When you turn back to the very first website which made its way onto the world wide web in 1992, you will notice something very striking about its design. It simply does not have one or – more accurately, perhaps – it has one that is entirely based around text, much like a nineteenth century newspaper. Of course, website design soon developed and by 1993 many of the familiar elements of modern web pages, such as landing pages and search functions, were upon us. When JavaScript was first introduced, it meant that designers could break out from the limitations of HTML for the first time, so websites became more like those we know and love today (https://www.smamarketing.net/blog/the-history-of-website-design). Thankfully, there is an archive available for anyone to access who has an interest in website design. From its early days in the 1990s to the bolder visions of today’s website design, it is Wayback Machine that has been archiving the web for our perusal.

In this blog, we’ll discuss – in brief – what Wayback Machine is, how it has operated as something of an online repository for web design references for a number of years and how you can use it to explore many of the fascinating designs that people have come up with. Wayback Machine has been used for a variety of reasons, not least in court actions where deleted or altered comments have been proven to have been changed according to its huge set of records. In 2015 alone, Wayback Machine archived in the region of 452 billion web pages (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wayback_Machine#Growth). That means that there is more than enough in its records to satisfy even the most ardent student of website design for several lifetimes! Read on to discover what a useful tool it can be for examining the history of web design development.

Wayback Machine In Summary

First launched in 2001, Wayback Machine was the brainchild of a not-for-profit organisation known as Internet Archive. Based in California, the initial idea of the group was to take ‘snapshots’ of the internet’s contents so that defunct websites would remain recorded for posterity. In addition, Wayback Machine was given the purpose of recording changes to website content so that an accurate record could be made should anyone seek to edit a page to make it look as though content had been in place for longer than, in actual fact, it had. It is worth noting that Wayback Machine’s time stamping of websites has led to it being cited in court many times (https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20160518/08175934474/federal-judge-says-internet-archives-wayback-machine-perfectly-legitimate-source-evidence.shtml). Its record gathering has led to what the maker’s refer to as a three-dimensional indexing of websites which run through time as well as their particular content.

The process employed by Wayback Machine generates a vast amount of data as you might expect. The project’s digital engineers reported in 2016 that the entire archive held around 15 petabytes of data at that time (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wayback_Machine#Storage_capabilities). When using it for looking at historic website design, it is worth bearing in mind just what a lot of data this is and that what you are looking for would be a veritable needle in a haystack if it were not for the search tools that Wayback Machine offers. Another important caveat to mention is that the Wayback Machine is not foolproof. Not all websites are – or could be – recorded at the point of every change that is made to them. Some organisations have challenged the legal right for the project to hold their old website’s contents and successfully had them removed from the archive. In the main, however, Wayback Machine provides a unique tool for looking into the website designs from a few years prior to the turn of the millennium until now.

How Wayback Machine Keeps Historical Records of Web Design

Rather in the manner that the big search engine operators function, Wayback Machine ‘crawls’ across the world wide web to find content that has changed and makes a record of it in its archives. Essentially, this ‘crawling’ is nothing more than the function of an algorithmic piece of software which ‘reads’ websites and identifies new or altered content (https://www.techopedia.com/definition/10008/web-crawler). These days the crawls that are conducted come from multiple sources but in the early days it was from the creators of Wayback Machine themselves

In 2009, Wayback Machine altered its storage infrastructure. The entire archive was moved onto a Sun Open Storage platform. A new user interface soon followed which allowed users all over the globe to access the historic archive on these servers in what was then novel ways. A fresher index of archived content came in 2011 which is – more or less – the approach that is still offered today.

Using Wayback Machine to Research Historical Web Design

There is no doubt that Wayback Machine can be extremely useful for looking into old website designs, but how do you go about it? Let’s look at a large British website which has gone through many iterations of its design principles as an example. Few web users in the UK will be unfamiliar with the way in which bbc.co.uk has altered over the years and how its content has changed in appearance and style since it first got going.

Looking at Old Websites Through Your Browser

With just about any web browser, accessing Wayback Machine is child’s play. Simply head to its own website which has the URL web.archive.org. This is the one to use when searching for websites as opposed to software content or internet images and so on. You can then use the search bar to enter a known URL for the site you’d like to research, in our case bbc.co.uk. On the ensuing screen, a timeline will appear of all of the impressions Wayback Machine has taken of that URL’s content since it began crawling through it.

Comparing a URL’s Early Pages to More Recent Ones

In our example, the timeline for the BBC’s home website stretches back to when it was first developed for public consumption in 1996. If you click on that year, then a calendar will appear of all the snapshots taken by Wayback Machine in the given period. For example, 1996 generates only two dates in December with snapshots, presumably because the website only went live late in that year. Clicking on the first of these reveals an impression of a very early web page which includes, for example the corporation’s old italicised logo and an image of ‘Wallace and Gromit’ under ‘About the BBC’.

Now zoom forward to one of the snapshots taken in October 2001. There are plenty to choose from. Simply hover over the date you want to look at in the calendar in order for Wayback Machine to present you with a range of options each given by the time of the day they were taken. Purveyors of website design will soon notice the updated BBC logo at the top of the page plus the strapline ‘Welcome to the UK’s favourite website’ near to any mention of a home page. Icons have been added for audio and video content and drop down menus now feature as a means to navigating to sub-sections of the site. Its all familiar territory but looks incredibly old-fashioned.

Using Wayback Machine’s Time Slider Control

Whilst exploring the alterations to the design of the particular website you happen to be interested in, you don’t need to hit the back button in your browser in order to take you back to the aforementioned timeline. It is possible to access it conveniently from the image of the page you happen to be looking at. Let’s say you have taken a screen grab of the BBC’s cookery page in 2001 and now want to compare that with something from the summer of 2012. Simply move your mouse to the top of the screen where the timeline should have appeared. Any new year can be selected just by clicking on the corresponding section of the timeline. In order to make sure you are clicking on the year you want, look at the date to the right of the timeline. It will alter colour as you hover over any year you might want to look at. The year appears at the bottom and the month at the top. Small left and right movements will allow you to change the month and, with larger ones, the year.

Although it is possible to change the month and year of a website’s archive with a single click once you have positioned your cursor correctly, it is not possible to do so for the exact day – for a packed timeline like the BBC’s at any rate. Just click on the left and right arrows to fine tune the date of the month you want to look at if this is important to you. Bear in mind that the timeline gives a visual indication of the number of impressions that have been taken of the URL it represents by showing the number of captures that have been taken as a basic bar chart. This helps you to hone in on the most active times that Wayback Machine has been crawling the given site.

Using Wayback Machine to Compare Different Websites With Similar Content and Subject Matters

As well as looking at individual URLs for developments over the years, you can utilise Wayback Machine’s search bar to look for individual search terms. For example, enter ‘Ferrari’. The resulting URLs it suggests looking at are, unsurprisingly, ones in which the term Ferrari appears, like ferrariworld.com, for instance. You will also see URLs that don’t include the search term but have content relating to it on their captured pages. This way, you can research the history of website design by an industrial sector or interest group and don’t have to stick to a particular URL, like the example given above. What could be simpler for scholars of website design’s fascinating development.