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With over 1.88 billion websites on the internet, it’s easy to assume that everything that has ever existed online is one click away. In reality, the average lifespan of a website is 2 years and 7 months, and much of early internet content is either on the brink of being lost or has already become inaccessible. While some web pages may not be missed, others hold crucial information that must be safeguarded for posterity. One of the ways to do it is by making web page snapshots.
In this article, we’ll explore website preservation through web snapshots. We'll cover how they're made and their various use cases, from market research to tracking design trends.
A website snapshot is a multidimensional representation of a website at a specific point in time. Unlike a mere visual representation, a snapshot encapsulates the user interface (UI) elements, allowing you to open and navigate the website online or offline at a later date.
Snapshots vs. screenshots
While often confused, screenshots and web snapshots have distinct capabilities. A web snapshot usually captures the entirety of the website, including the UI structure.
To illustrate, if you made a snapshot of an entire website back in 2008, you could open and navigate it again in 2023, even if it’s no longer available (granted, the web snapshot was executed correctly).
Screenshots, on the other hand, lack this capacity for interactive navigation and are limited to visual inspection alone. In other words, it’s a capture of a device's point of view at a specific moment.
Capturing web pages can be a cumbersome task, especially for larger websites with vast amounts of data and links. As such, automated tools are commonly employed to generate web snapshots.
More often than not, web crawlers undertake this job. Typically, a crawler will simulate real user interaction. Starting from a seed page, the crawler systematically follows links throughout the website, retrieving related information and media along the way.
Various file formats are available for capturing web snapshots, but the most prevalent and widely-used one is the Web ARChive (WARC) file format. Developed as an open standard, WARC files offer a reliable and standardized method for linking multiple data objects.
As such, WARC files contain not only the HTML content of web pages but also any associated files such as image data, videos, or scripts. This means that a complete and accurate web page copy can be stored in a single WARC file, making it easier to preserve and access web content in the long term.
By and large, the most common reason to make web snapshots is for archival reasons. The web has been accessible to the broader public for over 30 years, allowing people worldwide to acquire up-to-date information on virtually any topic.
However, with websites being updated so fast, much of the web information has perished. Trying to prevent this, an initiative was launched by internet entrepreneur Brewster Kahle in 1996 with the goal of preserving the knowledge of the web.
There are also commercial incentives to make web snapshots ranging from brand heritage to analytics and legal purposes, a topic we’ll cover in subsequent sections. Most notably, when Google crawls and indexes websites, it makes snapshots of them as backups for cases when the most recent page doesn’t work.
Finding an old website may be a hit or miss depending on whether someone had made a record of it when it was online. If you find yourself looking for an older version of a website, you can try the following methods:
Use web archives: There are quite a few web archives out there, one of the most popular ones being the Wayback Machine. You can try your luck by sifting through their records in case they’ve made snapshots of your desired web pages.
Google Cache: For recent web snapshots, you can try Google as it caches web pages it indexes. To view cached versions of web pages, search for them on Google and click on the three-dot menu next to the URL. Then select "Cached".
Contact the website owner: If you need a specific version of a web page that's not available in any archive, you can try contacting the website owner. They may have a copy of the page or be able to provide you with information on how to access an older version.
You should also remember that only some web pages are archived; even if they are, some elements like images or videos may load incorrectly in the archived version.
Web snapshots can have a multitude of applications from the commercial sector to national policies:
Some industries might be legally obligated to retain their electronic communications. What’s more, regulations differ according to the region – MiFID II (EU), FCA (UK), SEC (US), ASIC (AU), and FINRA (US). This generally applies but is not limited to public institutions, financial services, and legal industries.
Web snapshots may be used by website monitoring services to keep track of trends and patterns, which can then be used for market research and strategic planning.
Some businesses may use web snapshots to document the existence and ownership of online content and thus prevent others from copying it and breaching intellectual property regulations.
Web snapshots may also be used to track and manage brands online by keeping an eye on online brand mentions and references over time.
Web snapshots may be kept in web archives for digital preservation. This is particularly relevant for websites and online content that are historically or culturally significant.
As mentioned in the beginning, the internet is vast but not infinite. Much of what we see on our screens today may be gone in less than three years. While we might not miss many things, we may wish to store some for later use, and web snapshots are an excellent place to start.
If you found this blog post useful, you may also be interested in reading more about the aforementioned web crawlers.
About the author
Enrika Pavlovskytė is a Junior Copywriter at Oxylabs. With a background in digital heritage research, she became increasingly fascinated with innovative technologies and started transitioning into the tech world. On her days off, you might find her camping in the wilderness and, perhaps, trying to befriend a fox! Even so, she would never pass up a chance to binge-watch old horror movies on the couch.
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