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Search engines go green

12/11/2011

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Start-up enterprises are innovating with green search engines channelling some Internet advertising and retail sales revenues to environmental causes – as demonstrated by Ecosia.

The information and communications technology (ICT) sector has long positioned itself as a friend to the environment because it enables substantial resource savings: virtual meetings, banking and shopping all save on physical infrastructure and travel. The cost of these savings is high energy-consuming – and therefore CO2-emitting – servers.

More recently, a third dimension has reared its head in the ICT universe: social enterprises are setting up shop to siphon off a slice of the Internet’s advertising and retail revenues to support green causes. In January 2011, JP Morgan predicted that global e-commerce would grow by almost 20% in 2011 to reach nearly €500 billion.

Companies such as Berlin-based Ecosia are taking a cut and investing it in rainforest protection. Ecosia is a green search engine powered by Bing from Microsoft. The way it works is like this: you do a search; you click on a sponsored link; the sponsoring company pays Bing for the click; Bing gives “well over half” of the money to Ecosia; and Ecosia donates at least 80% to a WWF rainforest conservation programme in the Brazilian Amazon.

With the remaining 20% revenue, Ecosia runs itself and offsets its servers’ CO2 emissions by investing in Gold Standard carbon emission reduction projects in developing countries.

So far, the site is registering up to 750 000 searches a day and has raised nearly €340 000 since its kick-off in December 2009. It transforms a routine yet essential task – searching the web – into a green fund-raising activity. The money goes to Tumucumaque, home to one of the largest, most biologically diverse protected areas in the world.

“It’s the power of numbers,” says Ecosia’s Shannon Smith. “Half the challenge is getting people to use it [the search engine], the other half getting people to share it.” Key to success is working with a good provider, Bing in this case, because Ecosia ultimately provides a service, as well as facilitating a multinational’s environmental contribution.

Its business has already expanded from advertising into retail with Ecolinks, which are affiliated links integrated into Ecosia’s search results. Every time you make a purchase, the affiliate business pays a commission to Ecosia, which in turn again channels 80% of this income to the WWF project. Further into the future, other environmental projects could benefit.

But beyond plans for itself, Ecosia wants to inspire more broadly. “Another part is to set an example of a social business,” Smith says. “The main difference with a normal business is that instead of profit being the main goal, a social or environmental contribution is the primary motive.” It is innovative thinking about what makes a business run, not simply other green search engines, that Ecosia hopes to trigger.

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