Tiny URL, Big Trouble

Joshua Schachter explains how URL shorteners like TinyURL, bit.ly, etc., originally created to prevent long URLs from breaking in 1990s e-mail clients, and now used primarily as a means of monetizing someone else’s content, are bad:

  • They “add another layer of indirection to an already creaky system, [making what] used to be transparent … opaque,” slowing down web use by adding needless lookups, and potentially disguising spam.
  • Shorteners “steal search juice” from the original publishers. (For example, with the Digg bar and Digg short URL, your content makes Digg more valuable and your site less valuable; the more content you create, the richer you make Digg.)
  • “A new and potentially unreliable middleman now sits between the link and its destination. And the long-term archivability of the hyperlink now depends on the health of a third party.”

And more. Via Merlin Mann.

Anyone who creates web content should read Joshua’s post. I’m sold and will dial way back on my use of the zeldman.com short URL. The question remains, what to do when you need to paste a long, cumbersome link into a 140-character service like Twitter. (If you do nothing, Twitter itself will shorten the link via TinyURL.)

[tags]URL, URLshortener, JoshuaSchachter, redirect, abstraction, Digg, findability, searchjuice, SEO[/tags]

36 thoughts on “Tiny URL, Big Trouble”

  1. There’s been a lot of great discussion about semantic webby ways to try to fix these issues. Jeremy Keith comes to a lot of great conclusions about this stuff and wraps it up real nice-like.

    http://adactio.com/journal/1568/

    The URL is a big deal. It’s the UNIFORM RESOURCE LOCATOR and that sounds important. When you obfuscate that without providing a clear way to get the original (or “canonical” to follow up with some of this semanticyness), you’re kind of murkying up some water.

    I’d say read Jeremy’s post, follow some of the links, see some of the other techniques for addressing Short Url linking (http://sites.google.com/a/snaplog.com/wiki/short_url) and see what you can do to make your site or web app more short-url friendly.

    For a better web!

  2. I use and love Bit.ly much like I use Del.icio.us. Every time I shorten a link and use it in Twitter or email, it saves the links like bookmarks where I can go back to them, and I can even see how many people clicked them. 99% of the URLs I use in Bit.ly are not my own content. This is for stuff I find on the web that I want to share. If I were to link to my own content, I’d resist using a URL shortner just in the same way that I would not forward someone to a Del.icio.us bookmark of my own work.

  3. I’ve never been a big fan of Digg (as a content publisher) because it seems nearly impossible to land on the home page of the site. I prefer to post articles to Dzone.com and Scriptandstyle.com which both niche sites send me plenty of traffic.

    I do find it annoying of Digg to quasi host my content on their domain which in essence diminishes the SEO of my website while helping Diggs.

    Regarding URL shortening services, I’m always hesitant to click on links that are masked because I always feel like somebody is going to goatse.cx me while at work.

  4. I don’t see a problem with the Zeldman short url the you are using, primarily because you are using it for your own content, and use a 302 redirect, which should keep your link value in the search engines.

    I can definitely understand the problem in using external linking services, as the will break your link at some point in time. However, combined with the relatively short lifespan of a tweet (how often do you read old tweets?) I do not see the problem. Long term, no one (almost) will you the links from your tweet. Just don’t use the short url’s in more permanent content like blogposts and articles.

  5. Surely your zeldman.com short url is alright if you’re linking to your own content from twitter, yes?

  6. I think short URLS are over used in some areas but there are some good uses for them that should continue to be used.

    Running your own set up is a great idea. There is no middle man to worry about and your just re directing to an internal page.

    Using a short URL in twitter is almost required, but I love Chris’ idea of Twitter keeping the long url within the link, but displaying the text as ‘link’. I would add to that putting the URL in the title tag of the link. That way people can hover over and see where they are going. This would help with spam.

    Speaking of Digg, if your not happy with their tactics (which I’m not) then check out how John Gruber is dealing with Digg.

  7. This sounds an awful lot like manufacturing a problem and then creating an incensed populace carrying banners and pitchforks behind it. URL shortening isn’t going anywhere. The average user doesn’t care about *any* of these problems, likely chalking them up to the average web experience. If you want to lead in this direction, then when you use your shortened URLs, give the option that gives a clickthrough, e.g., with http://is.gd you can add a – (dash) at the end of the shortened URL and anyone who clicks to it will be displayed the actual URL they’ll be headed to. Other URL shorteners offer similar capability.

    I think the average user doesn’t care about this, and won’t until it becomes the rule, not the exception, that shortened URLs point to spam, NSFW videos, malware, etc.

    The real goal here is to simply educate the people. If you get a shortened URL from someone you don’t know or trust, don’t click it. Just like you don’t open their emails to you with the subject line of “V1AGR4 B1G W1N5!”

