Website Snapshots: What Are They, How Do They Work, And Why Are They Used?
Many people claim that anything posted on the internet will be available forever. However, the average life span of a website is 2.66 years. And even though recent statistics indicate approximately 1.13 billion websites exist as of 2023, many published during the early days of the internet have been lost to time. Preserving the information on every website isn’t strictly necessary. But other websites contain important information needed for future reference or use. One way to preserve such information is by creating a web snapshot of the web page or website in question. Read more about website snapshots.
If you plan to use website snapshots to archive your website or to search for an older version of any website, you’ll need an overview of what website snapshots are. It will also be helpful to know how to get a snapshot of a web page, find existing web snapshots of old web pages, and use cases of website snapshots.
What Are Website Snapshots?
When you create a snapshot of a whole web page, you can later restore or access the entire website exactly how it was at the date and time of its capture. A web snapshot is an archive of a live website at a particular point in time. This archive is a multidimensional copy of the website comprising all its content. That includes the user interface (UI) elements, so you can click on links and navigate the website, whether online or offline.
A website snapshot generally captures the website in its entirety, including all linked pages and media. When you create a web history snapshot to save a copy of a web page at a particular point in time, you can open that archival file and navigate the website at a future date, even if the original website is no longer available on the internet.
At their core, website snapshots are functioning copies of websites that may no longer be available online. Website snapshots enable the user to access archived web pages even if the host has removed a particular page from the website or changed its content.
Are screenshots the same as web snapshots?
Many people confuse the concept of website snapshots with standard screenshots, but these are two very different things with vastly different functionalities.
A screenshot, which is also referred to as a screen grab or a screen cap, is simply an image capture of the way a web page (or any part thereof, such as only the portion of the web page that appears on the screen of a user’s device) appears at any given time.
With a screenshot, you cannot navigate the website, click any embedded links, or navigate the site using its UI elements in any way. Instead, You are limited to visually inspecting the web page’s captured portion.
Although they are much less interactive than website snapshots, screenshots can still be useful for many people. Capturing a screenshot can help someone prove a point after certain content has been changed or removed from a website.
Screenshots can also allow a user to demonstrate something that might be difficult to explain in words without a visual aid. However, a screenshot can be altered using image manipulation software, so website snapshots can be preferable in many cases. Website snapshots cannot be manipulated in the same way.
How To Take a Snapshot of a Web Page
Capturing the entirety of a website can be a lengthy and complicated task, made even harder when you have a larger website with massive amounts of information, data, media items, and links. Many use automated tools to snapshot web pages to ease the burden.
Web crawlers are a type of automated tool you can use to generate website snapshots. A reputable, well-designed web crawler will begin with a seed page (basically a starting page) and simulate the interaction a real user might have with the website.
From there, the web crawler will follow the various links and menus throughout the website, systematically and thoroughly archiving the website’s data, media, and information.
Some websites use preventative measures to ward off web crawlers, and detection of your web crawler via these measures can lead to your IP address getting blacklisted by the site. Using a proxy alongside your crawler can help disguise your IP address and get around this issue.
In particular, residential proxies will use an IP address that belongs to a real internet user who has leased out their IP address. This IP address will make your web crawler seem like just another human visitor to the website.
For even more security, you can use rotating residential proxies, which will switch up the IP addresses used so that there aren’t too many requests from one IP address. Rayobyte offers a variety of the best proxies on the market, which can vastly improve your ability to use web crawlers and scrapers.
It is also important to read the website’s robots.txt file, which is essentially an instruction manual that explains what bots can and cannot do on the website. It should provide guidelines for best practices when interacting with the website. Some even outline the website’s allowed length of time between crawling requests, allowing you to program your web crawler to respect the website’s instructions.
Other sites may block all crawling by any type of bot.
How To Archive a Snapshot on the Web
While no file format is perfect, there are multiple formats you can use to create and archive website snapshots. These may include but are not limited to the WARC, MHTML, EPUB, and ZIM formats.
