The internet is one of the biggest energy consumers of our time. This includes the numerous websites that entertain us, inform us or through which we shop. More than a third of them run on the basis of WordPress and WooCommerce. That's quite a lot - and offers great potential for savings. In this article, we get to the bottom of the question: How can websites be made more sustainable with WordPress?
Everyone knows it and everyone uses it: the internet. Half of humanity is now online and diligently consumes data. Maybe you think to yourself: that's great, because it saves us the time-consuming production of books, catalogues or DVDs. Even an online meeting is much better than having to travel halfway across the country for a simple conversation, isn't it?
In principle, this is all true, but there is a catch. In the meantime, the online exchange of information has taken on huge proportions. And this requires electricity, a lot of electricity. You've probably heard this comparison: if the internet were a country, it would be in third place in terms of electricity consumption, right behind the USA and China - and the trend is rising fast.
This comparison made me think a lot. One problem with this is undoubtedly that we don't see this enormous consumption of resources at first. Everyone notices a smoking chimney or a smelly exhaust, and they know that something has to be done about this pollution. A computer or a smartphone, on the other hand, are quiet, silent and supposedly clean. But unfortunately, they are far too seldom truly green. And with the ever-growing use of clouds, video streaming and ever more elaborate websites, the "consumption" of digital technologies continues to grow silently.
At some point I asked myself what I could do to reduce my personal "data consumption". Because one thing is clear: we all use the internet. So each and every one of us - including me - can play a part in being responsible online. We can send out umpteen tweets a day, spend hours netflixing series or sending around pointless cat videos. Or we can use the internet consciously and with real added value.
If you run one or more WordPress websites yourself, you can start even earlier. You can try to make the individual websites as sustainable as possible. But how do you do that? And what influence do you have on it yourself?
How sustainable is your website?
I run several projects based on WordPress. A couple of years ago, I started to get to grips with the WordPress world. In the process, I probably fell into just about every trap WordPress has to offer, because I'm not a developer. I even use a WordPress page builder, as many do, maybe you do too?
Of course, I could now go and hire an agency to set up a customised WordPress website for me for a lot of money. Ideally, it would be well thought out down to the smallest detail and not a byte too big. But not all WordPress users can or want to afford that, just as not all WordPress agencies have a clue about sustainable development. That's why I decided to see for myself what I could do to get the best out of WordPress with simple means.
How are your websites created?
This is the first question I want to clarify with you. This is about things that you might not think about at first glance when you think about a website. But one thing is clear: a website doesn't just exist. It has to be planned, conceptualised, programmed and filled with content. All this requires work and consumes resources.
If we take a look at a few details here, there are an incredible number of ways you can make your website more sustainable even before its launch. And the best thing about it is that you can have a direct influence yourself. It's a kind of stocktaking:
- Are you based in a huge office or do you work in a small coworking space?
- Do you always have the latest hardware or do you, for example, buy your computer used or refurbished?
- Do you cook something for yourself at lunchtime from locally purchased ingredients or do you only eat convenience food from the discounter?
- Do you use conventionally generated electricity or do you have a green electricity accountplan?
You see, a lot of it relates to your general lifestyle. But that is exactly an important point. Because the way you approach things in your everyday life also flows into your hobby or your job.
Now you might be asking yourself: What does that have to do with my website? I think it has a lot to do with it. Because sustainability only works to a limited extent as a single measure. If I send my parcels in a climate-neutral way, that's of course good at first. But if I then drive home in the evening in a big SUV, that is not consistent, but rather falls into the category of "greenwashing".
How "green" do you really work as an agency or freelancer? Is it just more work or does it pay off for you? And are your measures more than just self- or client appeasement? Read our article on green marketing.
Sustainable concept for your WordPress website
If you decide to use WordPress as your content management system (CMS), then of course a few technical conditions are already set. For example, WordPress is based on the scripting language PHP, which you simply cannot change, even if there may be "leaner" alternatives. Beyond that, however, you have many possibilities to influence whether your website is a voracious data monster or a nimble information chamois.
The structure of your website
The structural design of your web projects is very important. Do your users find their way around quickly and get to the information they are looking for with just a few clicks? Or do they "wander" from one site to the next until they finally reach their destination? Your goal should be that users find what they are looking for with as few clicks as possible. Because every additional sub-page loaded is a (possibly unnecessary) data transfer, which in turn costs energy.
By the way, a clean structure is also an important SEO topic: search engines like Google love well-structured pages and will reward you with a better ranking. See the article on wp unboxed on the topic of WordPress SEO.
WordPress plugins are both a curse and a blessing. The beauty is that there is a solution for every problem in the form of a plugin. This way, you can design your website exactly the way you want it, even without programming knowledge. However, you should be very careful when choosing your plugins: Every time before you install a new plugin , answer the following question: Do I really need this extension? See the article Tips for choosing WordPress plugins.
