The map of the Internet has grown a little more complex since a sketch of the first node at UCLA in California was made in 1969. There are now more than 100 million hosts and probably more than 2 billion Web pages out there, and a map of the more than 100 billion hyperlinks between sites and pages does not exist - at least, not yet.
Next month, the first such map should be completed by LinkGuard Ltd., a small start-up based in Maidenhead, England, west of London. And the firm is planning to build a strong business model around the concept. "It all started in November 1997, when I was stopped at a traffic light on a Sunday morning," says LinkGuard founder and chief executive Franck Jeannin.
"The same week, I'd been annoyed by some broken links I'd been finding and also by some automated e-mails I was getting. And I was thinking that if you sent an automatic e-mail when a page moved, the broken links wouldn't happen. The first thing I did was to apply for a patent."
At the time, Jeannin was working for Business Objects, the first French company to be listed on the Nasdaq. It was only after he was transferred to England, and had worked there for nine months, that he decided to set up LinkGuard in March 1999.
"In France, there was too much tax regulation and tough employment laws," he says. "People didn't speak English. It was a third-world country. In the UK, you can find very good developers."
The more his team analysed the broken links that give the familiar "404 not found" error message, the more they realised how big the task was and that a link map was needed.
A Butler Group research paper says that "link rot" is a serious problem, with 10 percent of links - or 10 billion at present - broken. This can damage a company's brands, lead to additional costs and lost transaction revenue and hit productivity, it says.
LinkGuard's basic products are the free LinkGuard Classic and paid-for Classic Pro, which Webmasters can install on their sites to check for broken links. They will also report link information back to the LinkMap. The firm's premium service, LinkGuard Connect, will give companies access to the map's information.
Putting the map together is "a big engineering task that nobody has done before", says Jeannin. It consists of 40 servers in data centres around the world, each able to collect and store a terabyte of information. The map will then be refreshed every 12 days by search programs crawling the Web.
LinkGuard is expecting to develop various ways of making money out of the map: "LinkGuard Classic is targeted at corporate Websites, but the map will help analysts, Web design agencies, search engines, and really anyone who can benefit from knowing about in-bound links and seeing who is linking to the competition," says Jeannin.
He adds: "This will help you to discover for the first time the clusters of Web sites that relate to each other. The map is like the human genome project: it will lead to lots of people coming up with applications."