Should I be using a link shortener?

This is a guest post from Adam Loving. Adam’s been researching link shorteners in preparation for launching a new social marketing tool.

The short answer is yes, but only for the campaigns that you want to track.
Most big social sites have their own shorteners now, so you don’t need to use a shortener just for share-ability. In most cases, those services (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) will shorten your link for you. However, to get the best tracking out of a campaign to promote link, you should shorten it yourself.

What benefits do I get from shortening links?

  • You can wrap any link (not just those to sites you own) and collect information about the people visiting the link (country, referring site, whether they are a customer or not, etc.).
  • Small urls are more shareable.
  • You can do affiliate link tracking by creating multiple links to the same site.
  • In some cases, using a shortened link is safer
  • Some shorteners (namely http://bit.ly) allow you to choose a new name for the URL. So can choose a friendlier name for the URL, which may also provide a slight SEO advantage (certainly doesn’t hurt).

What is the best way to shorten a web address?

There has been a huge explosion and consolidation of free link shorteners and trackers in the last few years. At this point, it is best to just use bit.ly, and add your own tracking parameters. Bitly is not necessarily the best link shortner, it is just popular and has some convenient tools like a bookmarklet and Chrome add-in.

If you’re using Google Analytics, use Google URL builder to track the source, medium, and campaign that spread the link. For example:

http://adamloving.com/?utm_source=adam&utm_medium=blog&utm_campaign=shortners

Unfortunately, there is very little support for specifying an alternate shortner in Twitter clients. Since Twitter has its own shortener and owns the main clients too (TweetDeck and the native Mac Twitter client for example), they don’t allow competition.

My favorite native client, echofon, does allow using Bitly. This is also the case with TweetDeck. The native mac Twitter client uses only the Twitter shortener. Of course, for Linksy I’m building my own to provide sharer-specific tracking automatically, not necessarily shorter links.

What should I watch out for?

Beware that short links with their funky top level domain names may be routed through other countries, or filtered as though they were. For example, j.mp may not work if your visitors are for some reason prohibited from viewing sites in Malaysia. Also, some people may not click URLs for political reasons (seems crazy to me, but I had some users of my site boycott bit.ly links because of the Libyan domain name).

Another downside is that you don’t own the shortener, so if the shortening service goes down, your links won’t work even if your site is up (I’ve not had this problem in practice). And of course, the slower the web address shortener is to redirect your visitors, the longer it will take visitors to get to your site.

Do Link Shorteners affect SEO?

In most cases, shortening a long url will not block SEO link juice. If you’re using a lesser known service, be sure that it uses a 301 redirect to route users to your sites. This refers the the HTTP protocol response code that the web server sends to the web browser to tell it what page to go. A 301 redirect indicates a permanent change of location, whereas a 302 indicates a temporary redirect, so the value of the backlink is lost.

From the unix command line, use the curl command.

$ curl -v "bit.ly/Hbx13A"

In the response, you should see “HTTP/1.1 301 Moved” (amongst a bunch of other info). Another line will have the correct URL to your site.

Should I get a custom web link shortener?

Probably not. If you are developing your own social application that involves lots of shared links, it makes sense. For Twibes, I implemented my own (http://twib.es), and at Bigdoor, we used awe.sm to power http://big.do.

Hootsuite has vanity URL service for $49.95/month. That seems crazy expensive, but is probably aimed only at corporate accounts. And awe.sm starts at $15/month per user for a custom domain.

A Few More Link Shorteners

Twitter link shortener http://t.co
Cannot opt out, cannot be used outside of Twitter.
Google link shortener http://goo.gl
YouTube link shortener http://youtu.be
Exclusive to YouTube links
Facebook link shortener http://fb.me

One thought on “Should I be using a link shortener?

  1. One link shortening service I didn’t mention (but have my eye on) is http://refer.ly . According to site owner Danielle Morrill, it will “help businesses get new customers by incentivizing content producers and online influencers to share links that drive signups and product purchases.” Looks interesting!

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