One segment of web-based tools that seems to be expanding by the minute is URL shorteners. These are sites like tinyurl.com that allow users to redirect their long, cryptic web address to one which is much easier to remember. It’s obvious that these tools have the potential to make a lot of money: controlling a link is the same as controlling web traffic. And there are a number of ways in which URL shorteners can use the links it creates.
There are several advantages to the end-user of a URL shortening service:
- The most obvious is that the web address is, well, shorter. A long web address is not only hard to remember, it’s difficult to use in many other web-based services such as a Facebook Status Update or a Twitter tweet. Short web addresses conserve valuable character space in these services.
- Many URL shorteners keep detailed traffic statistics about the web address, which means the owner of the shortened web address can see not only how much traffic visited the web address but also where the traffic came from.
- A shortened web address hides the “real web address” or the destination page. This is great when your original web address is long and hard on the eyes. But it can also help some unscrupulous page owners by hiding the identity of the page behind the shortened web address, which sometimes might be a page that many users wouldn’t want to visit.
- Some URL shorteners allow users to choose a custom web address. The advantage of having a memorable web address is that a web surfer doesn’t have to search for it; it’s also re-usable, meaning that the web address can be re-directed to new content. One example is http://tinyurl.com/mypictures, which might point to an online album with an almost indecipherable web address.
- The best URL shorteners will use a 301 redirect to pass along their Google page rank to the destination web address. This helps the redirected web address advance in search rankings.
- Many web services utilize their own forwarding scripts that allow the link to be loaded into a frame, leaving the original page from which the link was clicked intact – Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn all do this. This allows a user on this site to link to relevant information without the reader leaving their profile page.
- Some URL shorteners give their users access to their link database through an API. These links can provide users with limitless analytics potential to mine data and traffic information. Imagine if TinyURL could be merged with a Reddit or Digg.
But as with anything else, URL shorteners come with their own set of disadvantages:
- As noted above, unscrupulous users can hide potentially offensive or malicious destination pages with a shortened web address. Some URL shorteners have begun to display the destination web address alongside the shortened web address, and this practice will likely become more prevalent.
- Creating URL shorteners is relatively easy, but many attract so much traffic that their web hosting bills skyrocket and their services go out of business. When URL shorteners shut down, so do all of the links that anyone ever created with their services.
- Shortened web addresses generally don’t convey any information about the content on the destination page and therefore offer no incentives to click on the link. A shortened web address in Twitter won’t contain any link text, and the reader is forced to gather context about the link from the text of the update.
- Many URL shorteners don’t have robust user account features – they simply allow anonymous users to redirect web addresses. While this might save time, it also prevents frequent users from being able to use a dashboard to organize their shortened web addresses and to keep track of which web addresses they’ve shortened.
- Shortened web addresses generally have no link text and therefore do not associate themselves organically with a keyword. Readers have to either gather context from the surrounding content or take a chance with the link.