If you’ve ever received an email with a long link that breaks across
several lines, so you’ve had to copy-and-paste the URL into your web
browser, the benefits of a URL-shortening service will be immediately
clear. Short URLs are a better fit wherever your messages are
restricted in length — social networking sites, chat rooms, text to
mobile phones — and they’re simply easier to remember.
There are many free URL-shortening services to choose from, and they
all work pretty much the same way — redirecting your links through the domain
name of the service. For the shortest short links, obviously, Is.gd is obviously hard to beat. Other popular choices include BudURL, Bit.ly, Snipurl, Cli.gs… and of course TinyURL,
one of the first to launch and so widely used that “tiny url” has become shorthand for “truncated web
address,” much as the Kleenex name is applied to any brand of facial
Some URL shorteners are more reliable and easier to use than others,
with a variety of useful features — such as previews, bookmarklets,
and, in some cases, the ability to track the clicks on your shortened
links — but it often comes down in the end, like so many choices, to
which will best suit your needs and personal preferences. Let’s take a
closer look at URL shortening in general, however, and at a few of the
most useful features that you may want to look for in choosing a
Why Use Shorter URLs?
Once the tool of online marketers who wanted to disguise the
destination of their links, URL shorteners have gone mainstream with
the rise of email newsletters and social media sites like Twitter,
Identi.ca, Plurk, and the like, where every keystroke is counted. Pushed to the limit, character cutting can come at the expense of clear communication, and — b4 u no wassup —
you can begin to “tweet” like a texting teen.
Website addresses, on the other hand, don't carry the burden of communication. The actual characters that make up the link are not unimportant, certainly — but the link is one place where changing the characters won't directly risk the clarity of the message itself. To save space, some social networking tools
will automatically shorten any links beyond a certain length; and Twitter, for
example, automatically converts your long web addresses into TinyURL links:
Much better, isn't it?
There’s just one problem with a short URL:
Look at the first link in this example, and you get a pretty good
idea of where clicking that link will take you. But how can you know
where that shorter link will lead?
When a URL is shortened, the true destination is disguised from the
viewer, so the potential for mischievous, self-serving, or downright
malicious linking to take place. “Rick rolling” is slang for a prank
common on the social networking sites, for example, where the aim is to
get an unsuspecting friend to click through to a certain singer’s music
video. Funny stuff? Maybe — but that cloaked link could just as easily lead
to a site that’s “not safe for work,” to a phishing site, or even to a
malware-infected website that can harm the viewer’s computer.
(It’s not all bad, though: don't forget that the same redirection technique may help you to
hide an email address on a webpage from being harvested by spammers’
software — you can shorten a “mailto” link just the same as you would a
regular “http” web link. Although the result is not 100% sure to work
in all web browsers, it may be worth a shot!)
The bottom line here is that you can’t know where a shortened link will
send you when you click on it. I could tell you that my TinyURL link,
above, points to a page on Google Maps — but you’ll just have
to take my word for that, won't you?
Offer a Preview Option
A preview will let your readers see where your link is going to take
them, without them actually having to click through to the site.
TinyURL is just one of the growing number of URL-shortening services to
offer a preview option, and the preview link for that shortened link to
Google Maps, above, would look like this:
Go ahead — try it out!
Security is a growing concern online, and it’s difficult enough to
compete for attention without adding the extra barrier of asking people
who don’t know you very well to trust you enough to click a mysterious
link. A preview helps to establish trust.
On the other hand, that TinyURL preview link uses up 8 characters
more than the simple shortened link, true, and that’s likely one reason
why preview links are still not as commonly used as perhaps they should
be. Previews also require your readers to make one extra click, which
can cut down on the number of people who do click through.
And if the added length of preview links is a concern, BudURL has the shortest preview link that I’ve found. Just adding a question mark to the end of any BudURL-created link (such as http://budurl.com/dhdx) will create a preview link (http://budurl.com/dhdx?). In this example, by the way, I’m giving you a link to a Wild Apricot post on security issues in social media — with a preview, you don’t have to take my word for that!
Whether or not you will give your readers a specific preview link
every time, it makes good sense to choose one of the URL-shortening
services that give a preview option. That way, the previews are there
when they’re needed.
Speaking of Security...
Some URL-shortening services may ask for your username and password
for Twitter, FriendFeed, or other social networks. Sometimes this is a
matter of providing you with additional functions, such as one-click
publishing of your links to Twitter, but I’ve seen a few URL shorteners
that require you to give up your Twitter login details before you can
use the service at all. Most reputable services will allow you to
create shortened URLs without having an account at all, however, and
will always make it optional to give up your login details if you want to add more functionality to the basic service.
