The sudden shutdown and erasure of two groups of local-news sites Thursday provided Web users with an unpleasant reminder: The “memory hole” George Orwell wrote about in 1984 lurks online, and any site’s owner can fire it up after firing a site’s staff.
Readers or writers of the New York and Chicago branches of DNAInfo, or any of the far-flung family of Gothamist sites (LAist, SFist) today find a link to any past news stories lands them on just one page: The announcement by owner Joe Ricketts that he was shutting the publications down.
But the Web also offers remedies for Ricketts’ removal of every story at those city-specific blogs a week after staffers at their NYC newsrooms voted to unionize.
One is the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. This San Francisco-based nonprofit’s frequently-updated database of old Web pages allows you to click through long-gone sites, often including their comments and some photos. You can also share those Archive links in e-mail, blog posts, tweets or anywhere else.
But while the Wayback Machine can be remarkably comprehensive—its collection of the Washington blog DCist includes 1,437 captures of pages from August 18, 2004 to Thursday—it lacks a search function.
To get around that, turn to Bing. No, not Google: That dominant search site doesn’t return direct links to pages in its search results, instead serving up much longer links that redirect through Google.
Click on a Gothamist or DNAInfo result at Google, and you’ll be instantly bounced to Ricketts’ message expressing his sadness at not being able to make money from “exceptional neighborhood storytelling.”
At Bing, you can right-click on a search result and then paste it into the Wayback Machine. You can also do this at Yahoo and DuckDuckGo, but those search sites don’t let you constrain a search to particular dates the way Bing does.
(Disclosure: I also write for Yahoo Finance but have zero involvement with Yahoo’s Bing-powered search.)
Google does, however, offer a different option that can help you read a vanished page for some time after its demise: the cached version it automatically collects, which you can view by clicking the green, downward-facing triangle below a result and selecting “Cached.”
But you can’t count on these records sticking around, because if Google thinks a site has outright vanished, it will eventually stop showing links to it in its search results. For example, Google no longer points to the posts I wrote in 2012 for the Consumer Technology Association’s blog that vanished after a site redesign the next year.
The abrupt annihilation of more than a decade of work sets Ricketts’ move apart from routine “link rot”: Internet Archive curator Jason Scott said in a Twitter direct message that he’s “almost never” seen so many posts vanish with zero warning.
More often, you should have some advance warning of a site’s shaky footing. In those cases, the Archive lets you add that page to its collection that it hasn’t already collected. If you paste in an address and the Archive reports that it doesn’t have a copy, click the “Save this url in the Wayback Machine” button at the bottom of the page.
Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, e-mail Rob at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/robpegoraro.
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