How to Shorten URLs and Track Clicks

Lori Halley 03 February 2009 14 comments

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 BudURLBit.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 tissues.

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 short-URL service.

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:

Compare:

https://www.wildapricot.com/blogs/newsblog/2009/02/03/how-to-shorten-urls-and-track-clicks

and

goo.gl/hZw13e

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:

http://preview.tinyurl.com/baenax

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 bookmarklet!

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 circumstances.

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 of them.

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.

Detailed Analytics

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 detailed information.

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 statistics available.

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 the service.

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?

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Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Tuesday, 03 February 2009 at 6:54 PM

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Comments

  • DazzlinDonna said:

    Wednesday, 04 February 2009 at 4:17 AM

    Cli.gs is definitely my favorite url shortening service. Its stats and geotargeting features rock.

  • Rajeev Edmonds said:

    Wednesday, 04 February 2009 at 5:00 AM

    I'm going to use cli.gs after this. Before writing this comment, I've already opened an account on cli.gs and updated my twitterfeed account.

    Great post.

  • Maggie said:

    Wednesday, 04 February 2009 at 12:17 PM

    I used to use Tweetburner because it allowed you to track how many people clicked on each link and, because it worked fine, I never looked at any other url-shortening services. But it wasn't always reliable, and then it just disappeared for a while so I had to go search for a new one that would track clicks. Now I juse cli.gs and I love it. The one thing I wish it had is details about each person who clicked the link--specifically, what their Twitter ids are. Sounds like Trim and Bit.ly offer this--I'll have to check them out.

    Url shorteners actually solved a huge, potentially revenue-reducing problem at my association. We do a weekly literature review that includes a section for news and alerts. We use a third party for this service and, for whatever reason, any links that contain the % sign don't work--any url containing "%" simply don't work. This presented a huge problem when it came to linking to products in our online store, as they all have long urls with % signs in them. Not being able to link back to a product you're promoting in a newsletter so people can click through to it and hopefully purchase it? That's a problem. But using an url shortener allowed us to work around it-and also provides another metric for click thrus to those particular products.

  • Sharon Hurley Hall said:

    Saturday, 07 February 2009 at 6:57 AM

    This was the post I was waiting for. I think the ability to track URL clicks is invaluable and I've only just begun to explore it. Sounds like I should get a Cligs account, though the stats in BrightKit also work well (I'm not sure which service they use; I think it's called Owl.ie but it may be a rebadged version of one of the others).

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Sunday, 08 February 2009 at 1:59 PM

    I'm seeing http://tr.im in use a lot lately, too.

  • Samuel Dass said:

    Sunday, 15 February 2009 at 11:29 AM

    Reducing the url has effect on the SEO when blogging is concerned. for example if the url has the word like how-to-shorten-urls-and-track-click... the search engine usually associates these words with the link it is pointing to resulting popularity/ranking of the blog.

    My suggestion would be to reduce only when you have less space (in sms, twitter etc.)

  • pelf said:

    Tuesday, 03 March 2009 at 6:42 PM

    is.gd is my favourite, though I usually don't remember shortening the URLs before using them, LOL.

  • Cigar Inspector said:

    Thursday, 12 March 2009 at 3:23 AM

    Thanks for this post. I'm going to try bit.ly for my next viral contest.

  • Kenny Whitelaw-Jones said:

    Tuesday, 31 March 2009 at 2:32 AM

    Thanks for this post - really useful. I was using tinyurl but got no analytics so am going to give cli.gs a tryout. It has some really good blog and twitter tools and an igoogle gadget also. Great stuff.

  • Gerry Elman said:

    Monday, 15 June 2009 at 5:09 PM

    HootSuite is a recently rebranded site for use with Twitter accounts that shortens URLs with ow.ly.  What are the plusses and minuses of that one?

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Monday, 15 June 2009 at 7:03 PM

    Gerry, as a matter of fact, HootSuite is a tool that I quite often use. It has some useful features, like the ability to schedule tweets and save searches, as well as shortening URLs and tracking the numbers of clicks per link, and if you maintain both a personal and an organization Twitter account, you may find it handy that you can manage multiple profiles through HootSuite. I use the bookmarklet quite often, to create a tweet and shorten a URL in one step - quite a timesaver. Minuses on it would depend on personal style - but not being able to create groups is one feature I know many would like to see included.

    HootSuite wasn't included in this round-up for two main reasons: (1) frankly, it was having a lot of stability issues at the time I wrote the post - those have since been resolved, and HootSuite has added new features in response to user feedback, by the way - and (2) I decided not to include it here because it's much more than a URL-shortener/tracker - something more like a cross between the Twitter web page and the desktop clients (like Tweetdeck, for one) that are increasingly popular.

  • Wild Apricot Blog said:

    Saturday, 10 October 2009 at 6:43 AM

    Link-shortening services are more widely used every day, and very useful to turn a very long website address into a tiny URL that’s a better fit for social media, email, and mobile use — but shortened links can also hide a security risk. Stay safe by

  • Wild Apricot Blog said:

    Wednesday, 09 December 2009 at 9:42 AM

    The importance of measuring the effects of your organization’s social media outreach is not in question. But what metrics should you track? How? And what can you do with those numbers? Let’s look at Twitter, for example.

  • Dave said:

    Tuesday, 13 April 2010 at 11:34 AM

    <a href="http://urlshorts.info/">Urlshorts.info</a> is a URL shortening service that I've created. It still needs tracking implementation.

Sorry, this blog post is closed for further comments.