Shortened web addresses may become weak link in net usage

 

Unstable services could fold, leaving dead links and lost data, writes Karlin Lillington

THEY SEEMED like a good – perhaps necessary – idea at the time, those URL (web address) shortening services like Tr.im.com, Tinyurl.com, Bit.ly, or Short.ie. But after a few social networking soap opera weeks recently, during which social networking site Twitter stopped supporting all but a single site – Bit.ly – and in which rival URL trimmer site Tr.im closed down, then re-opened, then opted to open source the service and allow the wider developer community to take charge, some are wondering what good such sites serve and whether they are just causing more clutter and frustration on an already complex internet.

URL shortening services are websites where users can paste in a long URL and click to have it shortened into something generally 19 characters or less (the ideal seems to have settled on about 14-15 characters).

They arose initially to make printing or e-mailing a link easier. Then Twitter, with its strict 140-character limit on tweet length, made them virtually mandatory.

Where there had been perhaps a dozen or so services, suddenly there were about 100 – some tiny amateurish services; some, like Bit.ly, pulling in venture investment ($6 million, with many wondering whether the über-hot Twitter will just go ahead and buy it).

The competition drove useful new features. Rather than just getting a mishmash random “hash” of a shortened URL, such as Tinyurl/ hf7yq, some enable users to create a more legible and meaningful URL, such as Short.ie/ vista. Some allow users to track how many people come to view their link.

But critics argue that by adding millions of new URLs that are just redirects to existing URLs, the URL trimming services make the web even more complex and confusing than it is – while also using up URLs.

The other criticism and concern, in the wake of the demise then resurrection of Tr.im – which has millions of users and has generated millions of URLS – is that such services can fold any time, leaving dead links and therefore lost data.

While frustrating for the consumer, this could be catastrophic for a business – and that is the problem with the easy online business entry point for such services and a revenue model based on “free”: they are so unstable that they could vanish overnight, notes technology editor and publisher Rafe Needleman.

“Like Twitter, a great service that has yet to make money, the short-link services are great products that don’t yet generate sizable revenues,” he wrote for CBS News. “Chances are that one or two might – Bit.ly, for example – but the rest of the URL shorteners are rather doomed as businesses, even though people may like them a whole lot.”

That was the crux of the debate as the blog and Twittersphere heated up with people arguing over how – or whether – to stabilise a resource so many rely on, especially as Twitter becomes a more mainstream business tool.

Eric Woodward, founder of Tr.im, defended a move to an open-source model: “The usage of URL shorteners needs to transition into the public domain,” Woodward wrote in a blog post.

“By so clearly favouring the URL shortener Bit.ly, Twitter is able to control this flow of shared link data in a way it would not otherwise be able to. Currently, no one outside of the chosen few can access this data, and that is just not right.”

Others are more concerned about whether their links, once generated, will persist. At the end of last week, a data aggregation company called Gnip announced it would build a system to archive data so that shortened URLs would live on, even if their originating company fell by the wayside.

There is also a separate movement to “roll your own” URL shortener. Advice sprang up all over the web last week on how to do this.

“As long as you have your own domain name, that’s one good alternative,” says Krishna De, a Dublin-based social media consultant.

She watched the furore unfold with interest and some concern. “Small businesses in particular can be reliant on free services like this, and when you don’t own it, and don’t back it up, that’s a problem,” she says.

She cautions against using shortened URLs anywhere that a business needs them to remain live and reliable – on a webpage of information, for example, or in a brochure – but she says that within their limitations, for marketing information, Twitter, giving a link on radio or in a podcast or a newsletter, they are a wonderful tool.

De recommends using a service like Short.ie or Snipurl.com that allows users to create their own shortened URLs, as they can then also be used for branding purposes, she says. She also recommends choosing services that offer free analytics, to enable businesses to see how many view their link.

She adds that simply spending a small amount to buy a useful domain, even for short-term use, may make more sense if a business is seeking short, memorable “vanity” URLs.

The ultimate solution may lie with social networking services themselves. Twitter, for example, could simply incorporate hyperlinks – let users have a single word in their tweet link to a long URL. However, as most social networking services drive on without a business model, how motivated will their developers be to add such features?

URLs: the long and the short of it

Uniform resource locators, or URLs, are web addresses, the unique page addresses used to locate information on the internet, associated with a single web page. As websites have proliferated and expanded, many URLs – especially for the internal pages on a website – have become longer and longer.

The length can cause problems and inconvenience when people try to e-mail or print a web address. Often, the links break apart and are no longer clickable within e-mails and run on over a single column in print, where the addition of a hyphen would change and invalidate the link.

Free online URL shortening services sprang up a few years ago to address the problem. They are easy to use: enter the long URL into a box, and the service shortens it down to something far more manageable, often under 15 characters. Print newspaper and magazines in particular made use of such services, with tinyurl.com the most popular.

The advent of popular “microblogging” service Twitter – with posts limited to just 140 characters – is credited with causing an explosion in URL shortening services as users need to conserve space.

Initially, the service enabled tweeters to use one of a dozen or so services, then Twitter’s founders settled on one: Bit.ly. That has raised fears of services collapsing, links going dead and monopoly in the market – and given everyone something to tweet about on Twitter.