This guest blog is written by Jasmine Nehme, who heads up her own digital consultancy, Middle of Nowhere. Jasmine specialises in using a holistic and integrated approach to help charities, agencies and businesses achieve strategic goals in a sustainable way. She also works as part of the Zoe Amar Digital team, as well as on the Zoe Amar Digital website and the Charity Digital Skills Report website. Here, Jasmine takes us through some simple ways to achieve web sustainability holistically.
We rely on the internet more now than ever and our reliance is constantly increasing. The pandemic pushed us even further into living in an always online world. We now use the internet for everything from work to social connection to getting groceries and medicine.
As technology progresses, we also use increasingly large files, especially as online content trends move towards hefty media formats like video. Of course, the more we do online, the more energy we use to power the internet. If the internet was a country, it would soon become the world’s 4th largest polluter – by 2025, it will only be surpassed by the US, China and India!
So, what if I told you there’s a range of practical things you can do to not only make your website greener, but improve your search engine rankings, user experience and save you time and money? Sound interesting? Then read on for an overview of some simple steps to help you achieve these multiple goals holistically.
1. Green web hosting
Let’s be honest, most people buy web hosting and then never think about it again, renewing the same contract year after year. But choosing a web hosting service that runs its servers on renewable energy rather than fossil fuels means the electricity powering your website is hurting the planet way less. Some green web hosts also work to become climate positive through initiatives like tree planting, as well as implementing green policies and practices internally to ensure their own impact on the environment is kept to a minimum.
2. Local web hosting or CDN (Content Delivery Network)
Think about where your web server is based and where it’s trying to reach. The further your data needs to travel, the more energy it uses, the slower your site is and the lower you rank in search engine results.
If your audience is based in the UK, you probably don’t want hosting based in the US. If your audience is based in a specific country, you might want hosting there. Or, you could implement a CDN (Content Delivery Network) – these store your website content on local servers around the world, so when people visit you, they get sent the content from the server closest to them. CDNs also help with your site speed in general, which helps you rank better in search engine results (SEO) and improves user experience (UX) for your audience, keeping them engaged.
3. Optimise your server
If your server is in the right place and it’s powered by renewables, what next? Optimise, optimise, optimise! Your server ‘stack’ consists of various software installed on your server, all working together to help your website run. The choice of software, the software configuration or potentially adding some software, can help it run better, faster and more efficiently.
Not only can this save energy and speed up the website on the frontend, helping your SEO and improving your audience’s experience – it can also speed up the website for your internal staff, saving you time, money and resources. Speak to your web host or web maintenance person to get advice on the best options for you.
Website caching is essentially a process that saves a copy of your site’s content and delivers it directly to your audience when they load your site. This means your server doesn’t have to do all the work loading the page itself every single time. Taking this extra workload off the server speeds things up a lot, using less energy and providing all the benefits previously mentioned.
There are lots of caching options: browser caching saves your content in the audience’s browser, CDNs (mentioned earlier) save it on local servers and server-side caching allows a program on the server to handle all the heavy lifting so the server doesn’t have to. For optimal web sustainability, you might want to try all three.
5. Keep unnecessary ‘stuff’ to a minimum
In real life, we try to live more sustainably by cutting down waste, recycling and using less – it’s the same with your website. The more you have on it, the more energy it uses and the slower it goes. Keeping your website as lean as possible, relying on built-in features and using cleanly-coded design also helps prevent weird interactions and bugs that you might end up paying someone else to sort out later.
Keeping your website simple also means you and your staff will have an easier time trying to find things and get some actual work done on the backend, again saving you time and money. Ask yourselves – do we really need that WordPress plugin? Could we maybe use a smaller image file? Can we at least delete the stuff we’re not even using?
