We've got a new website! It's built on old technologies...
How getting slightly too obsessed with our website's carbon footprint made it better for everyone. And when to stop.
A month ago I came across a note on the New Adventures conference website that talked about its climate impact. Not just the impact of the conference itself but the impact of the actual website. That ethereal software, the web, the “don’t print this email”, the “don’t drive but have a video chat”, the clean digital ecosystem completely separate from the harmful real world. Surely all that stuff caused no harm? Turns out it does. Oops.
Here we are making software for conservation and the environment. What if we’re also causing harm by doing just that? What if writing this blog post about climate change, staring at a beautifully bright high definition screen plugged into the internet, or later making popular data-churning apps that people will spend time flicking through and sharing is part of the problem?
I panicked. I clicked through to a website carbon footprint calculator and found our score was dreadful. I spent hours in the middle of the night trying everything to get our score lower (while plugged into the internet, staring at a beautifully bright high definition screen). I constantly refreshed the network resources panel when our website loaded and watched the numbers drop as I tweaked. And drop. And drop…
Sleeplessness aside, it was a fun challenge. I’ve loved doing performance tweaks for years: I personally entered the A List Apart “10k Apart” competition some years ago with a ten kilobyte social network art project; cutting down load and processing times for our clients is one of my favourite things (we recently built our own caching system for a client and improved speed by more than 50%); I even love condensing my code to super-abstract, fast, recursive one line functions (my team understandably hate it so I’m trying to tone this down a bit). Optimisation is fun. It has a clear goal. Getting rid of things is hard but it’s a welcome change from building new ones.
I ended up making a HUGE improvement on our score. I optimised everything, compressed and converted images, changed our nginx server configuration, cached everything… then it started getting silly.
Do we need that font? That stylesheet? That illustration? Must. Cut. Everything. But the gains were at that point fairly small and (yes, at around 4am) I decided it was probably time to leave it before I end up with a website that is super fast but has nothing on it. I’d probably done enough.
It reminded me of similar time spent on web accessibility and code documentation. All the tasks that usually get cut out of projects because of budget.
Did speeding up our website improve our impact on the environment? Maybe?
Did it improve our search engine optimisation? Yes it did.
Did it improve usability for all our visitors? Yes.
Did it make the site more maintainable by cutting out unnecessary parts? Yes.
Did I learn a lot of things that I can reuse on other projects? Yes!
How about accessibility? That added extra that should never be treated as such. Something that should sit at the very foundations of everything this industry does. Does that have any added benefits apart from the obvious ones of giving everyone access and treating them equally? Turns out it does!
As shown wonderfully in two great books (by Heydon Pickering, and Laura Kalbag) accessibility on the web is often simply a matter of writing good meaningful HTML. Use the correct HTML tags in the correct way and your website works pretty well for everyone. Oh, and that includes robots like search engines.
Cue pink flashing inaccesible text in a 1GB font download:
There is little you can do to improve your SEO more than making your site accessible and fast.
Don’t care about the climate? Don’t care about people with disabilities and access requirements? That’s pretty horrible, why don’t you do it for you and help them at the same time? Can’t persuade your manager / funder to fund those things? How about you tell them it’ll improve your search rankings and how long people spend on your site?
It reminds me of probably the best cartoon on the subject of climate change, Joel Pett’s “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”
Regardless of whether making our website have a low carbon footprint made a difference to the environment, it made a big difference to us and every visitor. Maybe you should look at your own website’s score and do the same?