WARC (Web ARChive)
The most common format used to archive web snapshots is the WARC (Web ARChive) format, where you can combine various data objects (such as links, media, and UI elements) into an aggregate archival file that includes related information. This format was developed with the assistance of the International Internet Preservation Consortium as a publicly documented open standard. WARC format files contain a header similar to HTTP/1.0 streams and use carriage return and line feed characters (CRLFs) as delimiters, making them very compatible with web crawlers.
Websites archived in WARC format contain the HTML content of the website as well as any associated files. These files can include image data, videos, or scripts, so a single WARC file can store a complete and accurate copy of a website. This makes it simpler to capture the website’s content to access later.
MHTML (or MHT)
Another format for website snapshots is MHTML, also known as MHT, both of which stand for MIME HTML. This format will allow you to save a copy of your website on your local device and access it later, even without internet connectivity. The MHTML format provides you with a single file containing the entire website, including images, videos, and other elements. These files are shareable and printable. If you want to edit an MHTML file, it must be converted into an HTML document.
EPUB (electronic publication)
EPUB is another archive format that uses HTML5 and allows the archive file to contain media elements and allow interactivity with the archived website. A website archived via EPUB creates a single file, which is an unencrypted, zipped archive that contains the website’s interrelated resources. The EPUB file format is typically used as an e-book file format.
ZIM (Zeno IMproved) is an open file format that primarily stores wiki content for offline use, such as the contents of Wikipedia and other projects under the Wikimedia umbrella. ZIM allows for article compression and can contain auxiliary files such as full-text search indices.
Why Should I Make Website Snapshots?
The most common reason people create website snapshots is to archive the information and data contained within a website. The public has been able to access the internet for over three decades, which gives almost anyone the ability to access timely information on any topic imaginable.
Because websites constantly evolve, change, and update, a vast amount of website data has already disappeared. Undoubtedly, you have clicked on a link on a website only to be taken to a 404 error page or redirected elsewhere.
When hyperlinks stop pointing to the originally intended file or page because that resource is no longer available or has moved, it’s called link rot. Link rot is one of the most important reasons to create website snapshots.
There are other reasons individuals, companies, and organizations may choose to create website snapshots. Companies may wish to preserve their brand heritage, and some website owners may be interested in saving the information for website analytics or legal purposes.
Google regularly indexes websites, creating website snapshots to use as backups in case the most recent version of a certain website is not functioning properly.
In an effort to preserve the public information available on the internet at any given time, Internet Hall of Famer Brewster Kahle launched the Internet Archive in 1996, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit initiative designed to provide the public at large “universal access to all knowledge.”
The Wayback Machine was one of the first large-scale internet archiving projects. Over a quarter of a century later, it continues to archive websites from all over the internet.
How Can I Find Snapshots of Old Pages?
Whether you can find website snapshots of a web page depends on whether anyone made a copy of that website while it was still online. You can look for an archival snapshot of a defunct website or a removed web page in several ways.
Search web archives
As mentioned earlier, the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is a popular web archive. There are also various alternatives available, including but not limited to:
Use Google cache
Google caches the web pages its web crawlers index on a regular basis. You can check Google cache for recent web snapshots by following these steps:
- Perform a Google search for the website you want to find.
- In the list of search results to the right of the website’s URL, click the “More” icon (three vertical dots).
- In the More options box, press the down arrow and select “Cached.”
Contact the website owner
You may not be successful in locating an archived copy of a particular website, or you may need a specific version that has not been archived. In this case, you can try contacting the website owner. The owner may have access to website snapshots that are not widely available, or they may have information about how you can access an older version of the site.
How Are Web Snapshots Useful?
There are a wide variety of use cases for website snapshots. Here are a couple.
Allowing offline access
Website snapshots allow you to access websites to review at your leisure, even if you are not connected to the internet or the page is not online.
Tracking website changes
Website monitoring services may use website snapshots to help them track and monitor trends and patterns in the changes website owners make to their sites. Services and their clients can use this information for strategic planning, market research, and more.
