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Web Sleuthing and Competitive Archeology

by Randall Craig on November 17, 2013

Filed in: Blog, Make It Happen Tipsheet, Strategy, Web

Tagged as: , ,

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas – and what happens on the web, stays there forever.  Yet even when files are deleted from the server (which they often are not) the content is always available, if only you know where to look.

Before answering the questions of how and where, consider the question why:

  • To better understand the history of a person, product, or organization.  Comparing history to the present provides important clues about positioning and trends.
  • To help sniff out cases of revisionism (or outright fraud):  History helps verify present-day claims, using the organization’s – or person’s – own data.
  • To provide competitive intelligence.  Early web efforts were often less sanitized than current sites.
  • To support research into an industry’s issues and trends.
  • For fun: there is no shortage of interesting trivia that is just waiting to be discovered.

To find these hidden internet treasures, you must become half sleuth, half archeologist, excavating through the layers of content for that critical clue and elusive nugget. 

It also helps to know where to look: after several decades of working on the web (and the web’s precursors), we can share a few ideas:

  1. The Internet Archive and the Wayback Machine: This organization continuously takes (and stores) snapshots of the entire Internet and has been doing this for almost two decades.  Go to www.archive.org, and put in your organization’s web address: you’ll get a calendar listing of all  snapshots – all of which are easily browsable.
  2. News archives: While most news and magazines allow free access to some content, and subscription access to far more, it is not widely known that most also keep detailed archives, often going back to their date of first publication.  Check out www.proquest.com.
  3. Google Cache: Google often will cache a recently indexed site. Particularly if you are interested in recent history – or the current site is down – the Google Cache may serve your needs.  Access it by searching for the site on Google, but preceding the term “cache:” at the beginning. searching for cache: www.RandallCraig.com on Google, for example, brings up the cached version of this site.
  4. Local Cache: Each computer that accesses the web stores a partial copy of webpages viewed in its local cache.  This speeds the browsing experience by reducing the number of server calls the browser must perform when accessing similar webpages on the same site.  Examining your computers cache (and history) exposes the data – and your entire web experience.
  5. USENET Archives: Before the web was popular – or even existed – there was USENET; thousands of text-based discussion groups on just about every topic imaginable.  Google acquired and now archives posts that go back to 1981, and to this day, many of these “feeds” still generate discussion, either directly as a text-based feed, or through a web interface via Google Groups.  Go to www.googlegroups.com to start.
  6. Discussion Groups: There are hundreds of websites running discussion groups, each focused on an exceptionally narrow topic – from frequent fliers, to Apple computers, to just about anything.  While these are indexed by Google, often there is a link to old archives, often on much older discussion forum software, that are often not indexed by Google at all.  Finding the hidden link – the doorway – to these still functioning but old archives can yield a wealth of information.
  7. Old, undeleted web content: Web managers are like pack-rats:  whenever a new version of the website is launched, they often cannot bear to delete big chunks of the old site – especially if the new site does not include that older content. They reason, “who knows, if we need to reuse the content eventually, I certainly don’t want to enter it all over again.”  Finding this old undeleted content mean sleuthing through the lowest levels of the site, looking for cues: different design, different secondary navigation, and links within the site content itself to sections that are no longer in the main navigation.  Another hint: look at links from old ad campaigns. These might point to pages that haven’t been converted to the new design and navigation – and have all of the old links intact.
  8. Vendor portfolios: Many organizations don’t do the content, design, or technology work themselves, but use writers, freelancers, web design firms, tech houses, or ad agencies to assist.  Check out the portfolios of these helpers, and you can often piece together an entire history of change.

This week’s action plan:  How much of your own history can you piece together through some intrepid sleuthing and web archeology? Particularly if you are in a competitive industry, looking at yourself through the eyes of a curious outsider can yield some interesting perspective. This week, look “back” in the mirror at yourself – and each of your key stakeholders.

Marketing Insight: Your brand is driven as much by your history as what you (or your organization) does in the real-world present.  When history can be so easily accessed, it is more important than ever to make sure that “today” – tomorrow’s history – is done correctly.

Note: The Make It Happen Tipsheet is also available by email. Go to www.RandallCraig.com to register.

Randall Craig

@RandallCraig (follow me)
www.RandallCraig.com
:  Professional credentials site
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About 

Randall has been advising on Web and Social Strategy since 1994 when he put the Toronto Star online, the Globe and Mail's GlobeInvestor/Globefund, several financial institutions, and about 100+ other major organizations. He is the author of seven books, including the recently released "Everything Guide to Starting an Online Business", and speaks across North America on Social Media and Web Strategy. More at randallcraig.com and 108ideaspace.com.

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