One of thesitewizard.com's visitors, having read my article on How to Rescue Your Website from the Clutches of a Bad Web Designer or Bad Web Host, asked me whether it was possible to recover the files on his old website abandoned about a year (or so) ago. Apparently, he had a website designed by a third party, but abandoned it when he fell out with the web designer. Since he didn't continue to pay for the upkeep, the site was taken off the Internet. Now, months later, he decided to resurrect his website, and wanted the stuff from the old site again so that he could get up and running quickly. "When a site ceases to be hosted, it drops off the Internet. Where does it go?" he asked. In other words, where do websites go when they die?
I think a lot of newcomers to web design have this vague misconception that websites use some exotic futuristic technology that they are unfamiliar with. This leads to erroneous notions like building a website being an arcane art and this recently expressed hope that an old website can still be recovered intact, in entirety, long after it had been discontinued.
In reality, the pages on websites are just simple files on a computer. For example, the article that you're reading now is just a simple file (similar to a document you type in Microsoft Word) that is placed on a computer located somewhere in the world. The reason you can read it from your home or office (or wherever) is that the aforesaid computer is connected to the same network of devices that you are connected to (that is, the Internet). It's similar to how a telephone works. The reason you can ring someone up on the telephone and he/she can hear and talk to you is because you are both connected to the telephone network.
So how does a website typically get removed from the Internet? Now, I don't mean irrelevant ways like a power failure, flood, earthquake or what-have-you. Obviously these will also remove websites, and in the case of natural disasters, possibly even whole computers, buildings and people. I'm talking about ways relevant to the question being asked, where a web designer deliberately takes a website he/she created off the Internet. Since a website is just a bunch of files (documents) residing on a computer somewhere, it gets removed the same way you remove unwanted files from your computer. You simply delete them.
Now, some of you who are only familiar with desktop or laptop computers are probably thinking, "Oh, there's hope then. Maybe we can get it out of the Recycle Bin or Trash". However, you are thinking like a user who owns a computer that exists solely to serve your needs. Computers that are used for websites are busy things. A single computer can hold hundreds of websites. A business that runs such computers is not going to keep the deleted files in a recycle bin for someone who is no longer a paying customer. When they delete files, they don't do a pseudo-delete where the files are simply moved to a recycle bin. They truly delete them, and the space is reclaimed for others who are paying for it.
All respectable web hosts (the businesses that run the computers holding your website) have backups of the sites they store on their computers. These backups are created so that if the computer with your website fails (as all machines are wont to do eventually), the web host can quickly restore your website from the archive onto a different computer, and get it up and running quickly.
You may think that this means you have a chance to recover your old abandoned site. That is, if your relationship with your old web host is still amicable, you may be considering asking them if you can get your old files back.
That may or may not work. Web hosts probably don't keep backups extending very far back in time. Their backups are made to serve the very specific purpose of making sure they can quickly put your current site back on the Internet should their hardware fail. They are not a museum, intent on preserving history. As such, it's quite possible that if you are asking about a site that has not been on their system for more than a few months, they may not be able to help you (since a backup containing your site may no longer exist). However, if your site was only recently abandoned, and you still have a cordial relationship with your old web host, there's probably no harm asking. As they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
The trouble with many new webmasters is that they often subconsciously assume the infallibility of the various bits of technology that are used for their website. They assume that the web host's computer will work perfectly for the life of their website. And they assume that their own computer will never fail. I say this assumption is subconscious because if you ask them, "Do you think your computer will last forever?", they will say, "Of course not". Yet till this day, I get occasional email from thesitewizard.com's visitors asking me if there is some way they can recover their files which have been lost for one reason or another.
Even if you are not in the same boat as the visitor who asked this question, you should always keep a backup of your website yourself. Don't rely on your web host or web designer to keep a backup for you. Your relationship with them may not always be rosy. Or their equipment may fail. Or they may die (those web designer creatures are mortal too). As the owner of the website, you are the one with the greatest incentive to protect your site. As such, don't rely on others for this task. Yes, it's possible that they are professional enough to keep a backup of your site. But as the one with the strongest vested interest in your site's survival, you should too.
Besides keeping a copy of your website on your own computer, you should also back up your computer from time to time on a separate device (eg an external USB hard disk). Remember: your computer will not last forever. There are no "ifs" about it. It will definitely fail at some point or other. Sticking your head in the sand will not stop it from happening. Your site should therefore have at minimum these 2 standby copies: one on your computer, and one on the external hard disk containing a backup of your computer. Hopefully, these pieces of hardware won't all fail at the same time.
I'm not a stranger to abandoning websites. I almost abandoned my first website (thefreecountry.com) myself, but had a change of heart at the last moment. And I've abandoned many of my play sites and blogs, most of which were half-hearted efforts anyway, and not even mentioned (let alone promoted) to the world-at-large, so I had no qualms getting rid of them when I lost interest.
Over the years, my practice is that before you abandon a site, always make sure you keep a copy of it somewhere on your own system so that if you ever decide to resurrect it, you don't have to start all over again from scratch. Even if, at the point in time that you want to throw in the towel, you're so fed up with the site that you think you will never want to touch the wretched thing again, save a copy. You never know. Sometimes the distance of time can rekindle your spirit so that you are willing to tackle it again. Or sometimes you may want to reuse the material in a different way in some other endeavour.
The other thing you should do is to hold onto the domain name for your site for at least a year, unless the reason you're abandoning your site is because you're selling it off. (You can just park the domain at your registrar without creating and maintaining a site for it.) After all, a website is not just that collection of documents that you saved. The reason it's called a website is that those documents are linked to a web address (your domain name) that people can visit on the Internet. If you don't keep your domain, and change your mind some time down the road, you'll have to buy a new domain, and start all over again getting people to visit your site. Of course if you abandon your site for too long before resurrecting it, the effect is probably the same as getting a new domain, since the reputation that you have established with your old site will have been forgotten by then.
Even if you cannot get back the exact files that made up your old dead website, you can still recreate it again. Ultimately, you are the soul of your website. After all, you came up with the core content of your old website before. Yes, without a backup, there's a little more work involved than just copying over the files of that site. But you've done it before. With that experience in hand, this time round will be much easier.
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