Maybe it's a SOPA protest, or maybe it's just a downed website. Whatever the reason, sometimes you need to find something on a website that's recently changed and removed the content. Most of the time you're in luck. You can view the cached image of the website.
What Is the Cached Website?
In order to find all those websites really quickly, Google and other search engines actually store an internal copy of the sites on their servers. This stored file is called a cache, and Google will let you see it when available. It used to be a fairly straightforward process of just clicking on a link below the items name in the search results. Now it's a bit trickier. Don't worry, it's still there.
- Search for something. In this case, we'll search for Ben Franklin, and we'll pretend that Wikipedia is down. (As this article was written, Wikipedia really was intentionally taken down in protest of SOPA, but it could have been down because of a massive attack on free online encyclopedias or a downed server somewhere.)
- Hover your mouse over the search result. Don't click yet.
- You'll see an arrow appear to the right of your search result. Click on the arrow.
- Now you'll see a thumbnail of the website. You'll also see a link labeled Cached just above the thumbnail image. Click on the Cached link.
This will take you to the cached version of the website. It won't necessarily have current information. It just has the website as it appeared the last time Google's search bots crawled the site, and the cache you're viewing is actually stored on Google's servers, which is why it has a webcache.googleusercontent.com address and not a Wikipedia address. Google will also tell you how fresh this snapshot is by listing the date the site was last crawled at the top of the page.
Sometimes you'll find broken images or missing backgrounds in a cached site. You can click on a link at the top of the page to view a plain text version of the site for easier reading. Well, sometimes it's easier reading. You can also click on a link to view the current page if your intent was to compare two recent versions of the same page rather than view a site that isn't working.
If you need to find your individual search term, try using control-F (or command-F for Mac users) and simply searching for it using your Web browser.
Sites That Aren't Cached
Most sites have caches, but there are a few exceptions. Website owners can use a robots.txt file to request that their site not be indexed in Google or that the cache be deleted. Sometimes people do this when removing a site just to make sure the content isn't retained anywhere. Quite a bit of the Web is actually "dark" content or items that aren't indexed in search, such as private discussion forums, credit card information, or sites behind a paywall (such as some newspapers, where you have to pay to see the content).
You can get a comparison of a website's changes over time through a non-Google tool called the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, but this tool also abides by robots.txt files, so you won't find permanently deleted files there either.