One of the most important—if most overlooked—tools on the web is about to become a whole lot more powerful. The Wayback Machine, an archive of past web pages, just received a massive grant to overhaul its service. That’s going to make it easier than ever to find old content, and harder than ever to hide it.
Why Go Wayback?
Unusual among tech tools, the Wayback Machine is run by a non-profit organization, the Internet Archive. It was created in 1996 to crawl and archive the web, with the hope of preserving information on web pages even if the pages themselves disappeared. In that sense, it’s almost more of a Noah’s Ark than a Library of Alexandria. The organization embodies the early-internet ethos that information wants to be free, and has carefully preserved 19 years of internet history in 439 billion snapshots.
At times, this archive is crucially important. As reported in the New Yorker, when a Malaysia Airlines flight crashed over the Ukraine, a pro-Russia separatist group briefly took credit. They even posted videos of the passenger jet wreckage. As outrage spread, the separatists quickly removed the incriminating evidence, but the Wayback Machine had already snapshotted their confession.
The same article notes that archiving the internet is vital to science. In a survey of millions of academic articles, fully 20 percent of the URLs used as citations had gone dead. In many cases, the Wayback Machine is the only way to look up the missing information.
There are other ways to find old web content, but they’re limited. For example, Google offers a “cached” version of most web pages, but only one recent version. If the info you need is older than that, you’re out of luck.
So this niche tool is profoundly important in the age of technology. But until now, it’s been pretty hard to use.
Overhauling the Internet Archive
For the entire 19 years of its existence, in order to use the Wayback Machine you needed a crucial piece of data: the exact URL you wanted to look at. This machine was designed to help if you ran into a dead link, or when an old bookmarked page was no longer there. You knew the URL in question, so you just pasted it in and saw the archived content.
But it doesn’t always work that way. What if you know what site an article was on, but not the exact page? What if you’re simply wondering if a site ever mentioned something—like giving out the personal information of a person who was victimized online? Without the exact URL, you can’t check.
The new version of the Wayback Machine will fix that. It will let you keyword search the entire archived internet—essentially Googling back in time. If you’re a technology junkie, that last sentence should have given you goosebumps.
As a bonus, the rebuild will mean getting rid of 1996-vintage coding that the whole Machine is built on, and bringing it up to date.
Does the Wayback Machine Affect Business?
For the most part the Wayback Machine is a research tool, and that won’t change. The pages saved in the archive are not indexed by Google, and will not be searchable outside the site. They certainly won’t affect SEO.
However, it’s worth remembering that everything your brand ever puts up can likely be found there. That has a few implications:
- Many of your competitors’ sites are there, too. If they take down something you were keeping your eye on, or you want to assess what keywords they’ve tried over the years, the Wayback Machine is your friend.
- If you change your copy only to see your SEO suffer, there’s a good chance the old version is still available. This is no replacement for backing up your website and saving the original content, but it’s there if you need it.
- Now more than ever, nothing is every truly deleted. If your brand stumbles into a PR faux pas, deleting the post won’t make it go away—it will only make you look guiltier. Instead, consider editing the original with an explanation or apology, in addition to your public efforts to make amends.
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