Could green search engines change the world?

Written by Tom Greenwood - February 22, 2021

For some time now, I’ve been a big fan of Ecosia, the search engine that uses its profits to plant trees and restore nature. I featured it in my book, Sustainable Web Design, as an inspiring example of a regenerative web service.

However, until recently, I had not given much thought to the potential of search engines to encourage more sustainable behaviour and to green the economy. Could search engines drive more sustainable behaviour through the search results themselves?

Searching for a greener web

The Green Web Foundation has been exploring the potential of greener search engines. For a while, they’ve had a Firefox browser extension that highlights search results that are hosted on green servers. I’ve enjoyed using this and have recommended it to many people as a good way to learn about the adoption of green hosting. 

The downside of a browser extension is that only a small percentage of search engine users will have the extension installed. What we really need is for the search engine itself to look for environmental criteria without the need for any extensions. 

To address this, The Green Web Foundation has now taken a step towards creating a search engine that does exactly this, using the open source privacy protecting search engine called Searx.

They have created a customised instance of Searx that filters out results that are not hosted on green servers. This is implemented through an option in the settings, so the user can revert back to standard results if they wish to, but it defaults to show only web pages hosted on servers listed in The Green Web Foundation database, which is the most comprehensive database of green hosting providers. You can test Green Searx here.

Screenshot of the green Searx search engine

Greening algorithms

We know that search engines have a lot of power to shape our view of the world, for good or bad. What’s interesting about this project is that it highlights how search results could be a powerful lever in creating positive change to a more sustainable future.

Organisations that have taken the step of selecting a green hosting provider would get more visibility, and citizens would be better positioned to make informed choices, not just about which web pages to visit, but who to buy products and services from.

If search engines took the bold step of filtering out websites not hosted on green infrastructure, organisations around the world would quickly put green hosting to the top of their priority list for their web services. Even if the search results were not quite so brutal in cutting these websites out completely, but simply gave better rankings to those that did use green hosting, it could still be hugely influential.

If organisations started demanding renewable energy from their data center providers in order to improve their search visibility, then the data centre and hosting industry would have no choice but to sit up and listen. I would argue that this could actually be one of the single most powerful accelerators of a greener web. 

Beyond green hosting

Green hosting is not the only opportunity for search engines to influence more sustainable behaviour. Google has for a while now been using web performance as a factor in its ranking algorithm, and ramping this up with the introduction of Core Web Vitals as a key metric this year. Although performance is not specifically an environmental metric, reduced energy consumption is a positive side effect of many strategies to improve web performance.

Here at Wholegrain, we are passionate about web performance anyway, but as Google has strengthened its message that web performance matters, we have seen more clients list it as one of their own priorities. This illustrates how even small changes in ranking algorithms can influence real change within the digital sector.

The opportunity for search engines to assist users to encourage the decarbonization of the hosting industry is just the beginning though. Imagine if search engines started factoring in other environmental and social criteria, such as whether a company is a Certified B Corporation, or is a member of 1% for the Planet. It would be a huge help to citizens in finding more responsible providers of goods and services, while at the same time, creating a powerful incentive for organisations to take real action on climate change.

They could also use page weight or data transfer as a ranking metric, factoring in the cost of data relative to incomes in the visitors country. This would allow them to give better search rankings to websites that are cheap to access, helping to improve social justice while also incentivising website owners to improve data efficiency and therefore reduce environmental impact. 

So what’s next? 

I think the Green Searx implementation by The Green Web Foundation is a fantastic prototype of the future of search in a sustainable world. 

It highlights the immense power that search engines have over what we see as citizens, as well as the behaviour of organisations. I’m excited to see where this project goes next and I’m hopeful that it can become a positive influence for all search engine providers. Google, Bing and Ecosia all have environmental commitments, and I wonder if this is something that they will now start thinking about.

You can read about this project on The Green Web Foundation blog and start nudging your favourite search engine to take a look.