The Wayback Machine is well known as a useful tool for viewing the way websites looked in the past. It’s always fun to pop in a URL from your favorite websites to see how far they’ve come since the early days of the internet (and maybe make fun of them a little). But the Wayback Machine happens to be a pretty helpful tool for SEO as well. Here are ten ways we’ve found you can use the Wayback Machine to improve your SEO strategy.
1. View Site Changes – This one is pretty obvious since it’s what everyone tends to use the Wayback Machine for, but it’s still worth mentioning some use cases. The Wayback Machine’s snapshots can be used to compare a site’s rendered appearance on different dates to see when some aspect of it was changed. Even if the Wayback Machine doesn’t have many snapshots of a site (which tends to happen on less popular sites), you can still narrow down the date range in which a change occurred. This can be helpful when trying to determine the cause of a drop in a page’s rankings. Looking at the page in the time around the drop will help you determine what changes were made that may have negatively affected rankings. Use that intel to build a plan to fix the problem.
“The very first splash page for the Greenlane site, first recorded in 2008. Unfortunately, this splash hung around for a few years too long.” – Bill Sebald
2. Familiarize Yourself with a Site – When you get a new client, it’s important to become acquainted with their site and get a feel of the ins and outs of their brand. The Wayback Machine allows you to do just that! You can see how the site has changed over the years, and you can even get a sense of what their brand voice was and how it may have changed. You can even bring it up with the client to confirm the change: “You used to talk like this, but now you talk like this. Is that right?” For those working on branding and content initiatives, this is very useful.
3. Find Old Redirect Opportunities – One of our favorite ways to use the Wayback Machine at Greenlane is to find old URLs that existed on a site at one time, which may need to be redirected after years of changes. This is very common on big brands who started online in the 90’s or 2000’s – it’s probable these sites went through major site relaunches where SEO wasn’t considered. But, since links could have been created in the 90’s, you’ll want to reclaim them. You can use the Wayback Machine in combination with Screaming Frog to easily compile a sample list of URLs from a site going as far back in time as you want and check their status codes. We tackle this use more in depth in this post entitled How to Find Old Redirect Opportunities & Reclaim Links (w/ The WayBack Machine).
4. Discover Old URL Structures – Sometimes a website’s URL structure gets changed and the old structure is forgotten over time, which can cause problems when it comes to pulling data. If you have a general idea of when the structure was changed, you can use the Wayback Machine to find exactly when the change occurred and what the old structure used to be. Then you can and map out the newer URLs with their older counterparts. This can also be a great help if a site’s content has been reorganized or its subfolder names have been changed.
5. Examine Robots.txt – The Wayback Machine indexes pretty much everything it finds on a site, including robots.txt files. This is great because if your site is having technical or crawlability issues, you can find the date or range where the changes causing those issues were made to robots.txt. All you have to do is search the Wayback Machine for a site’s robots.txt and compare snapshots around the time the problem started occurring until you find the culprit. We’ve had this happen recently when an enterprise client was getting “blocked resource” alerts in Google Search Console, but everything looked fine in the robots.txt. A little detective work with the Wayback Machine and we found that the robots.txt had been changed, and reverted back without documentation.
6. Validate Analytics Code Placement and Use – The Wayback Machine indexes the source code for pages as well, so you can view and retrieve old code from previous pages. This is good for looking at past analytics code placement and use on a site if you’ve been noticing some unusual numbers in your analytics account. Simply search for the URL of the page in question in the Wayback Machine, select the date and snapshot you’re looking for, and right click to view the Page Source from that date. You can then check to see where the analytics code was placed to make sure the tags were implemented properly. Depending on how the site was coded, this process could be used for event tracking as well.
7. Dig Deeper into Pathing Analysis – If you want to go more in depth with your pathing analysis, the Wayback Machine can lend a hand! Using the tool, you can compare a path that you are currently seeing with the way it looked in the past to see what elements have changed in the flow over time. This can also help you discover CRO opportunities for different page layouts. If conversions on your site were high at a certain point in time, you can take a look at previous forms, buttons, etc. on a page and determine if those elements may have had an impact.
8. Identify Site Structure – The Wayback Machine can show you what the past hierarchy or taxonomy of a site looked like. Sometimes you might see site data that looks diluted, but it may actually be the cause of page consolidation or expansion. If you look at the way the site was organized in the past, you’ll be able to tell which pages may have been recently consolidated into categories or expanded to separate pages.
9. Find Old Content – The Wayback Machine can also be handy when you need to find old content that might have gotten lost within a site or accidentally deleted. It’s as easy as looking at the page where the content once existed at a previous date.
10. Perform a Marketing Mix Analysis – The Wayback Machine can be great for analyzing channel to landing page combinations. Say, for example, that paid search did really well last year, but this year it isn’t doing so hot even though spending was increased. Take a look at your landing pages in the Wayback Machine to examine keyword to landing page combinations from previous points in time and see what was doing well and what changed to cause the drop-off.
These are just a few ways we’ve learned to use the Wayback Machine, but we’d love to discover more! What are some other uses you’ve found?