As always, be very cautious about giving your passwords to any third-party website.
Get a Bookmarklet
This is a huge timesaver! A bookmarklet is a tiny scrap of code that
you can drag-and-drop to add to your browser’s bookmarks toolbar. With
a bookmarklet installed, one quick click can make a shortened link.
While you’re looking at a web page you’d like to share as a
shortened link, simply click the bookmarklet button on your toolbar and
the link will be created. The alternative would be to copy the long URL
from the browser’s location bar, go to the URL shortener website, paste
in the long URL, create the link… you can see the benefits of a
BudURL, TinyURL, Bit.ly, Snurl, Cli.gs, Is.gd, almost all of the most frequently recommended URL shorteners offer a bookmarklet (Twurl.cc seems to be one of the few exceptions) so there’s really no reason to do without this time-saving tool.
Track the Clicks on Short URLs
Sometimes it’s not enough to post a link — you want to know how many
people actuallly clicked on it. Tracking click-through numbers for a
link you’ve posted to Twitter or Facebook, for example, will give a
pretty good idea of your effective “reach” on that platform, as well as
fine-tuning your sense of what your Friends are looking for in the way
of content from you.
And beyond social media, have you thought about using click-tracking
short URLs for some links on your website or blog, to learn more about
what linked text is most interesting to your readers? What about
setting up two or three different short URLs to test the effectiveness
of different linked graphics or calls to action? Because your shortened
link is dependent on a third-party service, you’ll want to do this
sparingly if at all — but it could give very useful information in some
Public vs Private Stats
How much information do you want to share with others? Go2.me, Idek.net and BudURL
are among those — probably about half of the available services — that
make it possible for anyone to see the click numbers for any link, if
they know how.
For example, remember that preview link (http://budurl.com/dhdx?) I showed you earlier? Change the question mark on the end to “/s” (http://budurl.com/dhdx/s) and we’ll both see the Total Click Count number.
Some services go further — they serve up your linked page within a
frame, adding an area at the top of the page where click statistics are
displayed (in the case of Go2.me and some others, comments are enabled
there too): the interested reader doesn’t have to do anything special
to view the stats for your link; the numbers are right there in front
Whether public statistics are a privacy concern or a convenience for
you — for sharing with a committee, perhaps? — will depend on your
organization and your purpose in shortening links. Maybe you don’t much
care one way or another, but it’s a factor to be aware of in choosing
which URL-shortening service to use.
In choosing a URL-shortening service that provides analytics, it may
be that simple click counts are all you need. If you’re concerned about
tracking the effectiveness of your social media efforts, however, or
otherwise want to track with a marketing focus, you might want more
URL shorteners seem to be putting a push on in the area of
analytics, and you do have more choices here than just a few short
months ago. For example, Snipurl counts total clicks and unique clicks; Tr.im tracks the visitor’s location, the referring site, and time of click as well as the total number of clicks; Bit.ly shows traffic sources as well as "conversations" — how many people have passed along your short link on Twitter and FriendFeed.
Some of the URL-shortening services offer basic click counts to free
account holders, and more detailed stats to paid accounts — BudURL, for
one, will track click counts on up to 250 links for each free account,
while their paid accounts get some of the most detailed real-time
Top Picks for Short URLs
Among the free URL shortener services, for me, Cli.gs
probably wins out — at the moment — for its depth of detail in free
real-time analytics and, perhaps even more important in the long run,
for its reliability, flexibility, and responsiveness to those who use
Another top contender is Snipurl (which is exactly the same as Snurl, Snipr and Sn.im,
identical service on different domains). The analytics at Snipurl don’t
quite compete with Cli.gs, perhaps, but it has a remarkably good
preview page (with a “snapshot” of the destination web page), lots of
settings to customize the defaults for how you use it — whether you
want a one-click copy of the URL, or to automatically copy to
clipboard, for example — and a whole host of “social” features designed
to make it as easy as possible to share your links, both on Snipurl.com
itself (see http://snipurl.com/site/browse) and in social media and social networking sites.
But of course, as with any web tool or service, different features will be more important to different people, depending on how you plan to use it, who you're sharing your links with, and for what purpose.
Which features of your
favorite URL-shortening service have proven to be most useful to you?
What features are on your wish list?