URL Shorteners: When and how to use them

In recent years, URL shortening and URL redirection services have started popping up everywhere like mushrooms after the rain. Their main purpose is to shorten the typically long web addresses to make sharing by email or Twitter easier.

Considering the URLs generated by sites like Google Maps can often be over 200 characters in length, being able to shrink them down to a tenth of their length before sharing them is hugely handy. However, the recent announcement from tr.im, one of the many shorteners out there, saying that it felt there was no way forward for its service and that it would close its doors by the end of 2009. (They’ve since said they’ll stay the course. For now.)

It sent a shiver down our collective web archiving nerd’s spine, as we imagined the graveyard of dead links the future held as more of these services shut down.

Best practices on using URL shorteners

There are times where short URLs are appropriate, and others where it’s best to avoid them:

1. Use them in time sensitive contexts

Short URLs are great for sending a link via IM, over Twitter or in email to a friend or colleague. If it’s likely that you’ll need to refer to the link in more than a few weeks, then don’t rely on a short URL and send the full original link.

Don’t use them in blog entries, research papers or anything that has long-term value unless you want to have to go back at a later date and change them all when a shortener announces it’s closing down.

2. Put together a super-quick campaign

Running a competition this afternoon and need to track participation without worrying about asking your web developer to set up Google Analytics for your microsite? Use a few short URLs and you’ll have some rough and ready data immediately. It may not be as reliable or thorough as classic site analytics but it’s a great way to get moving fast.

Once the campaign is over, copy your data somewhere safe for future reference.

3. Use them only in trusted environments

Recently, I received an email from an ex work colleague inviting me to look at some holiday photos. I suspected something was odd because I’d not heard from her in years, so didn’t click on the short URLs. My spidey senses were right and when prompted, she said that she’d never sent the email and that her computer hadn’t seen a virus scan in centuries. The short URLs? They would have sent me through to some phishing sites.

Short URL hacking unfortunately hasn’t been completely eradicated yet either.

Avoid opening short URLs without knowledge of where they lead, and preferably use services that allow you to preview the destination address like TinyURL’s Previewer.

4. Always archive the full URL

Fond of bookmarking what you find for future reference? Be sure to bookmark the full URL, not the short URL, otherwise your entire archive may become a road to nowhere a few months down the line.

How to make the most of short URLs

1. Use a shortener that allows you to track clicks

Many URL shorteners allow you to create an account to track clicks on the URLs you create.

For example, Bit.ly allows me to see and share the stats on the latest blog entry I published of who clicked on the short URL (in this instance, the link was used to share the post on Twitter):

http://bit.ly/info/15wBen

Bit.ly allows us to find out total clicks, breakdown of when the clicks happened and where they came from. More interestingly, it aggregates conversation and lets you know who has been talking about you and where.

2. Create a customised URL name

Make it memorable by changing the default generated name to something easier to remember.

bit.ly/tastythai will be more memorable than bit.ly/gbXt5 won’t it?

3. Use publicly viewable results

This one won’t be to everyone’s taste: If your team is involved in a campaign where you’re using the short URLs, showing everyone how to look at the number of clicks each link has received is a great way to make them feel empowered.

A twist on this: Give everyone their own short URL and compete over who gets the most clicks. Of course, this only works if your team clearly understands the difference between useful sharing and spamming. We don’t want it to turn into a spam competition, do we?

There is a place and time for every web tool, so use your short URLs wisely!

3 responses to “URL Shorteners: When and how to use them

  1. Excellent guide! I wonder, though, why there aren’t handy guides like this for setting up your own short-url service? Surely there’s a self-hosted option that can be installed alongside your CMS?

  2. I just created z2z.ca a URL shortening service mainly targeted at Canadians. It’s time! Check it (note: it’s still in its infancy mode, but working perfectly).

  3. This is great, thanks for posting this Vero. URL shorteners so useful for twitter.

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I'm Véro - a crafty, knitty, spinny gal who enjoys making (and drinking) a cocktail or three. If you've stumbled here, you might enjoy browsing some of my older posts with the tags over to the right or finding out more about me.

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