Every genealogist has experienced the frustration of clicking on a web link and discovering that the page is gone or the genealogy website is now defunct. Things change rapidly as technology evolves, and it’s nearly impossible for website owners to keep years of pages up to date at all times. Therefore, broken links and defunct websites is a problem that isn’t going away any time soon. Genealogy Gems listeners often ask what to do about broken or defunct links in the show notes of older episodes of The Genealogy Gems Podcast, and I’ve got answers for you! Read on to learn how to overcome defunct website links. 

Defunct Genealogy Websites and Broken Links

I received this email from a listener of the free Genealogy Gems Podcast, and it’s one I’ve received from lots of listeners and genealogists alike: “As one of your podcast listeners who is working my way through past episodes, I am running into a bit of frustration that I am wondering if you, on someone else reading this, can help me on. 

I have tried to get to a couple of websites that guests of yours mentioned, with no success. 2010, where I am at, may not be all that long ago for many, but it is an eon in internet terms. Are you…aware of any person or site tracking genealogy related websites and that records/posts notations of name changes, buy-outs by other service providers, or just plain disappearances? You might have mentioned some in the interim, but I’m still a hundred episodes in arrears.

How to Find Information When a Genealogy Website has Disappeared

I love hearing that listeners are enjoying the free Genealogy Gems Podcast archive. We hear over and over that our listeners pick up something new each time they listen. However, I completely understand the frustration of encountering defunct websites and resources. What a bother they are! Unfortunately with the speed at which online information changes, it’s just about as impossible to keep years of web content current (while still producing new content) as it is finding a genealogy record that burned in a courthouse fire!
The good news is that with a little persistence, you can probably locate where a source has moved to or find alternatives that may provide the same function. Paying attention to clues and details around the original source itself can lead you to alternatives that can accomplish the same goals. And this is a valuable skill in all areas of genealogy! So, here are a few strategies to help you find information when a website has disappeared:

1. The Wayback Machine Can Find Defunct Sites

If you run across a link to a now-defunct site, copy the website’s link (the URL), go to https://web.archive.org/ and paste it in the Wayback Machine search field. You may very likely be able to retrieve a screenshot of the page.
wayback machine
If you’ve been researching your family history for several years, you’ll probably recognize the screenshot of World Vital Records (below) at the Wayback Machine.
wayback maching result
You won’t gain access to everything that was there originally, but you’ll very likely glean clues that you can then use to find the information you seek on another website using a Google search. 

2. Use Google as Your Private Investigator to Find Out What Happened

Google it! No question is a dumb question when it comes to Google. And if you are running into a challenge with a defunct site or have a question, chances are someone else has had the same question! Let’s say you find a link to a website that is now shut down. Here’s what you could ask Google:
  • When did world vital records close?
  • Sunset notice for World Vital Records  
  • Who acquired World Vital Records?
googling closed genealogy websites
Google should always be one of the first places you turn when you need to locate information. Our first thought is sometimes to ask another person or someone we see as an expert. But Google is much faster and far more comprehensive a resource! In fact, if you ask someone else, they will probably just Google it! Think of Google as asking your question to every single web page in the world – all at once. If the answer is out there, Google can find it.

3. Google the Information Itself

Any good source that provides website URLs will usually include information about what you’ll find on that website. You can use that information to run a Google search. Your goal is to find determine if that information is available elsewhere from the same provider, or identify another website that references the same content. The internet is growing and changing every day and it is very possible that you may find that the content is now available elsewhere.
Start by copying short phrases of key information and pasting it into the Google search box. Put quotation marks around the text to see if you can get a result with the exact same phrase. If not, remove the quotation marks and place them just around individual key words. 
Here’s an example: In Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 62 (published back in 2009) I talked with actor Darby Hinton about a new history-themed television series he was producing called Hintons Living History. The show notes include a link to the website devoted to the show. Clicking that link leads to an error page because the website has since been taken down. (For website publishers like myself, we are often faced with the decision between creating new content, or constantly combing through old published content to fix what is out of date. I think you will agree that continuing to create new content is preferable.) However, a Google search of “Hintons Living History” provides a plethora of information and videos to learn more about the show.

Obvious but not always obvious

While the solutions I’ve shared here may seem somewhat obvious, time and time again I’ve watched people get befuddled by running into broken genealogy website links. It’s totally understandable. In the excitement of the moment of finding something interesting, getting stopped in your tracks by a broken links creates frustration, and our brains tend to focus on that rather than the simple solutions that are available. I hope this article has given you a game plan that you can turn to so that broken links will only be a blip on your genealogical research path. 

Genealogy Gems Show Notes

Genealogy Gems Premium eLearning Members enjoy many benefits, including the exclusive Premium Podcast. And one of those benefits is that all of the show notes for the first 100 episodes of the Premium Podcast have been updated, including alternative options for defunct websites! This spiral-bound book contains plenty of note-taking space as well, so you can jot down alternatives as you find them and makes notes about sites you have visited.
Members can get these updated show notes in the new Premium eLearning Companion Guide, available for just $29.95 with free shipping. Click here to order your copy today!
About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

Lisa is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.

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