Each additional plugin can unnecessarily inflate your website, loading more and more data each time your site is called up. This makes your site slow and is anything but sustainable. So think carefully about which functions and effects you really need. Act strictly according to the motto: as many plug-ins as necessary, as few as possible.
Develop WordPress plugins sustainably
Danny van Kooten develops the well-known WordPress plugin Mailchimp for WordPress. Through leaner development, he saved an estimated 59,000 kg of CO2 per month. How did he manage that? Read our interview Sustainable plugin development with him.
Sustainable WordPress theme
As with plugins, there is a huge choice of WordPress themes that determine the look of your website. And you have to decide which theme is right for you. Do you want it to be particularly sustainable? Then the same applies to your WordPress theme: as much as necessary, as little as possible.
Choose a theme that can do exactly what you need - and no more. Because the more features are integrated into a theme , the larger the code package becomes. WordPress developer Jack Lenox once took it to the extreme and showed how lean WordPress can be with his WordPress theme Susty. It causes a data transfer of just 6 kB. There are themes that are several MB in size, a really hefty difference.
Admittedly, Susty is already very reduced - but perhaps this minimalism is actually really cool for one or the other simple blog? But if you want something more, there are other recommendations for particularly lean and thus "sustainable" WordPress themes. For example:
- TwentyTwenty-Two, one of the WordPress standard themes
- Hello Elementor (not only in combination with Page Builder Elementor)
How does design influence sustainability?
Images, videos and fonts make up a large part of your website. If you use large-format images in maximum quality, they quickly become several megabytes in size - and thus the opposite of sustainable. It is also problematic to use countless different fonts just because you like them. The fewer fonts you use, the less data has to be loaded on each individual site .
A "sustainable" WordPress design is one that makes do with few fonts and deliberately placed graphics. When integrating videos, you should also ask yourself: Is this simply a "nice to have" or a real added value? With images, it is also very important that you think about the dimensions and the type of compression.
Compress and optimise images
As already mentioned: Reduce the size - instead of inserting photos in high quality to fill the screen - and also make sure to compress each individual image as efficiently as possible. You can have this done by a WordPress plugin . However, it would be better if you manage without it (as described at the beginning of this article). It's not that difficult: most image editing programmes allow you to compress your image files easily, quickly and automatically.
Try out different settings. This way you can find out how much you can compress without the quality suffering too much. My experience is that a lot is possible! I proceed as follows:
- I always limit the image width with Photoshop to 2,000 pixels. This is more than sufficient even for large screens.
- Then I go to "Save for Web" and select "low" for quality. The result is perfectly fine and my pictures are usually much smaller than 300 kilobytes.
- I then use the browser version of tinyPNG to squeeze the last bytes out of my files. This tool compresses very efficiently and also saves you an extraplugin.
If the last step is too stressful for you, you can also integrate tinyPNG as WordPress plugin. Images optimised in this way are a good basis.
Next, you should take a look at your "thumbnails". When you upload an image to WordPress, it is saved in different sizes called "thumbnails". Some are WordPress default, others are set by your theme. And often you don't need them all. For example, it is conceivable that your themestores thumbnails for a WooCommerce shop that you never use if you do not run a shop.
So it would be a very good idea if WordPress only created the thumbnails you need, wouldn't it? Of course, the ideal would be a theme that is tailored to your needs. But you can also influence which thumbnails WordPress saves. See the instructions on image files and thumbnails at wp unboxed.
If you are setting up a new WordPress website, I recommend that you keep things in order from the start. Because if you install plugins mindlessly and upload images on spec, it will end up in chaos at some point. Many plugins store endless amounts of data in your WordPress database without removing it when you delete plugin . The tidier and leaner you are, the better. The tidier and leaner your WordPress system is, the faster it runs and the more sustainable it is. Even if it's sometimes hard, be consistently tidy and clean up your system regularly.
What if the chaos is already there?
I did not heed this tip at first. At some point, huge amounts of data had accumulated (apparently "just like that") from unused images, old backups and Gallery plug-ins that had long since fallen into disuse. So it didn't help: I had to pull myself together and spend days tidying up. In the end, I was able to delete several gigabytes of data from my web space!
Maybe your WordPress website has also been growing for years, along with your experience and skills. And maybe you're at the point where you realise that your project is in chaos. So what are you waiting for? A big clean-up is the order of the day. This is good in terms of sustainability, but it also makes sense in terms of SEO. Because Google loves clean, tidy, fast websites!
A practical tool for cleaning up is WP Optimize. If it's just a matter of cleaning up the database, I also find the WP DB Cleaner very helpful.
WordPress Page Builder and Sustainability
WordPress page builders(here's an overview) are handy and allow you to achieve nice results quickly and efficiently. However, they are also known to bloat the code of your web pages and increase loading times. However, there are a few things you can do to reduce this effect and make your page builder as sustainable as possible:
- Limit yourself to the integrated functions and do without additional design plugins for your page builder.
