the web of
the living dead

by Bob Sullivan

MSNBC, April 24, 1998

Note from Ghost Sites: We provide the following article for the sole reason that MSNBC has removed all traces of it from their site, even though articles with lesser ID numbers and older dates were still kept. The original link was:

"The companies have passed on, but the sites live on in virtual unreality"

So you're looking for a job on the Internet and you stumble onto this page from Warp Drive Networks. Great, you think. The Web page has today's date on it. They're looking for systems engineers. I can do that. So you e-mail your resume. Well, don't hold your breath ... the company has been out of business since February.

CALL IT A ghost Web site. The company's gone, the phone's disconnected, but the Web site is still chugging along, on auto-pilot, apparently with a script putting today's date on the top of the page. The computer's on, but nobody's home.

To get Orwellian on you for a second, imagine a day where most of the Net's Web sites are running on auto-pilot like this, pumping out updated misinformation without requiring human intervention. You might call that scary.

Well I call it litter, and just like in the real world, I think people should clean up after themselves. A recent study by the NEC Research Institute says there are 320 million Web pages out there. The Web's growth has been exponential, as has the amount of garbage. Like offers to apply for jobs at companies that have gone out of business.

OK... maybe that's sort of funny, but no terrible crime ... unless you really wanted that job. But take a look at The "American Business Center" was owned by a company named Tech-Lore. It's an online classified ad site. You can still fill in a Web-based form and send in a check (or post your credit card number) to put up an ad. But the company apparently has gone under. Its phone has been disconnected and no new ads have been posted since the beginning of March. Business information services company Dun & Bradstreet says it has closed its doors. Still, the site asks for your credit card number.

The American Business Center classified ad site looks live. And it will take your credit card number. But ... I spoke to a couple of folks who paid about $50 to place "for sale" ads on this site. Surprise: No one ever called in response to the ad.

So I got to thinking this ghost Web site phenomenon might be widespread. I asked Dun & Bradstreet for some help. The company gave me a spreadsheet of 2,000 technology-industry companies that have been reported in the D&B file as out of business. All of these companies had registered domains. And I banged through a few hundred of these sites.

About half the URLs still worked. In some cases, the companies were still operating. But many Web sites were still lurking out there even after their non-virtual companions had closed down. More often, the companies were "out of business" because they had changed their name or been acquired, like or Or, a handy domain name had been bought up by someone else after the original owner went under. Like, which was owned by a company called Silicon Valley Corp. but now sends browsers to the San Jose Mercury News' Mercury Center site. A list of the more amusing dead or half-dead pages appears below.

Links break. URLs change. Web content is sometimes goofy. There's no news there. But what is new is the size of the problem. As the Internet gets bigger, so does the number of bad pages. But is it really a big deal? What if there's some terrible Web page in a corner of the Internet which you'd never find? I mean, how do you find a goofy page like Sun and Moon Technology's, which will likely forever be "Coming Soon."

Litter doesn't affect much of the Web, says Dan Sullivan of People don't stumble across it with the exception of litter that gets in the search engines.

Aha! Ever searched for something and found the first few links you get back are either broken or just downright silly? I sure have.

The NEC Research Institute study showed as much as 5 percent of search engines results are broken links ... links to pages that have disappeared or moved. Add in the frivolous ("Hello, World") Web sites and throw in the ghost pages, and you've got serious obstacles to finding the information you want.

Somewhere between open and closed. The sites below were part of a long list compiled by Dun & Bradstreet. D&B considers the companies behind them out of business. Many have either been acquired or are operating with little or no sales ... and they're pretty harmless. Go ahead, try it for free. I dare you. Site owner David Palmer says "I've created the best WordPerfect Edsel on the planet ... because it's for DOS, nobody's interested." He plans to start offering his software as shareware. Don't try "contact information." 404 error Jay Doll and associates haven't touched their site since August Apex Software proudly presents "The Arizona Cricket Association." My editor sent them an e-mail. The reply: "Yo Mark this is coming from your .mreply.rc file in your home directory. It is an auto-responder if you didn't know." Silicon Valley Software? Sounded impressive, but "it's not really in business anymore," says R. Steven Glanville. Now it's Steve's home page. Rational Data Systems is supposed to be a California company. The phone is disconnected and the URL now points to ... Le Partenaire des Professionels de Sante. One of many small companies whose URL now redirects directly to Microsoft. Here's an interesting twist... this URL is now owned by a modeling service hoping folks looking for computer information stumble on in. Mastersoft wins for smallest K home page. BTW, why does everyone feel compelled to name their software company somethingsoft? Twenty-nine of the 2,000 companies in my out-of-business spreadsheet did. And they're out of business. So cut it out. Magnatex International Ltd. wins for smallest home page with a broken link. There's only one, and it's broke. Target Systems Corp. went under, but this URL got snapped up by the fine French store we all shop at.

Now, it's not as if Internet litter endangers the environment like old McDonald's wrappers. But it's in the way.

If the Internet were a small town, we'd pass a litter ordinance, issuing fines for people who "dump," or leave piles of garbage when they move.

That isn't going to happen. People don't clean up when they clear out of town. When a company goes out of business, it rarely leaves the vacated office space in tip-top shape. Instead, the rental company eventually cleans it up ... and it works the same on the Web. Ghost sites stay up until the host ISP comes in and deletes the files. (A gold star for TheNet Digital Services, which is doing a nice job of "recycling" its very cool domain.)

For some, that's just fine.

Their half life won't be very long because most of these (ghost) pages people pay to have them up there, says C. Lee Giles, senior research scientist at the NEC Research Institute. "Simple economics will make them come down eventually."

I don't completely buy that. The real cost; the hard-drive space ... required to keep a simple 10-page Web site up and running is very small and getting smaller all the time. Soon, drive space will be so cheap it won't be worth the manual labor to run around deleting old files.

And then there's this. Two years ago you really couldn't find 2-year-old Web sites cluttering the Internet. Now, it's easy to find them. Just do a search on the Oklahoma City bombing.

Add all this together, and I think action is called for. I propose a volunteer effort ... imagine an"adopt-a-highway" effort for the Internet. We can skip the little blue signs that say "This stretch of Web maintained by..." Wouldn't even need to leave big orange bags on the side of the road.

Much like the volunteer anti-spam effort we've seen on Usenet, such a group would find Web litter, attempt to contact the Webmaster, perhaps contact the ISP and at least contact search engines to advise them to drop these sites from their indexes. These guardian angels could only make suggestions, of course, not actually delete Web pages... lest they become too powerful.

But if they did their job well, at least there'd be something smarter than a spider influencing what I saw on the Internet. And they'd keep me and you from wondering why Warp Drive Networks never even sent a "thanks, but no thanks"

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