital emissions.
Since the Paris Agreement in 2015, the average web page size has increased by over 70% on desktop and a whopping 140% on mobile, according to the HTTP Archive. We can see the ramifications of this when we look at current and future internet energy models. The internet already represents a substantial percentage of our global energy use each year. While reducing the size of an individual page won’t solve the climate crisis, cumulative effects add up.
Plus, page speed is a ranking factor for search engines. Faster websites rank better, simple as that. Conversely, heavy, overloaded web pages are a liability to your SEO strategy. Understanding this, the path forward is clear: optimize site pages as much as possible to improve environmental impact, user experience, and search performance.
Social Impact: Readability, Inclusive Language, Accessibility
There are several ways your search and content marketing efforts influence social impact as well:
- Improving readability makes content more easily understandable to a wider audience and improves user experience.
- This is especially helpful for people with cognitive disabilities.
- Inclusive language reduces alienation and risk.
- These elements contribute to overall search performance.
Also, people with disabilities constitute roughly 15-20% of the world’s population. Many rely on assistive technology or adaptive techniques to interact with your website. Prioritizing digital accessibility improves user experience for people with disabilities. It can also influence how search engines interpret your website.
Digital Accessibility Quick Fixes
With this in mind, here are some tactics to improve accessibility, readability, and search performance:
- Image alt text: Add descriptive alternative (alt) text to photos to help users with disabilities better understand images on a page. Assistive technologies like screen readers will speak the alt text for those who may not be able to view images. This text is also available to search engines.
- Descriptive links: When creating links, buttons, or interactive elements, use descriptive copy that provides context and helps users understand what will happen if they click a link. In other words, avoid “click here”, “read more”, and other calls-to-action that could confuse users.
- Content structure: Make sure you properly use heading tags (H1, H2, etc.) and structure content correctly. This helps search crawlers and assistive technologies interpret pages in a logical, hierarchical manner.
- Simplify copy: Making website copy simple and easy to understand helps users with cognitive disabilities more easily comprehend page content. Use short sentences, bulleted lists, and other elements that improve content readability and usability.
This should by no means constitute the full extent of your digital accessibility efforts. It’s best to audit your full site and address the issues said audit reveals. For more tips like these, check out our post on how you can get started with web accessibility today.
Align Reporting with Industry Standards
Finally, align your digital marketing strategy with impactful climate strategies. This is crucial to ensure organizational climate reporting aligns with standards, like CDP or GRI. Tools like the Web Sustainability Guidelines can help.
How This Applies to Search
When it comes to search, emissions reporting is tough to do. Tech companies don’t often make emissions data publicly available. Plus, many marketers don’t understand what they’re responsible for, especially when it comes to Scope 3 emissions, which can comprise up to 90% of an organization’s overall carbon footprint.
Plus, effective search marketing significantly influences the amount of traffic coming to your website. Analytics data can help you understand how much website traffic comes from various search channels. In turn, this can help you ascertain how much search performance influences overall website emissions.
In other words, search is an important factor for effective digital sustainability and emissions reporting that includes an organization’s digital products and services. Tools like our own Ecograder and SME Climate Hub can help with this.
AI, Experiential Content, and Sustainable SEO
The ultimate search engine would understand everything in the world. It would understand everything that you asked it, and give you back the exact right thing instantly.— Larry Page, Google
As generative AI gets better, the oversatured content market is about to become even more inundated with AI-produced or AI-influenced content. Differentiation in content marketing is already challenging. It’s about to get even more difficult.
However, if search engines utilize AI to improve the search experience for all users, we all stand to benefit. It is inevitable that search engines will learn to differentiate between content generated by AI versus E-E-A-T content based on real human experience.
With that in mind, writing about hands-on, human experiences will become an even more meaningful content marketing differentiator. Lean into this.
AI can do many things humans can do. It will become more capable with time. However, generative AI does not have human experiences. Organizations that lean into their experiences through content will benefit as AI takes over a large portion of content generation.
Sustainable SEO for a Better Internet
When people find information quickly and without barriers, everyone wins, including the planet. By aligning your organization’s goals with responsible search marketing practices that embrace sustainability and the potential of AI-powered search, you can thrive while also helping stakeholders meet their needs.
After reading this article, what strategies might you need to evolve in order to enable more sustainable SEO efforts within your organization? Still have questions? Feel free to reach out to us.
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