The ongoing scandal involving David Petraeus, former head of the CIA, proves one thing: The Internet never forgets. Part of the national debate centers on sensitive information in e-mail messages that some argue should have stayed housed safely on a secure network or computer.

E-mails aren’t the only online artifacts that can boomerang on the unsuspecting. It’s true for companies small and large as well as four-star generals. If you know where to look, you can probably find more treasure than trash in your online heritage.

Traditionally, Internet content’s apparent impermanence has been a source of comfort for some who hope to become yesterday’s news, and a source of discontent for those who want nothing more than to preserve yesterday’s news.

Companies may identify with the former sentiment more than the latter. Made a mistake on the About page? Make a revision – easy with today’s content management systems – and the public is none the wiser. Featuring a new product, or discontinuing the old one? Take down the page and put up a new one. Because so many of us came of age when history meant bound volumes and boxes of microfilm, it is all too easy to embrace an out-of-sight, out-of-mind philosophy.

As much as scholars have lamented the ephemeral quality of Web content, what you put online has staying power, and more people than ever have the tools to find what they’re looking for. Some resources, such as the Internet Archive and advanced Google searches, catalog artifacts that originated in non-Web forms. Others, like the Internet Wayback Machine, preserve cached versions of Web sites back to the mid-1990s. So the changes you made to that About page are accurate and fresh, but it’s entirely possible that someone out there has found the earlier version.

These tools demonstrate how powerful an instrument of recall the Internet really is.

Regardless of history, most companies want people to find them online, and they invest a lot of time and money in the process of making this happen. Search engine optimization capitalizes on intelligent content and site credibility to ensure as many people as possible visit your pages. For consumer-facing sites that build business online, SEO is a key step toward racking up conversions.

Whether your company has been around for 10 years or 100 years, it’s vital to embrace the growing visibility of Web content – past, present, and future.

So many business factors can pave over history: downsizing, mergers and acquisitions, employee turnover, and even new office and/or network space. Heritage preservation cuts through the noise by keeping at the forefront who you are, what you value, and how your story will continue to unfold.

That cached Web page with the neon logo and the old-school radio buttons is a part of your heritage, along with every letter, photo, news clipping, and training video that’s gathering dust in a back room. They all demonstrate how much you’ve evolved over the life span of your business. Let go of the idea that your digital artifacts aren’t worthy of inclusion in your story. Your brand, on the Web and off, relies on your willingness to embrace your identity every step of the way.

By Michelle Moriarity Witt