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A long discussion of URL shorteners

As social networking — particularly Twitter and similar short-form messaging services — becomes more and more important to disseminating product and service information across a wide audience, we’ve seen an explosive growth of “URL shorteners,” services that are intended to take those long http-colon-slash-slash-tonsofgobbledeygookydogpilesfromyourcontentmanagementsystem and make them short-form friendly. Since we’re adding an entire section on social networking to the second edition of our book, due out in July (as well as putting together an entire Shoestring Venture book on social networking), we’ve decided as a public service to give you a shortened version of our bit on URL shorteners.

URL shortening services are, in fact, two services — Web page redirection and social network broadcasting. Let’s take the two in sequence.

More and more social networking is taking the form of short-form messages or so-called microblogging. The most popular, especially since Ashton Kutcher and Oprah Winfrey have cannonballed in, is Twitter, but the Facebook “stream,” a Twitter-like microblog, is another example. Typically limited (or ideally limited) in number of characters — Twitter, for instance, allows for only 140 characters per “tweet” — microblogs are decidedly unfriendly for sharing Web page links, which typically can run dozens of characters, especially if they’re generated by a content management system, such as a blog. Such URLs can easily eat up the entirety of a tweet, giving you little room to “sell” the URL.

Who, after all, would click just a URL?

So, enter the URL shorteners. A URL shortener establishes a redirect page with, well, a short URL. That short URL appears on the microblog or tweet and when the user clicks it, boom, the URL they’re sent to redirects the user to your page.

But to be effective, a URL shortener should also broadcast the new URL to relevant social networking sites. So the second job of a URL shortener is broadcasting, so it requires all your login informaiton for social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Hi5, MySpace, etc.

There are downsides to using URL shorteners.

  • URL shorteners hide the original URL — if broadcasting a link is part of your search engine optimization strategy, then URL shorteners should be chosen with great care. Some URL shorteners, such as ping.fm, simply redirect users to your original Web page (and link). Others, such as Digg, redirect users to a framed page, so they never “see” or “visit” your original link. In the latter instance, if the link is propagated by users on your social network, such as on their Website or blog, then they are propagating the Digg link, not yours. Your link is totally invisible to search engines — in fact, it may drown out the SEO on your own site. This is your NUMBER ONE consideration when choosing a URL shortener — does it preserve the original URL on the final destination or does it wrap the original URL in another URL, thus making the original URL totally invisible to search engines.
  • Continuing with the SEO perspective is the type of redirect that the service offers. Basically, the http protocol offers two types of redirects: a permanent redirect (301) or a temporary redirect (302). Don’t worry about the technical hooey — all this means is that when a search engine finds a permanent redirect, that search engine will regard the destination URL (your Web page) as the correct URL and record that URL (that’s what you want). If a search engine finds a temporary redirect, a 302 redirect, it will regard the shortened URL as the correct URL and enter that into its database (that’s what you don’t want). Services like Plurl and Tweetburner use 302 redirects (run away!), while ping.fm, bit.ly, and TinyURL use 301 redirects.
  • URL shorteners are a prime way to hide spam. As with hosting services, you’re at the mercy of less scrupulous folk who may end up getting your URL shortening service blacklisted.
  • Redirect pages generated by URL shorteners may expire after a certain time — a particular problem if the shortened URL is being reproduced on the Web. Some services (such as TinyURL.com) guarantee that redirect links will never expire; some (such as ping.fm) expire after a few weeks. Related to this issue is the stability of hte company itself. If the company goes out of business, as Zi.ma did a bit ago, then poof! all the links disappear, including those recorded on search engines. For this reason, companies like TinyURL (which has been in business since 2002, a lifetime in Internet company time) or bit.ly, which is financed in part by Twitter, look like better bets than some of the newer services.
  • URL shorteners are limited. Most only broadcast to Twitter (although ping.fm broadcasts to about 30 networks) and all allow you to broadcast to only one account in a network. Serious social networkers often work with multiple accounts on one or more networks (I have three on Twitter) with differentiated but often overlapping broadcast streams — even the best of the broadcaster (ping.fm) doesn’t allow more than one account per network.
  • Ease of use: some URL shorteners (digg, TinyURL, bit.ly) offer browser toolbars to make sharing links as easy as browsing the Web. Others, such as ping.fm, involve navigating to their site, logging in, and filling out a Web form.
  • URL shorteners are so bloody impersonal. Typical URLs look like this: http://ping.fm/ui1Gd.htm. Some services, such as TinyURL or is.gd give you the opportunity to “customize” your URL by adding a directory path. For instance, on bit.ly, we can send out tweeted URLs that always say http://bit.ly.com/shoestring. That increases the URL length, but makes it more personal and proprietary.
  • URL shorteners may be a flash in the pan, thus wasting your time. There is much pressure on Twitter to either incorporate a URL shortener into its interface (leading candidate seems to be bit.ly) or offer a link service (as Facebook and FriendFeed do). Once Twitter adopts one or the other services, all the URL shorteners will disappear like last year’s snow. That will leave only the broadcasting service as the raison d’etre for these services.

    We review seven URL shorteners in our second edition (there are literally dozens):

  • ping.fm, which is the service adopted here at Shoestring Publications after much trial and error — the service does not wrap the link (redirection only) and provides broadcast services to Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Hi5, LinkedIn, FriendFeed, LiveJournal, Diigo, Plaxo, Delicious, tumblr, and about 20 other social networks. ping.fm is a free service.
  • DiggBar: Digg is currently the market leader in link and bookmark sharing and offers an add-on to your browser that allows you to both post and share links to Digg.com. Digg has the unfortunate habit of wrapping the link in their own page, so your link never really appears to the search engine (this is true of all URLs submitted to Digg).
  • bit.ly, which was financed by Twitter and so broadcasts links only to URL. Unlike ping.fm, bit.ly, also a free service, allows you to track the click-throughs on links sent through them (of course, if you’re running any kind of halfway decent site analytics software, one better than Google Analytics, you can easily track your URL shortener broadcasts as well as links generated from them). Speculation among those that know is that bit.ly will eventually be sucked up into the Twitter API.
  • TinyURL.com is a free URL shortening service that is currently used by Twitter for shortening links. Like digg, TinyUrl hides the original link by wrapping it in a frame (so it’s a real problem for serious SEO). TinyURL links are guaranteed never to expire.
  • is.gd has the distinct advantage of being able to provide the shortest URLs possible (“is.gd” has five characters while “tinyurl.com” has 11; the average is.gd URL has 13 characters while the average TinyURL URL has 19 — too many). is.gd guarantees redirects to last permanently.
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    1. [...] or ping.fm link anywhere else. (And if you don’t know what bit.ly and ping.fm are, check out absolutely wonderful piece on URL shorteners published to great acclaim a few months ago. Well, not really to great acclaim, but some generous [...]


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