URL Shorteners - the long and short of it

February 16, 2010

They are everywhere! Strange, abbreviated web addresses.  What are these things? Are they dangerous? Let's find out!
Why URL Shorteners
The creation of URL shortening was introduced in 2002 in order to simplify long, hard to read links. The driving force behind its widespread adoption today is due primarily to the popularity of Twitter. As the social medium was quickly adopted - sharing links to interesting web content became the primary focus of it's users. Many times, these links would come close to eating up the entire 140 character limit provided to share a tweet. Lacking the ability to share entire thoughts as completely as a typical Twitter user would like, a solution was needed to this difficult predicament. To solve this problem, Twitter turned to URL abbreviation.
How Abbreviation Works
When you use a link shortening service, your link is entered into a database and associated with a key. This key can be randomly generated or in some cases, chosen by the creator which will show up at the end of the new URL. Each time your shortened URL is clicked on, the key is referenced in a database, the URL is found and the visitor is re-directed to the correct location on the internet.
What are the Risks?
There are a few things to keep in mind when you are using or creating shortened URLs. Sometimes people will obscure their links to hide the final destination of the link. Many times, advertisers, who get paid to sell a product online, will shroud affiliate links so that people who click on them don't know that they are being sold something. Other times, phishermen (people who are trying to steal your login information) will use URL shorteners to trick you into providing information you shouldn't be sharing.
To minimize your risk, ensure you trust the person who is sharing this link with you and closely examine the website you arrive at before you decide to share sensitive information. It may be safe to say that you will never be approached by any reputable organization in this fashion.
One of the major risks you face in shortening your links is the stability of web service you choose to use. If your link is being used over a long period of time, it will not work anymore if your link shortening service goes out of business. Facing dead links internet-wide is a major risk introduced by the growth and popularity of URL shortening.
The Future Outlook
Some of the common URL shorteners today are websites like bit.ly, owl.ly and tinyurl.com - the pioneer in this field.
You will find that most shortening services have short URLs to improve the abbreviation process. As the industry grows, hacked domains, which are domains using country code endings (like .ly - Libya's country code) are becoming increasingly used to create short memorable phrases for shortening services and for many other purposes as well.
Google has a URL shorterner called Goo.gl, and Youtube uses Youtu.be. Even Coke has their own service at http://cokeurl.com/
This trend of brand association will continue to evolve and grow as organizations attempt to cultivate loyalty across social networks by giving consumers the opportunity to share branded links with their friends.
URL shortening services will continue pop-up all over the internet and it will be an industry that thrives as social media thrives.
To wrap things up, it's important that I share one last link with you to complete your education on URL shortners, please click here.
This is why your education is now complete. Congratulations!
Posted by Neil Gilbert

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