IT for Donuts: view the history of (almost) any website

By: John McGarvey

Date: 12 October 2015

IT for Donuts is our regular feature where we explain a tech term or answer a question about business IT.

This time round, find out how easy it is to see what a website used to look like. Perhaps you want to check what promotions your biggest competitor was running a year ago. Or maybe you want a copy of your company's old website.

Whatever your reasons, here's how to view the history of (almost) any website.

Visit the Internet Archive

To take a trip back through time, we'll use the Internet Archive. Founded in 1996, one of its most popular services is the Wayback Machine. This automatically visits millions of websites, storing snapshots of how they look each time.

The Wayback Machine's entire library is available online, for free. In fact, the Internet Archive is a non-profit organisation. Given the transitory nature of the web, the archive plays a vital role creating a permanent record of how it used to look. (You can donate to it, if you like.)

Search the Wayback Machine

Ok, let's see if we can find out what the BBC website looked like in 1999.

To get started, visit the Internet Archive website. At the top of the screen, you'll see the Wayback Machine logo, along with a search box. Enter the website address here. We've entered www.bbc.co.uk:

Enter a URLHit the Enter key and Wayback Machine will show its search results.

The top of the screen summarises how many copies of this web page it holds. It also shows a graph so you can see how many captures it has taken over time.

The calendar shown beneath the graph illustrates when captures were taken. When you select a year at the top of the screen, the calendar changes to reflect what's available from that year.

Here you can see that there are a few captures available from 1999, with - for some reason - a cluster in April:

The web page capture calendarTo view this web page from a particular date, just select it from the calendar. Here's how BBC website looked in April 1999. Unfortunately some of the images are broken (this is common, especially with older sites), but you should get the idea:

The BBC website from April 1999

You can search for any website you like on the Wayback Machine. Although results can be patchy - especially for less well-known sites - it's an absolutely treasure trove of information. What will you find?

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