UPDATED 02:51 EST / APRIL 15 2009

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 ow.ly’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. Ow.ly 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 Ow.ly 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 Digg.com 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 bit.ly could grab $2 million for their URL shortener, I might could grab at least a couple bucks (that, and riz.gd is my humorous little jab at is.gd).

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 Bit.ly.

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.

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