Here are a couple of ways to see what particular websites looked like in the past: The Wayback Machine and Screenshots.com. In both cases, the sites allow you to search by URL, and see what was captured. But they approach what they captured in slightly different ways.
1. The Wayback Machine is a great resource to research how a company, product or service has evolved their online presence over time. This is a project of the Internet Archive, and provides a number of captures over time by crawling sites. (More about how and what they do in their FAQ’s here… the Internet Archive provides an important historical service.) Wayback Machine is best at viewing the content of sites, but in experience using it, the farther back in time you go (way long ago, like before 2005 🙂 … it may not always accurately reflect what sites actually looked like because of associated images, styling sheets or libraries which are no longer available. So it doesn’t doesn’t literally take a picture of what the visitor would have seen. It’s useful also for top level pages, with limited captures of deeper pages and content in sites.
2. Screenshots.com actually captures an image of the website on a specific date. Their vision is to “produce a rich, interactive view of a website’s history” which is frequently what I want to know… from a visitor’s perspective, what kind of experience did the website provide, and how did the owners/providers of the site attempt to serve and communicate with their audience? These are good perspectives which can be paired with other information on the evolution of a business or service. Screenshots.com says that they take captures on dates when updates are made to sites. The service has improved in quality over time, the older screenshots are lower resolution, harder to see details. It’s fabulous to have this resource available.
For comparison: I came across screenshots.com while looking for an image of a book publicity site I had put together years ago. Waybackmachine didn’t show it off very well since it didn’t capture all the images and media. Screenshots did a better job, though it’s a small image.