Joshua Schacter: URL Shorteners Considered Harmful

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in skmurphy

Joshua Schacter’s “On URL Shorteners” is a great examination of the likely outcomes from the proliferation and use of URL shorteners.

There are three other parties in the ecosystem of a link: the publisher (the site the link points to), the transit (places where that shortened link is used, such as Twitter or TypePad), and the clicker (the person who ultimately follows the shortened links). Each is harmed to some extent by URL shortening.

It’s a very useful analysis that looks at the likely trajectory of “free” services that are middlemen. Since twitter is one of the more popular drivers for URL shorteners due to the 140 character limit Jason Kottke, while agreeing with Schachter, suggests the following:

With respect to Twitter, I would like to see two things happen:

  1. That they automatically unshorten all URLs except when the 140 character limit is necessary in SMS messages.
  2. In cases where shortening is necessary, Twitter should automatically use a shortener of their own.

That way, users know what they’re getting and as long as Twitter is around, those links stay alive.

Since I only post quotes on twitter/skmurphy I don’t use a URL shortener. I tried them out when I was posting announcements to the SDForum Marketing SIG Yahoo Group that contained the ginormous URLs that the SDForum website uses (which were broken up by Yahoo on send and inevitably led to complaints about a broken URL) but the cure was worse than that disease.

I do use an “unshortener,” the Backtweets tool (from the folks who brought you Backtype, another useful tool for bloggers) to search for links to sites in tweets

The comments are also well worth reading, I found Andrew Grumet‘s had a reasonable conclusion

There’s nothing in the law to prevent the owners of any of these shorteners to sell their domain to the highest bidder. Neither is there anything to prevent these operators from lapsing on their domain registration. Do you know when your favorite URL shortener’s registration expires?

It doesn’t really matter of no new links are created through the domain, btw. In the past five days I’ve gotten over two hundred spam attempts to URLs that haven’t existed on my domain since early 2006.

Economics and entropy dictate that most of these domains will fall into spammer hands eventually.

Update April 6: In re-reading this the core advice of “be careful of brokers or intermediaries between you and your customer who are working for free: their business model is subject to change without notice” got lost and I wanted to highlight it.

Update April 12: I wanted to highlight a comment Terry Frazier made, which outlines one use case I think it appropriate–hosting your own shortener.

Most of the shortened URLs I use are intended for temporary use and I don’t really care if they go away someday. I never record a shortened URL as a link.

However, there is an exception to the temporary usage, and that is when the URL is published in some offline form. Using a shortened URL in these cases is not only helpful to the reader, but may well increase the likelihood that readers will type the URL into their browser to visit the site.

When published offline the shortened URL is, indeed, “permanent.” At least, after a fashion. To date, I have made it a point to publish both the original URL and the shortened version, so even if the shortened URL goes bad, the reader will have the original.

The preferred method, however, would be to run your own short URL service, via your own domain. This is pretty simple using a product like Will Master’s GoShortURL php script. This would keep the short URL valid for as long as you maintained your own domain. And if you let your domain go, you probably don’t care about the shortened links anymore anyway.

Update April 19: Steve Hodson lists 91 different URL shorteners in “URL Shorteners–the Herpes of the Web

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Comments (3)

  • John Busco

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    Joshua’s post was a very interesting analysis of how things work, potential for monetization, and potential for mischief.

    But, I’m not too worried about the way I typically use shortened URLs. As I user, I click on them from from a reasonably trusted source. So far, I haven’t hit spam. As a sender of shortened links, I use them for short-term needs like Tweets or emails with short shelf life. So, I’m not so worried that the shortening service will go away some day.

    It’s always a good idea to understand how a service you’re using works, and to give thought to any long-term consequences, though. Thanks!

    John

    Reply

  • Terry Frazier

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    I agree with John, most of the shortened URLs I use are intended for temporary use and I don’t really care if they go away someday. I never record a shortened URL as a link.

    However, there is an exception to the temporary usage, and that is when the URL is published in some offline form. Using a shortened URL in these cases is not only helpful to the reader, but may well increase the likelihood that readers will type the URL into their browser to visit the site.

    When published offline the shortened URL is, indeed, “permanent.” At least, after a fashion. To date, I have made it a point to publish both the original URL and the shortened version, so even if the shortened URL goes bad, the reader will have the original.

    The preferred method, however, would be to run your own shorURL service, via your own domain. This is pretty simple using a product like Will Master’s GoShortURL php script. This would keep the shortURL valid for as long as you maintained your own domain. And if you let your domain go, you probably don’t care about the shortened links anymore anyway.

    – twf

    Reply

  • SKMurphy » Quotes for Entrepreneurs - April 2009

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    [...] Quoted in “Joshua Schachter: URL Shorteners Considered Harmful” which referenced and elaborated on Joshua Schachter’s “On URL Shorteners.” This quote was in the comments. [...]

    Reply

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