6. Staff roles and processes
A huge problem with website performance and web sustainability, especially in terms of those using a CMS (Content Management System), is internal staff culture. Lacking clear roles and processes for what happens on your website often results in deteriorating website health over time. As various people innocently, yet chaotically, log on, do stuff and add things, your website slowly becomes a big clunky mess and nobody can even remember how they got here or what that thing they added was actually for.
In the spirit of point 5, keep who goes on the site and what they’re allowed to do to a minimum. Ideally, have one experienced website person or team in charge of the site, overseeing and keeping track of all necessary changes. If you must allow other staff on the site, always ensure they’re given proper training and documentation on what processes to follow by someone who is more experienced. It’s also useful to have a process for deciding whether something should even be added.
7. Maintenance, love and care
Your website is the main hub of your online presence – don’t neglect it. Like relationships and plants, your website needs consistent tender loving care in order for you to get the best out of it. In the chaos of your day-to-day, where you’re constantly putting out fires at work and juggling with competing priorities, it’s easy to forget that your website needs an update, but regular maintenance is integral to sustainability.
Out-of-date software doesn’t just affect performance, it also exposes you to potential security threats and often creates bugs, which will slow you down even more and cost you money to fix. Allowing this to build up over time means your site just gets older and older. Eventually it’ll get so old that it becomes unusable and you’ll probably just give up and pay an expensive agency to make you a whole new one, starting the cycle again! Save yourself the headache later and commit to small, regular updates and checks that you can do right now.
8. Cornerstone content
You may or may not have heard various marketers going on about cornerstone content, or hero content. The concept is essentially having foundational online content that focuses on the main aims of your organisation and brings in the bulk of your website traffic. What they often fail to mention, though, is that it’s also hugely beneficial to sustainability.
A common trap people fall into is feeling like they have to constantly post more content on their website, while also feeling like they have no idea if it’s even useful or really achieving what they want it to. Keeping things lean is important for web sustainability, but what it also helps is organisational sustainability.
Focusing on cornerstone content, rather than filler content, helps your staff feel like their work is meaningful and makes a real difference, while reducing the unnecessary workload on their shoulders. Ultimately, it saves you time, money and resource, which can in turn be spent on more quality work rather than being wasted on quantity. It’s the renewable cornerstone content cycle!
The 2022 Charity Digital Skills Report told us that only 56% of charities actually have a digital strategy in place. I’d wager that a lot of us who do have them (both digital and organisational), tend to work on them once every few years, then either totally forget about them and leave them to gather dust, or we don’t actually know how to implement them efficiently and so don’t get the results we were hoping for.
Strategy doesn’t have to be huge, broad and overwhelming. It can actually be an incredibly powerful tool for sustainability. Like cornerstone content, you can use strategy to focus your resources in the most efficient way possible and greatly reduce waste. Strategy isn’t just high-level, it’s also granular, it’s day-to-day, it’s routine. Strategy is holistic – it’s everywhere.
Figure out your high-level goals, then shape your staff roles and projects around them in a practical way. Rather than just piling ‘strategy stuff’ onto people as yet another project on their never-ending to-do list, holistically centre day-to-day responsibilities on simple, strategically-relevant, actionable tasks like those in this list.
That way, every day, everyone on your team makes a small, meaningful difference. You’re one step closer to creating the change you want to see in the world, rather than slowing yourself and your team down by getting distracted by unnecessary, unhelpful workloads.
10. Get help from the experts
There’s a lot here to process. And it’s just the start! If you’re not sure where to begin or you feel overwhelmed by it all, don’t worry – at Zoe Amar Digital, we’re here to help.
Need help working on a strategy? Want to make your website better? Not sure how to sort out staff roles and responsibilities to optimise digital? Just get in touch – we’d love to hear from you.
(P.S. On that note – we really do want to hear from you – especially about where your charity is at with digital. If you have 20 minutes to spare and want a chance to win £800 in unrestricted funding*, check out the Charity Digital Skills Report survey today!)
* £800 in unrestricted funding only applicable to organisations with an annual income of up to £1 million.