We’ve talked about the reasons behind branded URL truncation tools as far back as 2010. The branded tool is one we’ve long advocated for and implemented now for countless of our clients. This quick article is essentially the same as the ones we previously wrote with the exception of a few relevant additions… although some statements may seem a little outdated.
Because so many of our partners are unaware of the benefits that come with a self-hosted and branded truncation tool, this article essentially provides them with a little more information.
If you’ve enlisted a managed media service and you haven’t had the discussion as detailed below, it’s time to rethink your online representation.
What is a Short URL Service?
You would probably 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. For example, take this 100-character Google Maps link. Using our fat.ly tool we can reduce the URL length down to just 20 characters (http://fat.ly/26gjs). Far easier to manage, right? They URL won’t break apart or line wrap in text emails, it fits nicely into text messages, it’s far easier to remember, it’s easier to share, and it preserve precious space when using character-limiting microblogging services such as Twitter. Of course, probably the most significant argument for their use (regardless of URL character length) is the statistical data that can be captured when the user is redirected through the service.
Despite the ongoing argument for and against shortening services, it’s clear that they’re here to stay. The mission for web marketers, developers, and business is to learn how we can help formulate a way of managing the services in a way that makes them more enjoyable for people to use.
The first URL shortening service, TinyURL.com , was built by Kevin Gilbertson in January 2002 so that he would could truncate URL’s in a unicycle text Usenet newsgroup. In 2010 when we first penned this article, the site claimed to host 400 million links and serve over 2 billion redirections a month (this figure would be much larger now).
Since TinyURL was launched in 2002, 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 code, the simple implementation and the inexpensive branded 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 first heard Zdnet’s 2006 interview with Gilbertson (when the truncation market was small) I couldn’t believe his lack of enthusiasm to further develop his product. The tinyurl site has been reworked a little since 2002 but it still doesn’t offer the type of statistical and analytical functionality offered by its competitors. The domain itself – http://tinyurl.com – albeit descriptive, 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 single biggest benefit from a marketing perspective 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 then 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. Users can decide if they choose to follow your 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 on-the-fly for the major shortening 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 10% of all short URL’s created will link to a site that no longer exists (this will grow substantially over time). 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.
Link rot isn’t a result of just URL truncation. In the process of moving this article to our BeliefMedia blog, 12 links were removed because the destination page ceased to exist. A short URL, however, normally provide an edit function, so dead links can be directed to an alternative source. One could argue that a “self-correcting” feature of a short URL makes them a more viable way of sharing any link.
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 and 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 (long before Twitter introduced their own
t.co shortener). Although tr.im stated that links would continue to work until 31 December 2009, that still wasn’t 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… and then later removed it. 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 business 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. Not such a big deal, really, but you’re investing trust into another system that could reflect poorly on your brand if the service doesn’t deliver to user expectations.
The fat.ly Review
One of our own services, fat.ly, offered an unregistered (and registered) API with unrestricted access… and we stupidly had faith in the honesty and integrity of the Internet community. It was around 2011 (or so) when we noticed the large number of questionable fat.ly links created by spammers and others with malicious intent. Before and after our own violations were identified, others with Libyan domains had their services disabled because of pornographic links in their service, so it was important that we immediately auctioned a solution. To mitigate the threat facing our own service, we quickly deleted all URLs that didn’t belong to us (or registered users), disabled external access, and made the platform available only to clients. While the Libyan registry is unquestionably the most responsive of all registries to deal with inquires, questions, phone calls, and emails, their rule of law has to be respected. We didn’t want the fate our own business asset to be compromised by spammers – thus the (difficult) decision to shut down external access. Sadly, we made a massive contribution to link rot that couldn’t be avoided.
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 in early 2010 at Goo.gl – meaning that if you were in a position to use their service, there would be no guessing who created the link when you send it to somebody. Google offers a certain measure of credibility, longevity, and quality assurance by virtue of their own malware database. The service is currently only available from within certain applications but it’s only a matter of time before the service is widely released for the consumption of the general 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. Indeed, Goo.gl was and is successful.