  8. Interesting points about URL shortening. Twitter doesn’t always seem to shorten URLs for me; if the URL goes over the 140 character limit, it just complains that the tweet is too long. Only sometimes, but I have had to do the thing manually.

    @Chris, that’s an idea yes, or perhaps it’d allow you to specify the link text. Then again, scrap that, it’s a move away from the simplicity of it all.

  9. The one area that shortened URL have real currency is on the printed page. Newspapers, while they still exist in the physical world, must love avoiding the need to print cumbersomely long URLs.

  10. Recently, designing a custom-made blog for a friend and I’m also coding an internal short url feature for the twitter account attached to the blog as well as the tweet buttons in each article. Good to see same approach is also used by zeldman.com

  11. Funny thing, mentioning Twitter. Maybe the 140 chars cap is a good indication that posting urls is not such a good idea after all. I just recently signed in to Twitter and left it alone after a couple of days trying it out. The everexpanding list of unrecognizable urls gave me a headache, and even though half of the time I had no idea where they were leading, I kept clicking them anyway.

    If only because it completely obscures the destination, leaving the one to click clueless as to where he is going, shortened urls are evil. So is Twitter btw, maybe that’s why they flow so well together.

  12. ps: 301 status code should be used for url shorteners to pass the link juice (or in other words: to present it as a permanent redirection)

  13. Some clients, like Nambu, will preserve the server name in links created by tinyurl, etc. so at least you can know where you’re going. Honestly, URL shortening should be the responsibility of app makers, not end users…

  14. THE BACKLASH IS COMING, AND SOON
    “URL shorteners …used primarily as a means of monetizing someone else’s content”
    I’m convinced we’re going to see some real fireworks soon. Major court cases, legislative initiatives, and who knows what else. The changes – newspaper closings, etc… – are there for everyone to see.
    There are powerful, monied interests involved and they will not go quietly into the night. DMCA was just the beginning.
    Stay tuned and be involved. What kind of online world do we want?

  15. Agreed with Brade — we shouldn’t have to use those 3rd party services. if I post on Bike Hugger, the app should make a link for me that’s tiny with my domain in it.

  16. @Chris: off the top of my head, just replacing the anchor text in a tweet wouldn’t work, the url being part of the characters count. If the total count, including any url you post (and any @name, for that matter), does not exceed 140 chars, then the url won’t be shortened. If it does, Twitter will tinyurl-ize it. Adding placeholder text (e.g. “link”) would in fact add overhead, and therefore be counterproductive.

    Some Twitter clients, like the Twitterfox FF extension I use, automatically scans tinyurls and puts the full url in a tooltip. Given the short lifespan of a tweet, I find that acceptable and useful. In any other context, I find url shortening short-sighted and powerfully irritating.

  17. maybe, as web designers, it is enough to admit that ridiculously long urls are the problem and that they need to be short. That having a url like “2009/04/14/tiny-url-big-trouble/” is something that most people don’t care about and that “tiny-url” or something would be sufficient… URLs are ridiculously clumsy as an address anyway…

  18. Fixing twitter’s handling of URLs definitely seems like the right solution here. There’s a good mechanism for linking, and it doesn’t involve exposing the URL; it involves meaningful, useful link text. “Link” is not that. (More at my URL)

  19. if people want to use short URLs it means it is what people want, so if original site does not provide it (because developers are lazy and leave ugly long URLs or site is greedy and want to have better rank with spelled out URL) people will use some help. Either 3rd party like tinyURL or do it themselves. So it looks clear that surfers want it short, thus site owners should give it to the users otherwise someone will do it for them.
    At very least site owners should offer somewhat on the top, next to address bar a short URL.
    for example this page
    http://www.zeldman.com/2009/04/14/tiny-url-big-trouble/#comments
    can still have it URL but it should be easy for me to grab a short URL that leads here

  20. For as long as web designers persist in their use of absurdly long links we shall be dependent upon link shortening services.

    The cure is simple and the problem would vanish overnight if web designers would just pay attention to the needs of their users.

    Email messages impose size limits that will never change in the foreseeable future. It would require a major infrastructure change which is extremely unlikely to happen.

    Besides which even if we disregard the physical size limits, the fact remains that typing those links is not fun in situations where copy/paste/click is not possible.

    tweet??? ~= banality^3 WTBFD? interruptus maximus productivitius minmus

  21. We’re new, and not included in the article but

    we think our URL shortening service http://zi.pe brings a lot of value into the short URL market.

    We not only shorten links, but also text, email addresses, and a photos (with upload).

    People get a bad taste in their mouths for short url services because they are still using the original old school ones that have little to no value.

    Bit.ly and TinyUrl are both out-dated and their url’s are too long. One character can make or break a great twitter post…

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