You would have be living under a rock if you weren’t familiar with services that truncate long URL’s into shorter, more manageable links. For those of you that don’t know what they are, they take a loooong URL and shorten them down to fewer characters so they can be more easily managed for dissemination or distribution over the web.
Google Maps Address 170 characters.
Would become this:
Far easier to manage, right? The URL won’t break apart in text emails, they’ll fit nicely into text messages, they’re far easier to remember, they’re easier to share, and they preserve precious space when using microblogging services such as Twitter that have a 140-character limit. Despite the ongoing argument for and against shortening services, it’s clear that they’re here to stay. The mission for web marketers and developers is to learn how we can help formulate a way of managing the services in a way that makes them enjoyable for people to use.
The first URL shortening service, TinyURL.com , was built by Kevin Gilbertson in January 2002 so that he could truncate URL’s in a unicycle text Usenet newsgroup. At the time of writing, the site claims to host 400 million links and is said to receive over 2 billion hits a month.
Since the site was launced in 2002, however, there has been a steady flood of new entrants to the truncation market with each new service providing a variation on the shortening theme. The simplicity of the code to accomplish the task, the abundance of open source options, the simple implementation and the inexpensive commercial solutions means that we’re likely going to see a lot more sites in the future.
Gilbertson worked alone on his project and his entrepreneurial spirit didn’t inspire further development beyond the initial implementation. When I heard Zdnet’s interview with Gilbertson some time back I couldn’t believe his lack of enthusiasm to further develop his product; listen to it here. The tinyurl site has been reworked a little since 2002 but it still doesn’t often the type of functionality offered by its newer competitors. The domain itself – http://tinyurl.com – albeit descriptive, and quite a recognised ‘brand’, isn’t very short itself weighing in at 18 characters. Most entrants to the market are now looking at name that is both meaningful (in some remote way) and short, meaning that minimum space is used during distribution. The most notable and arguably the more popular services includes bit.ly and http://tr.im . I personally love the name tr.im – it’s short, meaningful, and as descriptive as any word can be given the constraints of top level domain extensions.
One of the most significant benefits of using a short URL service is the ability to retrieve statistical data on all traffic that passes through the URL. Most premium services will allow you to view how many times a link was clicked, where it came from, and peak times of use. Anybody involved with online marketing can easily track the success or failure of a link and associated marketing campaign.
Criticism of short URL services
Short URL services are not without their critics. Since the destination URL is opaque, hiding the ultimate destination from a web user, the URL can unwittingly send people to sites that may offend their sensibilities, or crash or compromise their computer using browser vulnerabilities. Spammers and criminals often use truncating services to redirect users to dodgy online destinations that may load a browser with various vulnerabilities, spam or malware. For this reason, some people sensibly avoid clicking on short URL services from people they do not know – particularly in emails. If the shortener gets hacked , every link becomes a potential phishing attack. A short URL service is often a “mystery link” with a destination that will escape the scrutiny of your spam filter. Services such as Twitter run rampant with dodgy links because of the loose connection between a user and his or her followers. Trust no one!
Many short URL providers have created a preview function attached to any URL that will assist in giving visitors peace of mind (the example link above, for example, can be previewed at http://preview.fat.ly/fkyzwb ). Users can decide if they choose to follow a particular link after reviewing information such as the page title, description, keywords and brief excerpt of text. It’s normally good etiquette to provide a preview link rather than a direct link until you have established a measure of trust with your intended audience. There are some browser add-ons that automate the task of deciphering short URL’s for the major players in the market.
Link rot is the process by which links gradually become irrelevant or broken as time goes on because the destination URL that they link to is either deleted, edited to be entirely different, or simply moved to a new location. Short URL services contribute to linkrot on the Internet, and it’s estimated that over 7% of all short URL’s created link to a site that no longer exists. This puts additional pressure on web developers to create 301 redirects (or something similar to preserve legacy navigation structures) yet only a small portion of developers adhere to this unwritten rule of best practice.
What happens when a short URL service goes out of business? Well, basically, your link dies with it. Not a real big deal when you’re distributing a URL intended for short-term personal use, but what about when you’re using the link with a view to some permanency for the purpose of a longer term marketing strategy? The most high profile noteworthy example is the sulky demise of tr.im who, in a juvenile hissy fit, announced that they would shut down their operation after Twitter awarded default truncating functionality to bit.ly. Although tr.im stated that links would continue to work until 31 December, 2009, that’s still not much comfort to anybody that used the service for business purposes. In the wake of overwhelming publicity (perhaps that was the point?) tr.im later decided to release the website back into the wild as a community (open-source ) platform. Bit.ly offered to buy tr.im for $10,000 (in the interest of preventing linkrot) but that (insulting?) offer was rejected and the owners instead opted to disappoint everybody by simply shutting the service down. This high profile case is a good example of the dangers of entrusting important business related statistical data to an online business with an unknown financial future, and its demise reignited a long-standing debate on the use of URL services and indeed the entire shortening ecosystem that services like Twitter has helped create.
There are cases when short URL services have gone out of business and another unscrupulous investor has purchased the service only to redirect everything to their own page. All your efforts in disseminating links across the web could eventually simply redirect your users to a porn site (how would that affect your brand?). Even legitimate companies have managed to get away with this kind of link mutilation.
