Friday, January 08, 2010

URL Shorteners: Are They Part of Your Social Media & Content Strategy?



How can a URL shortener impact your overall content strategy?  Don't they just shrink URLs?

I remember the appearance of the first URL shortener, TinyURL, shortly after their debut in 2002.  It seemed like a novelty.  There were times that I wanted to share a link that got broken with page breaks in emails.  Beyond that, what was the use?

Then Twitter arrived.  A world that lived and died by the value of character counts.  Every single character became precious real estate.  Finally, the solution of URL shorteners had found their problem.

Tons of these services soon popped up, each with their own selling points and clever names.  Several have already folded.  Like many other web services, they are made or destroyed by The Default. 

Until May 2009, the default URL shortener for Twitter was TinyURL.  The new default, Bit.ly, has ridden Twitter's wave of popularity to become the dominant service.  To get an idea of the scale of the operation, ponder this:  Bit.ly shortened 2.1 billion links in November 2009, as reported by TechCrunch.

At the end of 2009, Google got into the game by putting a URL shortener into Google Toolbar, FeedBurner, and their web browser, Chrome.  (It's not currently available outside of those places.) Other sites have exclusive shorteners, too, like Facebook (fb.me) and YouTube (YouTu.be).  When you share a link from those places, those short, branded domains will be used.

Not to be outdone by a Google announcement, Bit.ly announced that it was partnering with some serious heavyweights (New York Times, AOL, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, etc.) to offer a Pro service in limited private Beta. Benefits include: Custom URLs (ex.: nytm.es) and analytics in real-time.

The option to bake a shortener into your CMS that allows you to create a short URL of your choice, domain and all.  This is considerably more heavy lifting than the free services already out there, but offers its own set of benefits.

Why does any of this matter?

Something as seemingly innocuous as a URL shortener must figure into the social media portion of a comprehensive content strategy.  There are many, many options, and the decision on which one to use must be carefully considered.  While not as important as a content audit or the choice of a CMS, the benefits of choosing the right URL shortener are clear:

  • Solid, useful metrics
  • Contribute to (rather than hamper) your SEO strategy
  • Prevention of link rot
  • Provide the best user experience
  • Reinforce branding
  • Security/confidence

The metrics component alone may be the make-or-break feature.  Most site analytics suites can track in-bound traffic from Twitter.com.  Since 30% of Twitter-related link-clicking traffic comes from third-party applications like TweetDeck or Tweetie, tracking the links from the shortener end becomes considerably more important.  Some of the services offer more analytics features, and they are quickly improving them.

Certain shorteners use different types of HTTP traffic redirects to point to your original URL.  Some properly refer the traffic and maintain your hard-fought SEO efforts, others do not.  Most of the major players play by the rules and refer the traffic on a permanent basis and do not recycle links.  Watch out for those.

What constitutes the best user experience is always up for debate.  Certain shorteners like the Diggbar and HootSuite's ow.ly shortener use frames.  While there may be some UX benefits with frames for users, they can also confuse and distract.  There is the potential for the frame-based shorteners to cause metrics and SEO issues as well.

Shorteners are only as trustworthy as those using them.  We've been taught to avoid unfamiliar links in emails for as long as phishing has been around.  Selecting a service that uses a familiar or custom-branded URL domain will give people the confidence to click without fear of spam or malware.


So, indeed, it does matter.

What may have been something destined to be a footnote in the history of The Internets is now something vital to a strong social media strategy, and by extension, content strategy.

Speaking of shortening...


( "some people say I am obsessed with my lawn" image from Jez Page / Flickr (cc:by-nc-sa))

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