This can also be helpful because web pages may change frequently and without warning. Many pieces of information may regularly update, including prices, terms and conditions, or descriptions. Creating multiple website snapshots of the same website over time allows you to preserve the proof you may need of the way something was originally described. A screenshot may not be enough because it can be edited or manipulated.
Preservation of digital content
Website snapshots can be very useful when kept as part of internet archives, which preserve digital content for access in the future. When a website contains information that can be considered of cultural, legal, or historical significance, it is especially important to preserve a digital record of the website.
Some people whose websites are hosted by other companies may wish to archive website snapshots of their existing web pages as a backup. If the website host experiences data loss or you decide to switch hosting companies, preserving an archive of your current website can save a good deal of time and trouble. You will not need to rebuild your site from scratch if you have created website snapshots.
Website snapshots also allow you to preserve memories, such as comments that other internet users have left on your website, even if the commenters later delete their comments from your active website or if your website is no longer available online.
Many websites, such as those belonging to news outlets, often remove older articles or pages as the content becomes less relevant in the present day. Access to an archived copy of such a website can allow users to read articles or view content no longer available online.
Companies in certain industries are legally required to retain electronic communications and, in some cases, other digital data and content. Some industries affected by these laws may include financial services, public organizations and institutions, the government, the medical field, and the legal sector.
These companies must preserve certain electronic records for a specific length of time, and the laws and regulations can vary depending on the company’s location.
Protection of intellectual property
Many companies could benefit by using website snapshots to document their online content. The main reason they may wish to maintain an archive of their digital content may be for the purpose of proving the content’s existence at a particular time and their ownership of the content.
This documentation can help prevent others from copying the company’s digital content, which can violate intellectual property laws. Having the ability to prove that you posted a particular article, media element, or other pieces of digital content on a specific date can provide strong proof that you are the original creator or owner of that content.
Preservation of brand heritage
Companies can use website snapshots to keep a comprehensive digital archive of their brand’s heritage, including its marketing initiatives and online presence over time. This can be useful in a variety of ways. The company may want to return to its earlier branding, or maybe its customers overwhelmingly prefer a previous website format or feature.
How Can I Make My Website Archivable?
Foolproof website snapshots can be very difficult to create, but there are some best practices you can use when building your website to better prepare the content for archiving:
- Use durable file formats or those that users can access via open-source software. Some file formats may become obsolete, so even if you create an archive of your website, the content may be inaccessible in the future.
- Keep your links stable, either by not changing page addresses or redirecting them to new locations, so they will continue to be usable.
- Give each unique resource on your website, including pages, files, and media items, its own static URL.
- Because you cannot adequately capture a website’s search and filtering capabilities, ensure users can access your content through standard links.
- Use the HTTP GET method rather than POST.
- Create a site map in HTML format and, if possible, create a site map in XML. Your site map should list all of the pages on your website, how often they are updated, and their relative importance. A site map ensures that web crawlers can access all of the content on your website.
- For any streamed media content on your website, provide a static alternative that is fully resolvable by an HTTP GET request.
- Ensure all HTML5 and CS5 are validated and compliant with standards.
- Store all of your website content under one central domain.
- Wherever possible, use breadcrumb trails providing links back to the previous pages the user has navigated and showing the user’s current location on the website.
- Adhere to accessibility standards. An accessible website is likely to be easily archived. According to guidelines from the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), this includes providing a text alternative serving the equivalent purpose for all nontext content.
The Usefulness of Web Snapshots
The internet is a vast collection of data, media, and information, but not all websites will be available in their current forms forever. With the average website life span of under three years, we can lose access to content anytime.
Every bit of content may not be important, but some should certainly be preserved for later use, posterity, and legal or other reasons. Capturing website snapshots is an excellent way to preserve content that may be useful in the future. For more information on Rayobyte’s offerings, including proxies, web scrapers, and more, visit our website today.
The information contained within this article, including information posted by official staff, guest-submitted material, message board postings, or other third-party material is presented solely for the purposes of education and furtherance of the knowledge of the reader. All trademarks used in this publication are hereby acknowledged as the property of their respective owners.
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