I wrote a few weeks ago about the timeworn practice of using robots.txt to control whether web content is playable in web archives. This practice started back in 2002, with the Oakland Archive Policy. While it’s imperfect, and perhaps contrary to common sense, [technologies for consent in web archiving] are important levers to have available, even while the web is designed to be an open information system.

While doing some research with Jess and Shawn into the use of web archives I recently ran across something I felt like I should have known, or perhaps did know once and then forgot about, which I thought might I’d drop a note about here so I am less likely to forget it again. This concerns the noarchive meta tag and HTTP header (see this page if the previous link fails).

It appears that since at least 2007 Google and other major search engines have allowed web publishers to control whether the content that Google has crawled from their website will show up with a Google Cache link in search results. I had certainly known about the use of noindex and nofollow in meta tags and on links to control whether search engines index a page. But even after writing an entire dissertation about web archiving practice I’m somewhat abashed to admit that I didn’t know noarchive existed.

The basic idea is that you can put this in your Web page:

or have your web server respond using this HTTP header:

    X-Robots-Tag: noarchive

and search engines like Google will not display a link to cached content of the page. Reading between the lines a bit this doesn’t mean that the content isn’t being stored/cached (it needs to be indexed afterall). It just means that Google won’t display a link to the cached content.

Maybe it’s just me, but the directive is a bit oddly named because noarchive controls a cache, and the content in caches, at least in computing, is typically thought to be temporary. Caches allow processes to be sped up by localizing resources that are expensive to retrieve or compute. But caches themselves have resource limits and often need to be methodically purged, which is known as cache invalidation. The practice of using caches has long been an intrinsic feature of the web, and is arguably is one of the primary reasons for its success as a global information architecture.

In addition to this computational definition cache has some additional layers of meaning. The OED offers this one for the noun form, which dates back to the mid 1800s and the French verb cacher (to hide):

  1. a. A hiding place, esp. of goods, treasure, etc. b. especially a hole or mound made by American pioneers and Arctic explorers to hide stores of provisions, ammunition, etc.
  2. The store of provisions so hidden.

It also has a verb form that originated in the United States during the early 1800s:

transitive. To put in a cache; to store (provision) under ground; said also of animals.

These definitions suggest a less volatile state for cached contents, where the cache could store content for some time. But it’s interesting to note how these definitions, along with the computational one, underscore use. The resources that are being stored in the cache are valuable, and are have an intended use in the future.

And speaking of value, in English cache sounds identical to another word… cash, which seems to have an entirely different meaning. Of course cash is usually used to talk about money. But interestingly it derives from another French word casse, which is “a box, case, or chest, to carrie or kepe wares in”. Which really echoes the previous definition of cache. The tangled connections between caches and money, as well as the semantic interchangeability of the container with the contained seem significant here.

So what does all this have to do with noarchive? Well I’m not sure to be honest :) These are just some rambling notes after all. But I do think it’s interesting how the noun and verb forms of cache mirror the noun and verb forms of archive, and how this creative analogy has been cooked into web standards and crawling practices.

But bringing us back to the question of the use of noarchive on the web, it seems to me that noarchive is a striking example of an explicit practice for expressing consent (or lack thereof) to having your content archived on the web. It is better than robots.txt because it more accurately expresses the intent that the content not be archived, and it allows for two modes of expression (HTML and HTTP). The caveat being that the archive most likely still exists, but only as a shadow. How long those shadows are cast would be an interesting research project in itself. How much of an archive is the Google Cache, really? Do any public (or private) web archiving projects actually look for and act on noarchive?

But it also would be nice to know a bit more about the prehistory of noarchive. It was introduced not long after a lawsuit was brought by Belgian company Copiepresse against Google and Google News. The order in 2006 found that

the activities of Google News and the use of cache by Google violates copyrights and neighbouring rights (Act of 1994) and rights on databases (Act of 1998).

Perhaps there was a direct connection between Google losing this case and the introduction of a control for whether cache links are displayed? Maybe the proceedings of that case provide more insight into how Google’s cache operates? And how did noarchive.net come about, and who is keeping it online? Answering those questions are for another day…