web's eye view
september 6, 2002
Going WayBack with the Internet Archive
"It's groooooovy, baby"... the Internet Archive's WayBack Machine. No, it is not just a 1960s trippy psychedelic adventure.
What we are talking about is a powerful tool for fighting one of the most frustrating aspects of web use - linkrot. Rotten, forgotten, misplaced, mistyped, links. Lost web sites, busted bookmarks, web pages moved around on you, thus rendering a once useful web site to the dreaded 404 Research Lab, (site not found).
Believe it or not, company named Alexa Internet has built a system that every month combs the net, making copies of web sites that are donated to the Internet Archive, weighing in at over 100 Terabytes of data and growing. What the Wayback machine allows you to do is to search this archive, which has snapshots of web sites dating back to 1996 (for more details, See "The Missing Link - Missing Web Pages" by Charles Pappas). It is even easier if you add the free Alexa Toolbar to your web browser.
And why "WayBack Machine"? if you have to ask, you may have forgotten or never seen the 1950s cartoon Sherman and Peabody, where Peabody (the smart dog) taught his pet boy Sherman lessons in history by traveling back in time and having to intervene to preserve history (more...).
So how is this useful? I bet at least once in the last (hours, day, week) you have clicked a link on the net, or returned to a site you had bookmarked and found either that the server is completely gone (dot bombed?), or you get a generic response about the page not found, or even worse, a one time reference site for art history is now a porn site!
What do you do? Cry? Complain to your congressional representative? Stop using the net? Nooooo. Just copy that bad URL, click over to the WayBack machine, paste it into the search field, and click "take me back". Most likely you will find snapshots of the web site going back in time, sometimes only a handful;, sometimes more than 20. And these are not just pictures, but fully functional copies of the lost site, and what is more amazing is that most links from the archived site still work!
Let's walk through an example... At one time, in the mid 1990s, the Internet Poetry Archive was a site meant to make available selected poems from a number of contemporary poets. If you try the link:
Your get an error message (and no poets). But by pasting this URL in the WayBack machine, you get a list of 39 matches from 1996 onward, and taking one of the pages from 1997, you can actually use this lost web site, and read all about poets Czeslaw Milosz, Seamus Heaney, and Phil Levine.
Or let's say at one time a colleague had highly recommended this collection of health related internet sites, "Medicine on the Information Highway":
Click! Not found. But the WayBack Machine produces 17 different versions of this site from 1997-2001.
But wait! There's more... The WayBack Machine offers another nifty tool for web designers, or students of history, or just plan fanatics- it provides a history of how web sites evolve through time. It is a portfolio, a chronology, a living web, if you will.
For example, you could visit our mcli web site as it looks today, from our address at:
Yet the Wayback machine provides this nice history of mcli (74 "Waybacks"!), and all links from here provide content from the same time period:
- Nov 10, 1996 Old style
- Jan 14, 1998 Some different content
- Feb 29, 2000 New layout, use of fonts
- May 20, 2000 New layout, color scheme, logo
- Apr 5, 2001 our current look, content still a placeholder
- Jan 27, 2002 current design
The WayBack Machine does not find all lost pages, but it does pretty well, and you can now be more pro-active when you click and are presented the ever so useful:
Take Power over Linkrot and use the WayBack Machine!