In the last few years we’ve seen an explosion of web sites offering a simple service: shrinking long URLs down to nice manageable sizes. Demand for URL shortening has been driven largely by Twitter’s 140-character per tweet maximum. Without a URL shortener you’d have little room in a tweet to say anything about an included link. The URL for this post, for example, would take up nearly three quarters of a tweet’s real estate.
Fortunately for the web user, competition in the URL shrinking business has resulted in the rapid development of new features. Various shortener services now offer integration with web browsers or social media sites, link previews, and even profit sharing based on advertising. All in all there are far too many options out there for me to attempt any reasonable summary of them. A quick Google search for “best URL shortener” will net you plenty of blogs and other sites that have attempted to shoot that particularly quickly moving target. For this post I want to highlight two features offered by many URL shorteners that grads and academics might find particularly useful, whether you’re using Twitter or not.
First, customization. Most URL shorteners take in a long but possibly sensible URL and replace it with a brief but meaningless jumble of letters and numbers. Several shorteners offer the user control over their output. And that control can be quite useful. Communicating with peers and students increasingly involves distributing links. For a course I taught last summer, for example, I chose a free, online history textbook called Digital History to augment the information from my lectures. Unfortunately the site’s internal links to specific topics proved entirely too cumbersome and unsightly for inclusion in my syllabus. With the help of a customizable URL shortener, I was able to turn http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/subtitles.cfm?titleID=92 into http://tiny.cc/Jacksonian_Democracy. This way, my students could know exactly what to expect from the link in the syllabus.
The other, even bigger benefit to using these shortening services is tracking of the usage statistics for each of your links. Typically this requires signing up for a free account. Once you log in, you can learn the number of times a shortened URL has been used. This way you can determine whether or not people are actually clicking on your links. I won’t say how many clicks the links from my syllabus generated last summer. But I can assure you that I’ll be trying to integrate that content more successfully into my class next summer. The service I used last summer, http://tiny.cc, also provided information about the browser, operating system, and location (by nation) of those that followed my links. Check out the screenshot for sample views of those stats.
Finally, before you commit to a service check out the URL shortener uptime stats tracked by the folks at the web security firm Watchmouse. A shortened link needs to actually transfer the user to the appropriate site if it is to be of any use.