The Day I Decided to be Evil [URL Shorteners]

There’s a pervasive meme going around that continues to claim that URL shorteners are evil. It reared it’s ugly head again today when CloudAve deigned it necessary to note upstart URL shortener’s downtime today.

After a screenshot and less than one sentence announcing the news, it was clear that the whole incident was simply a springboard for author Epson Antonsen to rail against URL shorteners for the rest of the post:

The question of trust in this regard is especially important because these services has no working business model. Also any developer can create such a service in less than an hour making the barriers of entry for this service extremely low. Expect to see URL shortener services changing their tactics: Digg launched their already much hated DiggBar last week. This service unlike most other url shortener services wraps the actual landing page in a frame and adds a top-frame bar with Digg information. is also now doing this (unsure if this feature is new to this service). The problem for site owners is that they have no control over how these services will change. DiggBar is already “stealing” link-juice by having a digg-shortened link on Delicious instead of the original url. Also DiggBar and responds with a frameset (200 http status code) instead of a redirect (301 http status code). This can result in a lower pagerank as Google will not see the link from “Site X” to “Site Y” but instead from to “Site Y”. In my view URL shorteners are just plain evil. They add an extra unnecessary layer on the web.

The paragraph contains links to nearly every negative bit of URL shortener coverage in the last several weeks – of which there’s been quite a bit.

Why Shorten?
Just what is the purpose of a URL shortener, anyway?  It may seem like a remedial question for us Twitter addicted, but one of my PR contacts that I consider to be very Web 2.0 savvy just asked me for an explanation, so I suppose it bears repeating.

URL shorteners definitely existed before Twitter, but Twitter made them popularly used.  When you’re limited to 140 characters or less, real estate is at a premium, and those long URLs that SEO so well suddenly become a liability.

In essence, this:

… becomes this:

What’s the problem with that?
Most normal people don’t have an issue with it. Some of us are geeks with too much time on our hands, and a subset of those geeks are those of us who sit and ponder the spectrum of good an evil within the technology world.

And for those people, because URL shorteners are privately held and aren’t guaranteed to be permanent, they’re evil.

It was completely coincidence that last week I decided to be evil, myself, and start a URL shortener. My simple reasoning was that if could grab $2 million for their URL shortener, I might could grab at least a couple bucks (that, and is my humorous little jab at

There are some valid concerns, though, with URL shorteners.  They have a tendency to, intentionally or unintentionally, steal Google juice.  As a business, they’re very dependent on certain limitations on technology staying there (namely SMS and Twitter remaining limited to 160 and 140 characters respectively). As a service, they’re subject to suddenly fail and magically disappear should their owners give up on the project, subsequently screwing up everyone’s links to things.

So what’s the upside?
John and I were talking about this earlier today, and some of his thoughts echoed my own, namely that space is at a premium and that they serve a valuable purpose, in that respect.

“Not to mention, for ‘Advertising 2.0’, the holy grail is getting a hold of origination data,” said John. “URL shorteners provides that, which can then be rolled up intelligence around social distribution.”

It’s the same sort of innovative approach to monetizing Facebook I saw for their Project Beacon, back when that was still a mystery.  I was under the impression they were going to create a behavioral ad network based on the data collected on its users.  Truly, the data collected by URL shorteners isn’t nearly as extensive, but it is just as valuable.

The users of these services are the creme of the crop when it comes to social network users.  These are the ones creating, participating in and soliciting engagement.  The creators of the short URLs as well as the users are the content producers and their readers.

What makes the opportunity so interesting is that the audience in aggregate exceeds the size of any one content producer.  Scale is always the issue that holds small content outlets back on monetization.

How Can Any of This Help the Producers?
The business of shortening URLs needs to evolve before we’ll see anything happen in this arena, but in general, it’s starting to hit critical mass. Facebook is dominating in social network traffic worldwide, and Twitter (as Techcrunch noted today) has skyrocketed in it’s popularity month after month.

At some point, though, a federation of the URL shorteners is in order, or at the very least a standardized way of acquiring interpreting the data ought to be explored amongst the top providers.

Additionally, rewarding those who create the short URLs, which ostensibly could be the content providers if there were financial incentive for it, could be accomplished with quick add-ons to functionality innovated by

I think that it isn’t a leap to suggest we’ll be seeing moves like these within the next 6-9 months. It’s an interesting space to keep watch over, and short of radical changes to the top-tier social networks, isn’t a space due to disappear any time soon.

Mark 'Rizzn' Hopkins

Mark “Rizzn” Hopkins is the Founding Editor of SiliconANGLE, as well as the creator of and Executive Producer for theCUBE. He’s aBitcoin early adopter, as well as a blogging, podcasting and social media pioneer. Prior the founding of SiliconANGLE, Hopkins worked as Associate Editor at Mashable during its formative years. Prior to his career in startups and media, he worked as a developer for large corporations like Nokia, IBM, Apple and Cox Communications. Hopkins lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife and two children.


