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October 7, 2013 / Jim Fenton

Why I Don’t Like URL Shorteners

It seems like everyone is using shortened URLs these days. These are, of course, the links that begin with a very short hostname with a name like bit.ly, and tinyurl.com. There are also site-specific URL shorteners like nyti.ms (New York Times), cs.co (Cisco), t.co (Twitter), 1.usa.gov (US Government), and of course wp.me (WordPress).

The original premise of having a shorter URL was, of course, to save typing. With the emergence of Twitter and its 140-character limit, URL shortening became more important: it saved characters. But the real reason many sites use URL shorteners is different; most URL shorteners provide analytics about who clicked the link. And therein lies one of the problems I have with them.

Here are the things I don’t like about URL shorteners:

They obscure the true target of the link, a potential security issue. While some URL shortening services have tools to allow you to preview the link before clicking on it, I doubt that many people use them (I typically don’t). With more and more malware being delivered via vulnerabilities in browsers and their plug-ins, the ability to see what we’re clicking on is essential.

They don’t necessarily shorten anything. Sometimes the target of a shortened URL will be short anyway. I’d much rather that they left the original in place.

They slow things down. How much time have you spent looking at a browser window similar to the mobile browser in the illustration? IN many cases there are multiple layers of URL shorteners added by various parties, and each adds its own overhead.

People rarely type URLs anyway. The cryptic URLs in shortened links are often harder to type correctly than the originals, so there just isn’t an ease of use justifiction.

They require extra context. I follow a few accounts on Twitter that frequently tweet shortened URLs with no description attached. I might actually click on these if I could see something about the subject of the link, either in descriptive text or by looking at an unshortened link directly. But if descriptive text is needed, doesn’t that defeat the benefit of shortening (other than analytics)?

They may contribute to third-party tracking of what I read. I notice that I have cookies in my browser from bit.ly, tinyurl.com, and probably others. To the extent that they have visibility about shortened URLs that I visit, they may be able to reassociate that with me in some way.

In short (so to speak!), “URL shorteners” is a misnomer. They’re not about shortening, but about collecting information on who is reading what. They put the interests of the sender ahead of my interests as receiver. At the very least, if you’re not actively using the available analytics, don’t use them. They aren’t really helping your readers.


 

Update 3 June 2014: In This URL shortener situation is officially out of control, Scott Hanselman documents further the number of redirects that may be involved when one accesses a shortened URL. He also points out an additional justification for URL shorteners, at least in the case of Twitter: that it provides a clean way to break a link to harmful content, such as malware.

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