UPDATE AUG 12: Tr.im reports that they’re not dead yet. Hey, congrats to them for working something out, at least for now. But still: As Aron Pilhofer notes in the comments below, relying on any third-party for a core functionality represents a significant risk, so I still stand by my advice in this post.
Yesterday the popular URL shortening service Tr.im abruptly bit the dust — begging the question of whether existing Tr.im shortlinks would suddenly break. (Tr.im says its existing links will continue to function at least through Dec. 31, 2009.)
This doesn’t affect me much, since I rarely used Tr.im — but others relied heavily on Tr.im and its statistics for how its shortlinks were used. Bit.ly, which also tracks shortlink statistics, is now Twitter’s default link shortener. PaidContent recently covered how difficult link shortener service business is. Which means that other link shorteners could fall down and go boom at any time.
So if you really must rely on shortlinks for any reason, it probably makes more sense than ever to create or control your own link shortener…
Despite their difficulties, shortlinks continue to grow more important to how people communicate online — not just because of Twitter’s 140-character-per-post limit, but because of the continuing popularity of e-mail, forums, and print media.
Long, unwieldy URLs still break or truncate surprisingly often in e-mail software — especially when people read their e-mail on mobile devices. They simply suck for sharing links via SMS text messaging. They also can screw up the layout of online forums and blog comments. And some print publishers include shortlinks in their content or ads to make it easier for people to type in URLs that they encounter in print. (Shortlinks don’t matter as much for links from web pages, blog posts, or HTML e-mail where you can specify a complete destination URL without displaying it in all its convoluted ugliness.)
As I wrote earlier in Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits, hosted URL shortening services present several challenges of their own:
- Reliability. If a shortening service you use goes down or dies, your links to your content would cease to function.
- Security. If the shortener you use gets hacked, your existing links could end up pointing to different destinations — even to perpetrate phishing attacks on would-be visitors to your site.
- Branding. When you use a hosted shortener service, the links you create visually promote their brand — not yours.
- Breaking the web Tech bloggers such as Joshua Schacter have written about how redirects such as shortlinks can impair how well the web works.
In theory you’d like your shortlinks to continue working forever. But judging by how they get used, the vast majority of shortlinks attract the vast majority of their traffic within a few days or weeks of distribution. Still, you never know when something you published, tweeted, or e-mailed in months or years past will suddenly regain popularity or relevance. That’s why shortlink tracking is handy.
For all these reasons, if you routinely publish shortlinks to your content (via social media, forums, e-mail, SMS, and other means), it might make sense to build your own URL shortener, rather than rely on a hosted service.
Amazon.com recently did this. It’s apparently a fairly straightforward technical task — perhaps not always trivial, but very doable for any news site. It doesn’t necessarily involve changing your existing URL regime for published pages. Rather, it’s about generating short redirect URLs that point to your pages.
But if you’re using an open-source CMS like WordPress, shortener modules probably already exist. If your CMS uses a MySQL database, you might be able to use the open-source software Kissa.be to roll your own link shortener. (NetHakz explains how.)
Gary Love, director of product development for the Houston Chronicle, noted in a comment to my Tidbits post:
“For many [sites], the work of creating a URL shortener might have already been done as a side effect of creating canonical user- and SEO-friendly URLs. For instance, Drupal sites allow clean URLs to be created, but it all falls back on IDs in the background. A module like Global Redirect makes sure all content goes to the canonical URL.”
Also, consider buying a short version of your domain. This helps you promote brand while preserving brevity, and also makes tracking proliferation of your redirects easier. Look especially for non-U.S. top-level domains that might work. For instance, the Roanoke Times might secure this domain from Spain for its shortlinks: rtim.es
Once your custom shortener is in place, you could use it in a couple of ways:
- When publishing shortlinks to your own content, make sure you include the shortlinks generated by YOUR system, not the shortlinks generated by a Twitter client application like Tweetdeck. This way, it’s likely that the shortlink with your domain would get copied in any retweets — and thus propagate not just your content, but your brand.
- If your site offers link sharing tie-ins like “e-mail this”, “tweet this”, or “share this” with each content item, make sure your own shortlinks (not the original long URL) gets copied into those recommendations. That will make it even easier for the people who encounter those shared links to re-share them via their own preferred channels.
…Of course, this strategy won’t prevent site visitors from creating their own shortlinks to your content via their preferred services. But that’s okay. You’ll at least retain some control over the reliability, security, and branding of links to your content from social media and e-mail.