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Little & Large: Looking at URL Shortening Services


Written by Simon Geraghty.

As a Twitter user you should already be familiar with shortened URLs, and if you aren’t, this is where a long form webpage address is shortened and still gets directed to the right page. Large into little if you will.

In the age of short form publishing every character counts. Twitter restricts you to 140 characters, ideally you should try to keep a tweet to 120 to allow others to retweet you,  so you need all the room you can get.

Link shortening services have now evolved to include sharing and tracking features.  Tracking your short links and the performance of each one will help you find out what content appeals most to your audience.

Finally, most service providers will check links for potential security risks prior to shortening, and in doing so will decrease the risk of you sharing a corrupt link with your friends and followers #veryunpopular.

By creating accounts and becoming a registered user with the short link service providers enables you to create, save and track any link you’ve ever shortened.

So who is out there?

Bit.ly (http://bitly.com)

A long link, shortened in Bitly, is called a Bitmark. Bitly is simple to use:

  • You paste your large URL into the shorten URL field and click on the shorten button.
  • The new link (or Bitmark) is displayed on a separate page, along with some basic statistics relating to how many people have clicked on, and saved this link prior to you doing so.
  • To use the shortened link simply click on the ‘copy link’ button.

When you sign up to Bitly all your links are stored in an archive, enabling you to track and analyse their performance and organise them into bundles for sharing. The ‘Bundle’ feature helps you share many links at one time on Facebook, Twitter or by email using a single URL.

Bundles come into their own when organising an event or planning an itinerary. For example, imagine your organisation is running a series of workshops during the month of October. You can create a bundle and call it ‘October Workshops’. The bundle contains links to each workshop/event. You can invite your colleagues to help you curate the bundle and give them the opportunity to comment about the workshop or add supplementary information to the bundle, such as, the best transport links or good places to stay close to the venue.

Bitly also gives their users the opportunity to customise their newly created short link, for example, ‘bit.ly/f64Dj’ can be easily modified to read ‘bit.ly/yourchoice’, to give readers a flavour of what they are about to read. If you want to maintain your brand’s identity you can buy a custom short domain which would replace the bit.ly domain in your newly generated short link.

The Bitly Analytics dashboard is well laid out and easy to understand. They have cleverly arranged each of the Bitly functions under their own designated tab, enabling you to analyse specific data at your own pace and avoiding the possibility an information overload.

Bitly is so much more than a short link service provider. It’s got looks and the personality to match. You can’t help but want to be part of the Bitly community.

Key feature(s) & Usability:

  • The ability to customise shortened URLs
  • The ability to exchange the Bit.ly domain for a custom short domain (Enterprise users only)
  • Bitly can be used on your desktop or on the go (iPhones and iPad versions)
  • Usability score: 8/10. Easy on the eye but takes a bit of time to master.

 Goo.gl (http://goo.gl)

Google’s native URL shortening service Goo.gl boast stability, speed of link conversion, tracking and security.

Stability is an important factor to consider when using any of the smaller players as there is the risk that they may go out of business, and in doing so disabling any of the shortened links you’ve created and archived using their service.

In the unlikely event that Google does cease to exist, Goo.gl promise that their links will never expire, and will only be disabled in the event that there’s a security risk in the form of malware or phishing attacks.

Using Goo.gl means their search bots can process a shortened link created by them. By creating a shortened link using an alternative service provider may cause the Google bots to experience difficulties, and may result in a negative impact on your SEO rankings.

The process of shortening a link in Goo.gl is very simple:

  • Paste the long URL into the shorten URL field
  • Click on the shorten button to shrink your link.
  • Once you are signed in to Google, the new link will be stored in your shortened link list.
  • From this list you can copy the new URL or track it’s future performance.

Drawback? All analytics are public. By adding .info to the end of anyone’s Goo.gl url you can see how many people clicked on the shortened link.

Goo.gl is simple to use, especially if you are familiar with the layout and functionality of Googles’ other products, particularly Google Analytics, which is integrated into their product, to provide you with information relating to how many clicks the new URL received, who were the referrers, and where were they located.

Key feature(s) & Usability:

  • Links processed by Goo.gl are more compatible with the Google search bots, aiding your SEO rankings.
  • Usability score: 7/10. Brains and brawn all rolled into one, but privacy is a concern.

 Ow.ly (http://ow.ly/url/shorten-url)

Ow.ly is HootSuites’ native URL shortening service and Twitters’ preferred service provider. Like all the other short link providers Ow.ly will shorten links on an ad hoc basis, however, if you sign up for the service (using your Twitter profile) you will be able to access HootSuites’ powerful tracking and analytics tools.

HootSuite will only track and analyse URLs that have been shortened by Ow.ly. This is worth bearing in mind if you use HootSuite in conjunction with other short link service providers.

For the one-off shorten:

  • Paste your long URL into the shorten link dialog box
  • Click the ‘shrink it’ button.
  • Before the shrink can take place you have to get past the annoying Captcha spam filter
  • Once you do it’s a simple copy and away you go.

To shrink, and track the performance of your new link you need to sign-in using your Twitter password and username, any link that you shrink from this point on will be stored in your HootSuite analytics account.

Ow.ly isn’t as strong as a standalone product, but used in conjunction with HootSuite it is a better experience. However, we found the process of obtaining, and viewing analytics for your short link in HootSuite is quite confusing, despite it’s slick and professional layout*.

Key feature(s) & Usability:

  • Allow integration with Google and Facebook Analytics
  • Usability score: 5/10. Just too many hoops to jump through, as a first time and occasional user you might decide to look for an alternative provider.

 TinyURL (www.tinyURL.com)

TinyURL simply offer you a URL shortening service, no bundles, networks or communities. All they have to offer is displayed on their home page, an attractive proposition if all you want is to turn a long link into a short one.

You can shorten links in two ways –  by visiting their website or using their link shortener tool in your bookmarks bar. You can:

  • Paste the long link you want to shorten into the ‘Make TinyURL’ dialog box.
  • The new short link will be displayed on a new page in two formats – a standard shortened URL or a preview shortened URL.

A faster way to do it is to click on the TinyURL tool located in your bookmarks bar whilst viewing the page containing the link you wish to shorten.

In both cases there is the option to create a shortened or preview URL, with the latter providing the link recipient with enhanced protection against malware or phishing attacks.

Key feature(s) & Usability:

  • Enhanced security by allowing you to preview the new links before sharing
  • Usability score: 7/10. Does exactly what it says on the tin.

Which services do you use and why?