Facebook 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
http://fb.me/mkhoury, making it easy for me to send my own profile links (and various brand 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 – at least when we wrote this in 2010 – already truncating links from within various mobile applications.
YouTube released their own shortener at youtu.be … a brilliant way of protecting their brand name. The URL 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 it’s a measure of quality control in a system plagued by uncertainty. 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 business – large or small – shouldn’t invest in their own branded shortening service… and it’s something we’ll address with partners during our first consultation. 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 (although a more robust solution is almost always used). The small price to pay for implementation of such a service is only a couple of hundred dollars so it’s ridiculous that organisations wouldn’t insist on ownership of their marketing data. A self-managed service will propagate your name, give further recognition to your brand, and it would be well received by customers. Best of all, it’s managed internally.
The Effect of Branded URLs on SEO
Links sent via microblogging services may be a valuable source of back-links for page-ranking search engines such as Google. Sending out third-party short URL’s only serve to popularise the ‘other’ domain at the expense of your own – just ridiculous. These third-party commercial services may also profit from your campaigns via adverts served with your destination page. Even bit.ly often serves a silly toolbar that cloaks the actual destination page with a frame they use to further their own marketing agenda.
Choice of Domain Name
I’ve had a look at a range of available names given the countless country TLD extenstions available. When we initially wrote about available service options, we did so with a focus on airlines. We sent an email to countless marketing departments with a copy of an early white paper detailing the concepts that they could easily implement. For each company we contacted we provided a number of example domain names that would fit their brand or accompany a particular marketing campaign. Some of the example names we suggested were as follows: qant.as, emirat.es, singa.ir, asia.na, etih.ad, jetbl.eu, flygir.ly, virg.in or vau.st. There are literally hundreds of combinations.
Many of these domains were already registered when I made contact… with some even offering short URL services not sanctioned by the airlines that they seemingly claim to represent. None, however, were used by or registered to an airline.
I made the comment in 2010 that it would “be interesting to come back in 5 years and see who has taken my advice”. Of course, they all did – usually within a few months.
Since some of the airline brand names were registered – with some operating as unauthorised URL shorteners – our white paper made a good case for airlines to protect their brand via domain name registrations that are the same as, or resemble, an airline trading name. Of particular concern
is was the owner of qant.as operating a URL shortening service when they had no affiliation whatsoever with the airline (they were linking to adult content). This means that spammers, porn marketers and dodgy sales people could potentially use a trusted brand name to lure web users into following questionable links.
Making Sharing Easy
Sharing a page on social usually results in a popup box with text that a user can edit before sending on their message. However, you’ll often have no idea how the URL is shared on social once it’s let loose into the wild.
We have written a number of plugins that (optionally) use our shor.tt tool to measure the life of the shared URL once it makes its way onto other platforms. A number of strategies can be employed to measure what URL was shared, and how many times it was shared on each service. This feature (one of many), once again, goes to prove the service’s viability. We also include a truncated URL under each post on almost all of our websites to encourage its use when sharing.
Integration With the Belief Media Client System
Some of the most popular social management tools enforce use of their own truncation tools. While it’s certainly the most sensible means of ensuring ‘ownership’ of data, it does compromise on the ability for business to brand themselves via their own links. For this reason, our social management and marketing tools permit you to add a truncation tool of your choice. Because it’s an external tool, internal analytics may not always be available, but they will usually be available from within the other remote platform.
All our clients get access to both fat.ly and shor.tt by default. Both tools are tightly integrated with our system analytics. We like to think that because the URLs are used only by reputable brands, it gives the URL a kind of quality assurance.
If you’re a franchise business, we’ll work closely with you in establishing a unique and compelling domain to use for your own truncation services. Each independent business owner will then be assigned user access, while the entire system is (usually) managed by us (and owned by you). A single business entity will have their usage managed in much the same way.
Our mantra when it comes to URL truncation is simple: Protect your brand and take ownership of your data. We normally have a turnaround time of just a few hours to set up the short URL service and have the tool married with our client system. To reduce the barriers to entry, we’re also looking at integrating a few open-source products.
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