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  1. Great Post Mark. The public secret is that URL shortening platforms are the Holy Grail. The alpha tech geeks dismiss the notion on the fact that it's trival to build. Well so are keyword resolvers which turned out to be a billion dollar business. I know I started one of those companies.

    URL shortening is a huge deal for data quality and intelligence which in turn provide filtering which in turn provide discovery and navigation.. hmmm sound familiar.

    Out of this URL shortening chaos will be a “home run” venture. Right now every is taking a swing at the plate. It's fun to watch.

  2. You haven't mentioned the loss of information provided to the user by the URL itself. When someone recommends I visit a link, I can tell a lot about whether it's worth my time just by looking at the source. URL shorteners mask the source and force you to blindly decide whether to spend the time to visit. (Tweetdeck's Preview function is a nice compromise here.) One might respond that the reputation of the person providing the link might be a better way to judge whether to visit, but I doubt it–too much fluff coming out of even the most intelligent corners of the Twitterverse to make that reliable!

  3. I really do not see the case for using URL shortening services. I do understand the use of them with the current Twitter rules. What Twitter really should do is somehow allow longer URLs, either just allow them or have their own URL shortening service which could be resolved through the Twitter API. Previously URL shortening services had one real usage; make sure URLs do not break when a e-mail. But that is really not a problem in 2009.

    A URL should be readable. A URL should point to the resource it indent to be directed to. By shortening a URL through a third party you will end up with an extra layer and an unreadable URL.

    I do see that gathering data based on URLs through a service like this is valuable for the provider. But for the URL publisher or the user there is no value; just hinders, broken usability and potential problems (ref my post about server errors at

    I really think your view that “this is a problem by geeks with too much time on their hands” is naive. A lot of similar problems are seemingly irrelevant for the common user but like we have seen with and SEO-problems as caused by DiggBar, the problems are real and we should thereby not use URL shortening services.

  4. Yes, but in 99% of cases where a shortened URL is practical, it's accompanied by descriptive data (as in a tweet or a status update), not to mention the meta-data of who it is that sent it to you… which is going to be more efficient in determining worth than any URL could be.

  5. Epson, I think your last paragraph encapsulates what's wrong with your entire position…

    To say that and Digg are proof we should never use shorteners, then George Bush and Dick Cheney are proof we should never have government. Just because you can find one or two examples of something you don't like about a concept doesn't mean it's proof that it should be done away with.

  6. I don't follow your logic at all in that response. Those two examples are some of the worst ones. But all URL shorteners are unnecessary in my opinion. So far you have really given no argument for the use of URL shorteners except that the data is valuable for the URL shortening provider. For the user or for the URL publisher (the original URL site) there is no advantage to this type of service.

  7. If they are unnecessary, why are they in use? They perform a valuable function, namely, shortening URLs to be used in places with limited space. I don't see any other clearer explanation than that.

    Aside from that, you're incorrect on your second point. Certainly they provide value to the publisher – if it weren't for the URL shortener, the links being spread on tools like Facebook status messages and Twitter would be greatly tapered, and that's traffic those publishers wouldn't be receiving.

    Looking further into the future, as I did on my original post here, each indie publisher is a silo, so to speak. Most publishers are individuals or small groups of individuals that don't have the resources to perform advanced analytics on millions of consumers, and thus the value they're able to craft out of their productions are going to be limited.

    When you have data in scale, you're able to create value where there was none, or at least where there was less, previously. See: ad networks.

  8. As Mark points out, URL shorteners continue to exist because they create convenience and space savings for both the author and the reader. They do have potential to increase traffic to sites because it is a pain in the butt to include a two line URL in a short post or even an email. That is only the case, however, because so many websites have arcane URL structures generated by their CMS's. Publishers need to create or demand compact permalinks for their content that don't need shortening, and that they continue to control.

    John's point above about data collection reminds me of ad networks, which managed to extract value from the online advertising marketplace, at the expense of site publishers, by adding value to commodity ad inventory. But in this case, the publishers should be fighting back, hard. They shouldn't let these services, which add a modicum of value, to take hold. Every single bit of content they publish should have its own shortened permalink for use in the broader social space.

  9. Good conversation. Espen I see your point readable URLs are great for user reading and SEO but space is limiting on Twitter and FB status bar. “Flipping links” is a key value to me on Socnets. As much as I laughed at tinyurl years ago the value has shifted to space contrained areas. I never cared about tinyurl in email but now on twitter working with long urls is a pain in the ass. Especially wordpress blogs who's urls are long as the title (that is keyword'd to the hilt for SEO purposes).

    Like your Angle on embedding the shortening for UX purposes and I've noticed that has the expand button for this reason..

    For me the value is clearly in the data – having an abstraction layer of origination data on content source prior to high velocity social graphs distribution is as my son says “hella valuable”.

    All in all the socnets all need to work on their user experience – for the most part they all still are very weak.

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