You see them everywhere, compact little links that might look something like "http://bit.ly.com/1x2y3z." They're used in texting and on social-networking sites like Twitter, where brevity is the name of the game. Sellers and marketers drop them on discussion forums and blogs. Occasionally, they pop up in online news articles.
These strange looking Web addresses are actually aliases for longer URLs that lead to a site where, presumably, something interesting awaits. It could be a pitch for a product or service, a link to an eBay listing, or even an online photo book of your sister-in-law's wedding.
The links are created by URL shortening services, which do exactly what it sounds like: create short links that redirect clickers to the original, long URL.
People have been using URL shortening long before Twitter came into being, though that microblogging site has made services like TinyURL pervasive. A pioneer in this area, TinyURL, was created in 2002 as a solution for sharing lengthy URLs that tended to "break" when the string was longer than the character width of the screen. It was later adopted by affiliate marketers as a way to cloak affiliate links.
Since then, space has come at an increasing premium in online communications. Not surprisingly, hundreds of similar companies now offer link shortening services—some with click tracking and other cool features.
While TinyURL had been the dominant link shortening service (simply because it's been around so long), it is quickly losing ground to Bit.ly—which last summer became the default service on Twitter and now accounts for more than 2 million links a month on that site, alone, according to TechCrunch. Other popular services include Ow.ly and is.gd. But all that could change now that Facebook and Google have entered the game with Fb.me and goo.gl, respectively.
Which one to use?
It used to be enough just to make those long URLs easy to share. But with the advent of social media marketing, it has also become desirable to track clickthroughs—as well as who's clicking—to gauge the effectiveness of messages and campaigns.
An increasing number of services provide real-time statistics on how many clicks your shortened links are getting. Among these is zi.ma, which also allows your click stats to be downloaded to a CSV file. Bit.ly tracks users' Twitter "conversations" and lets users import click stats to Google spreadsheets. Other services like Cli.gs enable geotargeting, which means clickers can be redirected to a specific site based on their geographic location. Many services also enable "customizable" URLs, which we'll discuss in a bit.
Fb.me and goo.gl are still new to the market, but already they are putting their indelible stamps on it. Facebook introduced a URL shortener for its mobile interface that automatically shortens "Facebook.com" URLs into random letters and numbers.
Meanwhile, goo.gl is initially available only via Google Toolbar and FeedBurner, not as a standalone service. However, it has a built-in security feature that ensures sites being linked to are safe.
Look for link shorteners that use a 301 redirect to ensure the original URL gets SEO credit
Issues to consider
Clearly, there are benefits to shortening URLs, whether you're into selling online, affiliate marketing, or you just like to share links with people you know. But there are other matters to take into consideration before deciding whether this is the right strategy for you.
SEO effect: The question that most often comes up with regard to shortened URLs is "Will it affect my SEO?" That is, if the domain on the link is snipurl.com instead of Yourdomain.com, will you still get credit for the link in search engine rankings?
The answer is… probably, sometimes, but not always. Here's why: Many URL shortening services use a 301 redirect—which sounds a bit scary but simply means that the link points permanently to the original URL. In these cases, search engines typically give the original URL credit.
Instability: As with any fast-growing market segment, startups rush in, often without an inkling of a revenue model. As a result, many eventually fall by the wayside, get acquired or change policies, leaving users stranded. In the case of shortened URLs, any existing links would be broken, Sullivan says.
"If a service goes down permanently, it takes down all those links that were passing along credit to your site with it," he notes.
There have already been hints of this in the link-shortening arena. In August, popular service tr.im announced it would shut down, though it was later revived as an open source project on GitHub. Just two months later, another top service, Cli.gs, announced it would close its doors by the end of the year, only to be acquired in the eleventh hour by another organization.
To minimize risk, it's a good idea when you use one of these services to stay in tune with the company behind it, and keep on top of developments in this market segment. If you get word your provider is going under or making a change that would impact your existing links, make sure you have an alternative and a way to redirect any condensed URLs you already have.
Security: When a URL is shortened, the clicker can't tell by looking at the link, or even by hovering over it, where clicking will take them. For Web marketers, this is a helpful device for masking affiliate tracking codes. But in this era of phishing scams and malware attacks, hiding behind an alias is just bad form, writes Web technology expert Joshua Schachter.
Services increasingly allow users to create custom URLs to instill some measure of trust, as well as branding
Indeed, the eBay Partner Network affiliate program will terminate any account that uses shortened URLs for affiliate links—even those automatically created by feed services. Because users are redirected to an eBay page without their consent, shortened URLs go against the ePN Code of Conduct, according to a TameBay report.
Because of the heightened security risks, services have begun building in some degree of transparency, according to software developer Unweary. For example, adding a prefix to a tinyurl.com link to read "preview.tinyurl.com" will allow clickers to see the destination URL before they click. Similarly, adding a question mark to the end of a budurl.com link will allow clickers to have a preview.
Which brings us to…
Custom URLs: When you enter a long Web address into a URL shortener, what you typically get back is a short string of random letters and numbers. Increasingly, though, services are allowing users to create custom paths to instill some measure of trust, as well as branding. For example, a customized URL leading to an Auctiva EDU page might look like "http://bit.ly/aucedu." If protecting your brand is a concern, Sullivan recommends registering any "vanity" URLs you wish to use.
In December, Bit.ly announced a "private label" solution that is initially aimed at medium to large publishers, but could eventually be offered to a wider user base (most likely for a fee). The idea is that shortening a URL to, say, nyti.ms would boost confidence among the clicking public that the link will, in fact, take them to The New York Times. It would also allow for more granular tracking and analysis, according to Bit.ly.
If you own your domain and have access to a stable host (or you host your domain on your own server), you can create your own branded shortener. Technology blog Lifehacker explains how in this step-by-step guide.
Now that you know the ins and outs of URL shortening, you can decide whether it's the right approach for you and your business. Happy linking!