Another criticism of short URL services that many users aren’t necessarily aware of is the lack of privacy of their information. Adding a + sign to bit.ly URL’s, as an example, will output statistical data that many would presume is private. How secure is your marketing data, really? What happens to your marketing data when privacy policies change overnight?
Short URL services adds yet another layer of indirection to a system already prone to a number of errors. When using a shortening service, you’re adding what could be considered to be a third DNS resolver, except one that is assembled out of unvetted PHP and MySQL. DNS requests take time and adding a middle-man in the mix will inevitably delay the time it takes to serve a page.
Big players enter the market
It was only a matter of time before the Silicon Valley mafia released their own shortening products. Big names like Google, Facebook and YouTube in the market potentially means that popular services like bit.ly are well and truly in deep sh.it.
Google unveiled its short URL service last month at Goo.gl . Brilliant name! There’s no guessing who created the link (when you send it to somebody) and there’s a certain measure of credibility or quality assurance in branding your marketing campaigns with Google’s own name (given that they mitigate all sorts of risks with their own Malware service). You’re also less likely to find the service go out of business. The service is currently only available from within certain applications but it’s only a matter of time before the shortener is released for the consumption of the general web market. I can only imagine how magnificent this service will be if it were integrated with Google maps and Google charts with tracking from within Google Analytics. It would be fair to say that every other short URL provider should consider buying a cheaper car this year.
Facebook have released a short URL service at fb.me . Nice. Short. Good idea. You can already access your own profile using the shortened URL. For example, my own profile is at fb.me/mkhoury making it easy to send me own profile links and various fan pages via microblogging services. The full extent of fb.me’s functionality is still very much an unknown, but if it’s anything like the actual Facebook platform we’re in for a service that could potentially crush the rebellion once and for all. Facebook are already truncating links from within various mobile applications.
YouTube have released their own shortener at youtu.be . What a brilliant way of protecting their brand name! It gives users an assurance that the link is guy-pie free and will direct you to a video on the YouTube website. It gives YouTube ownership of the short URL’s linking to their site and is a measure of quality control for visitors that may normally be hesitant to click on short link. Again, linked with Google analytics and other services it could potentially be a great way of tracking video marketing campaigns. Because the video ID remains intact it will be easy for developers to use the links as if they were the original.
Protect your brand
Every link you send as part of a marketing strategy can potentially damage your brand. What happens when a link changes? How do you feel about sharing a domain used by spammers and porn marketers? There’s absolutely no reason why any organisation – large or small – shouldn’t invest in their own branded shortening service; It’s inexpensive, it’s quick, at it means that you retain exclusive rights to your sensitive marketing data and links – and your organisation manages exactly how the service operates. Businesses can run a truncating service in a dedicated sub-domain or a shorter domain that retains some link to the actual company name – as Google and Facebook have cleverly done.
Short URL services can be built in minutes with no more than 15 or 20 lines of code. The small price to pay for implementation of such a service is only a couple of hundred dollars (or a couple of hours if you’re happy to quickly set up an open source option) so it’s ridiculous that organisations wouldn’t insist on ownership of their marketing data.
Links sent via microblogging services may be a valuable source of back-links for page-ranking search engines such as Google. Sending out short URL’s only serve to popularise the short URL’s domain at the expense of your own. Silly stuff. These third party providers may also profit from your campaigns via adverts served with your destination page. Even bit.ly has a silly toolbar that cloaks the actual destination page with a frame they use to further their own marketing agenda.
At iChoice – one of our traditional businesses – we wouldn’t dare trust our sensitive marketing data to any third party provider – so we created
fat.ly (Edit: We now use fat.ly for generic sites, but use ichoice.co for the iChoice brand). At the moment – although fat.ly a public site – tracking functionality is only available to a limited number of authorised users and via some custom applications we have built. If you require a branded short URL service for use in your own company and you’re one of our customers (or even if you’re not) let us know and we’ll help you out.
Businesses are becoming increasingly willing to share information out to third parties via microblogging services, social networking platforms and video sites – all good for about a billion reasons – BUT when there’s no social justification in using a third party application business should manage those services themselves. I’ll be posting a bunch of good open source solutions soon.
Aviation and Airlines
Give my aviation background, we’ll use the airline industry as an example of how big business can implement a truncated URL solution. A solution, mind you, that’ll cost nothing, but provide tens of thousands of dollars in benefits. I’ve had a look at a range of available names given the countless country TLD extensions available. Airlines could easily find a good name that would fit their brand or accompany a marketing campaign. I’ve provided just a few.
Note that many of these domains are already registered, but none to the airlines for which they’re seemingly associated. If you see them using of these names in the future, you’ll know where they got the idea. Disturbingly, some of these services offer a short URL service that isn’t sanctioned by the airlines that they seemingly claim to represent.
It’ll be interesting to come back in 5 years and see who has taken my advice.
The fact that so many of the airline brand names are registered – with some operating as unauthorised URL shorteners – makes for a good argument for airlines to protect their brand via domain name registrations that are the same as, or resemble, an airline trading name or trademark. Of particular concern is the owner of qant.as operating a URL shortening service when they have no affiliation whatsoever with the airline. This means that spammers, porn marketers and dodgy sales people can potentially use a trusted brand name to lure web users into following questionable, potentially damaging, malicious or offensive links.
This isn’t the last you’ve heard from me on this topic.
Protect your brand.
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