AncestorNews: Outsmarting Broken URLs

AncestorNews: Outsmarting Broken URLs

Malfunctioning URL? Try this.

I recently received an e-mail from a frustrated reader who couldn’t find a Web site I mentioned in a previous AncestorNews column. As you know, Web site addresses (called URLs) can change at a moment’s notice. In some instances, Webmasters simply move their pages to a new host; in others, they may rename a page, or incorporate information into a new page. What’s a genealogist to do?

First, check out the “root” page of the site. For example, if you went to and got a “404 error” (meaning the page isn’t there anymore), visit the home page by deleting the part of the URL after the .com, .org, .gov or whatever the extension is. In our example, the main page would be at Then you can look for a link to the applesauce cake recipe. It’s possible the Webmaster reorganized the site and moved the recipes into a subdirectory (similar to a subfolder on your hard drive) named Recipes. If you can’t find a link from the home page, try e-mailing the Webmaster and asking for the URL of the new page.

Second, if you know the subject matter that was on the missing-link page, go to a search engine such as Google and try to track down its new location. For example, if the missing page contained a list of passengers who landed in Charleston, SC, go to a search engine and type in the search phrase: ships +charleston +passenger or passenger +list +charleston. If it still exists, the page you’re seeking will probably appear in the search results.

(Note for those of you who don’t know about “search engine math”: You can use Boolean operators like the plus sign (+), minus sign (-) or quotation marks (” “) to return better-targeted search results. For example, the plus sign tells the search engine that the pages it finds must contain each word that follows a plus signGoogle has a tutorial on search engine operators.)

For more help in locating missing Web pages, visit the Wayback Machine, an archive of 30 billion Web pages from 1996 to a few months ago. Even more nifty, you can drag the Wayback Machine onto your Web browser. Then, each time you visit a Web page, the Wayback Machine can find an older version of the site for you. Pretty cool, huh?

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