URL Shorteners: The How and Why

URL shorteners are showing up everywhere these days! That is because people need them, and for a variety of different reasons. While there are many good reasons to use URL shorteners, sometimes using them is somewhat unnecessary. Not only can it be unnecessary, but can even be somewhat counter-productive in certain circumstances.

Before we get started in the crash course, lets outline why we have rediculously long URLs in the first place. I don't mean to point any fingers Google, but did I mention Google? One of the primary culprit's is the nature of how many search engines work. The URL helps ensure that search engines find your article and show it to anyone searching for those key terms. There's a whole lot to this Search Engine Optimization stuff, and it's an entirely different subject. Just be aware that it is important to having your content found. Sometimes it is because the sites are part of a large system that limits the URL options to unnecessarily long URLs that no one will ever be able to type. URL shorteners to the rescue!

One of the primary reasons URL shorteners are necessary is for sites - mainly Twitter - that count the characters you use. When your URL that you want to link to has 100 characters before you ever get to the messages and hash tags, you have a rock solid 40 characters to say what you want to say. Unless you just don't have much to say, this is just no good. By using a URL shortener, you can shorten your 100 character URL down to under 15 characters. That's a big difference! In this circumstance, using a URL shortener is a no-brainer.

Sometimes, you have to get a group of people to a specific URL. Sure, there are several ways to accomplish this goal. One very good one is just to use a URL shortener. Instead of attempting to type your 100+ character URL (which is sure to get botched or fat-fingered somewhere along the way) you can type the measley fifteen character URL. Just watch the capitalization. It often matters.

One reason they are being used is to collect analytical data abount number of clicks and reads. There are other ways to get this done as well, but if you need a quick measurement of who checked out the newsletter you posted. Just use goo.gl or bit.ly to shorten the URL and post the shortened URL to your twitter. You can then go back and see exactly how many people visited that URL. While many sites give you analytics, it is likely that by using this method, your URL shortener will more accurately account for all social media platforms, and a any other method that shortened URL was shared. Pretty cool tech!

While all this is well and good, allow me to throw in my two cents around best practice to getting information to stakeholders. I like URL shorteners, but I don't always like them. Sometimes I just want to have a short URL to begin with! If I want to send out a link to my contact page, I would much rather send out http://oldempire.media/contact versus http://xxx.xx/jE19erY. Shorter isn't always better. If I have an established website that stakeholders know and use, I may not need that shorter URL. I would rather those who see the URL recognize that it is just http://my.url/contact. They are much more likely to remember this than they are that shortened URL. Furthermore, if I have a well set up website, my url may be minimally longer than the shortened version, and at a domain people are comfortable with.

A general rule of thumb is to know the pages you want to reference frequently, and ensure they have a short URL to begin with. If you have articles that you want to do some SEO magic with, and give them long titles, use a shortener when you distribute them. When we build sites, I want to ensure that top level pages are easy to reference. Typically, if you know the ropes, all pages with the Drupal system we recommend for many larger sites can be referenced with resonably short URL.

So when you go reach for the URL shortener. Don't use it just because it is there and you assume you are supposed to because everyone else uses them. It's ok not to use one if you don't need to. But take advantage of them when it makes sense.