- If you do use additional plugins, make sure that you can completely deactivate all functions that you do not really use.
- Keep the page structure simple. Create as few blocks and nested columns as possible. Page builders use a "container" for each of these elements, which quickly becomes far too many. Google's PageSpeed Insights criticises this as "excessive DOM size". How you can reduce such overload is well explained in this YouTube video.
- For individual blog entries, it is best to dispense with the Page Builder altogether and use the integrated Gutenberg editor instead.
SEO and sustainability
In principle, almost everything that is good for SEO (i.e. for the search engine optimisation of your websites) is also a gain in terms of sustainability. Because it's mostly about clean structures and fast pages with low data transfer. And because this is so important, you can find lots of good instructions and helpful tools to optimise your site for search engines.
At this point, I would therefore like to briefly list what you can do in addition and which tools or instructions will help you:
- Remove other unnecessary ballast (superfluous fonts, possibly unused or dispensable external services such as Google Analytics or Google Maps, unnecessary embedded scripts).
- Deactivate unnecessary elements like emojis, an unused comment function, avatars, etc. This is done by plugin Asset CleanUp with a few mouse clicks (be sure to make a backup beforehand).
- However, Asset CleanUp fulfils an even more practical function: With it, you can specify for each siteexactly which extra code should be loaded and which should not. If you run a WooCommerce shop, WordPress loads the necessary code on every site- even on your blog pages without any shop function. With Asset CleanUp, you can exclude all code that is not urgently necessary for each site.
SEO plugins like Yoast or Rank Math give you lots of tips on on-page optimisation. They reveal technical errors (such as missing images, broken links and so on) and help you fix them. And a clean, error-free website is not only sustainable in terms of SEO.
Sustainable WordPress Hosting
After you have spruced up your WordPress project, there is a third important consideration when it comes to WordPress and sustainability: your host. This is the place where the servers run as soon as users arrive on your website. Every time this happens, data is exchanged. And that costs energy.
So it's worth taking a closer look here. The most obvious question is of course: Where does the electricity come from that your host uses? If it draws energy from clean sources such as hydropower, wind power or solar energy, that's a big plus.
Green WordPress hosting
At Raidboxes , we want to provide not only climate-neutral, but even climate-positive WordPress hosting. By offsetting the CO2 consumption that occurs when hosting your websites. You can find out more about our concrete measures in the article Green Hosting for WordPress: How sustainable can web hosting be?
But that is by no means everything. Hosting providers need many resources for areas such as:
- Technical infrastructure
- Office supplies and equipment
- Mobility and travel
As with your own lifestyle, the corporate philosophy of your WordPress hosting provider is also an important building block for more sustainability. If the canteen serves regional food, if business trips are done by train or if used office furniture is used, then all these small measures will also make your WordPress projects a bit more sustainable. So make sure that your hosting provider really means business and doesn't just appear green, but ideally acts in a truly climate-positive way.
Of course, there is another important aspect: the performance or the technical framework of your hosting package. Because the "smoother" your website runs, the faster and the more sustainable it is. It therefore makes sense to choose a hosting package that is specifically tailored to WordPress. Pay attention to the following:
- The data should be stored on modern, fast (and economical) SSD hard drives, preferably in a data centre in your country. At least if the sustainability standards there are correspondingly high.
- A high memory limit should also be included, preferably 256 MB.
- Important standard functions should be integrated on the server side (for example, caching, backups, a staging environment or redirects). This is usually not only more efficient, but also saves you a whole series of plugins, which automatically makes your site faster and more sustainable. See the e-book Managing 5 to 100+ WordPress Projects, also available as a blog post.
- A current PHP version, a free SSL certificate and HTTP/2 should be standard.
Is a sustainable website worthwhile?
Maybe you're thinking to yourself: Wow, there's a lot of work waiting for me! I have to admit: You can indeed spend a long time on this topic. But I quickly realised that it was worth it. Because most measures in terms of sustainability have a positive effect on your loading times and search engine optimisation at the same time.
To test how sustainable your website is, you can use the service of websitecarbon.com, which provides exciting and descriptive information about the carbon footprint of your WordPress website. Also very informative are the results of website speed tests such as GTMetrix or Google's PageSpeed Insights. You will not only get an evaluation of your website, but also lots of tips on what you can do to perform even better.
If your website loads quickly, your visitors will of course be happy too. And that, in turn, can mean hard cash for you: Many bounce if a website takes longer than three seconds to load. If you run a shop, this means a direct loss of revenue. But you also make Google happy with a fast website - the faster your website loads, the better Google ranks it. This in turn means that you and your business will be found better.
I now really enjoy looking at where I can get even more out of my WordPress projects. The immediate success plays a big role: many changes can be measured directly via various website speed tests.
Your questions about sustainable WordPress
Pictures in the article: Martin Donat, Peter Beukema