The following is an excerpt from my latest book, Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services, available from O’Reilly Media. The book outlines how to bring sustainability practices into the process of building websites, mobile apps, and other digital products. The internet emits nearly a billion tons of greenhouse gases every year. Most of our data is powered by fossil fuels. Through practices like green hosting and sustainable UX, designers, developers, product managers, and content strategists can all play a significant role in curbing emissions generated by our collective online activities.
Designing for Sustainability includes a chapter dedicated to content strategy and how to make your content relevant, findable, and hence more sustainable. This is an excerpt from that chapter.
Content can’t serve its intended purpose if it can’t be found. We have all been there: You need a piece of information quickly, so you pull out your phone, type some keywords into a search engine and are rewarded with 3.76 million results, only a few of which offer the information you need. You spend a few minutes bouncing from result to result not getting the right answer—rarely moving to page two of the results unless you have to—perhaps instead refining your criteria and running another search. All the while, you’re burning electricity: on the frontend as you pore over results; on the backend as you run multiple searches. But should you really care about that?
Back in 2009, Google noted that a typical search is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO₂. By its own admission, “The average car driven for 1 kilometer produces as many greenhouse gases as a thousand Google searches.” So the impact of a single search is minuscule. But consider that, according to Internet Live Stats (as of this writing), Google processes about 2 trillion searches per year—the Jevons paradox in action once again. That’s still potentially 240,000 annual metric tons of CO2 generated by one search engine, which is nowhere near the impact of the more than 1.2 billion vehicles on the road—each emitting about 4 tons of CO2 annually—but still significant. When we talk about minimizing greenhouse gases, every little bit helps.
Now, Google claims that it’s been carbon-neutral since 2007, so presumably the CO2 produced by all Google searches has been either offset or powered by renewable energy, which is a great thing. What Google’s numbers don’t likely take into account is all that time you spend bouncing from search result to search result trying to find the information you need. That burns electricity, too. A lot of it.
The philosophy here for sustainability is the same as in Chapter 3: the easier your content is to find, the less electricity is burned on the frontend. Although sorting and categorizing all the Internet’s websites might be Google’s problem, making sure people can find your own content is yours. Search marketing (including SEO) and social media marketing are two ways by which you can get your content in front of the right people at the right time.
But it only begins at finding content. After that content is discovered, it’s equally important that your content be compelling, answer questions quickly without barriers, and help people make more sustainable choices. In other words, if someone wants to purchase a water bottle from your site, for example, how can you help them make clear choices quickly and incentivize them to choose a less impactful shipping option? Or what if they have general questions that could easily be answered by an FAQ page? Good content practices—strategy, information architecture, optimization, measurement, and so on—can help.
When I asked him about SEO and sustainability, Andy Crestodina noted that saving visitors time and saving data center energy are one and the same. “True SEO is about cooperating with a search engine to help people get to the right answer quickly and efficiently,” Andy says. “The goal is to create a page with a complete, detailed answer that ranks for a relevant phrase. This means visitors who find the page are likely to stay, find answers to their questions, and complete their goal. It’s inefficient, both for energy and time, to try ranking a page that doesn’t answer the question completely.”
So, does that mean search engine-conscious content creators shouldn’t use keyphrases anymore? No, but it does mean that they’re not the only thing to consider. First and foremost, as Andy said, focus on quality. Many other factors—such as social media, user reviews, local citations, inbound links, and so on—also factor into how a page finds its rightful place on the internet.
Plus, keywords are still relevant for your own purposes in thinking about common content themes and topics you want to cover, for taxonomy (organizing content and potentially navigation), and for things like AdWords campaigns. After all, when someone asks you what your content is all about, you can no doubt tell them quickly: somewhere in that answer lies a keyphrase or two. Plus, it can also be helpful to know if the topics you write about are also popular topics that many others write about: the more popular a topic, the more difficult it will be to rank for terms associated with it. In SEO parlance, these have historically been known as broad-head and long-tail keywords, and are an indicator of ranking difficulty for your content topics.
Dr. Pete Markiewicz notes that long-tail keywords—those that have lower search volume but are generally more specific—are more sustainable. “You’re uniting very scattered audiences at low search cost to sell products and services that would be prohibitively expensive to do otherwise (e.g., Orphan Drugs). In other words, SEM with long tail is more sustainable than SEM with popular keywords.”
Moz’s Keyword Explorer can help you discover and prioritize the best keywords to target.
Keywords and phrases play a role when optimizing page tags, as well. However, for the keyword description metadata (where SEOs of yore used to stuff every keyword they could), not so much. That said, there are some practical places to optimize a page for a relevant keyphrase; however, make sure you do this after writing the best possible piece on the internet for your topic (as discussed earlier in this chapter).
Here are some places where keywords and phrases still have relevance within a page.
That snippet of copy that appears on a search engine results page can make or break whether a user clicks through to your page. It should be clear, contain your ranking keyword, and be no longer than 155 characters.
Keep it short and sweet (55 characters or less) and use your page’s primary keyphrase.
Your H1 and H2 tags advise a search engine that the content within them is important and are great places to include keywords.
Include the keyphrase you plan to rank for at least once in the page’s URL. Make sure it also describes what the page is actually about in a way that will be helpful to real users.
Yup, you probably included keywords and phrases in the body of your content without realizing it. They typically appear more frequently in content than other words or phrases.
Including descriptive keywords in alt tags for your images not only helps search engines but also assists people with disabilities.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, any place where keywords or phrases are read by users should sound natural and not obvious. Always make it human-friendly before robot-friendly.
No conversation about sustainable search is complete without mentioning your site’s own internal search engine. If you don’t have one or if site visitors can’t use it to find what they need quickly because it is not properly configured, you are not only doing your users a disservice, but also wasting energy. This might seem like a no-brainer, but you might be surprised at how much customization is required to get an out-of-the-box search plug-in for WordPress or Drupal module to behave intuitively for your unique content needs.
Does your onsite search engine require a translator? Make sure the results it sends to users are relevant to their queries.
Here are some questions to answer:
If your on-site search engine can’t perform these tasks, you’re frustrating users and wasting time and energy.
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