URL shortening is bonkers

Well, mostly.

To be fair, full URLs (technically URIs, but let’s not go there) have a lot of shortcomings in the first place. But URL shortening only tackles one of their problems, and makes other aspects worse as a consequence.

The only problem that URL shorteners solve is that URLs can be very long, and therefore don’t fit into a 140-character SMS message. It’s not about fitting into Twitter messages; that’s just a side effect. SMS is the underlying restriction. Twitter could easily relax their 140-character limit and let people write vast screeds, but they still deliver an enormous number of updates via SMS, so longer messages would have to be truncated (or split over multiple messages). Just because we decadent Western smartphone users all rely on native Twitter clients does not mean that the rest of the world does.

(Also, forcing people to be concise in their writing is not a bad thing, and Twitter owns this space as a business concept. I find it interesting that part of Twitter’s value lies in enforcing this limitation, not in finding ways to lift it. Less is very definitely more in their case.)

This is not to say that the URL shortening services don’t deliver value. Aside from their stated goal of actually generating shorter URLs, some shortening services (e.g. Bit.ly) offer click tracking and analytics, so you can see how many people have used a link. Others (e.g. Adf.ly) allow you to piss people off generate revenue from your short links by presenting an interstitial page of adverts to people who visit the link, before taking them to the actual destination page.

There are definitely clever and interesting things you can do, but they all stem from a technical limitation that doesn’t actually exist for most web users. Which is kind of nuts. If you’re composing an SMS, then sure, make your URLs as short as they can be. But if you’re pasting a link into an online article or an email, why the hell do you need to?

“So that other people can then copy and paste the link more easily” is a crappy argument, because the single biggest problem with short URLs is that they obscure the target of a link. If you see the URL “http://www.disney.co.uk/tron/index.jsp” in an email, you don’t expect it to lead to a dating site. The same cannot be said of a random shortened link, whose payload is typically just a meaningless jumble of letters and numbers.

This isn’t actually a new problem, because advertising networks have been doing this for as long as the internet itself. Do you have any idea where http://adgo-online.de/ad/goto/71/1/b55f128e9ef13754dbd545ddc60d34/ will take you? Me neither. It used to be the case that only ad networks did this, but now everyone is at it. Apart from the opportunities for creative Rickrolling, there is no upside to this.

So now Twitter, who helped encourage the whole short linking thing in the first place (and who will now shorten your links automatically, without the need for a third-party service), has code in place that automatically de-references short URLs, so that you see the real target whenever you hover over a short link. They’re peddling both the disease and the cure, which sounds like a great lark.

Most people don’t care about the performance implications of an extra 301 redirect, so I won’t dive into that. But people do care about linkrot. Maciej Ceglowski of Pinboard did some research last month to find out what proportion of URLs in the Pinboard bookmarking system were dead, or no longer led to their original target. In his article Remembrance of Links Past, he writes:

“Links appear to die at a steady rate (they don’t have a half life), and you can expect to lose about a quarter of them every seven years.”

Using URL shorteners increases the risk of linkrot, because if you store the short URL, not only is there a probability that the target resource will die, but a certain proportion of URL shorteners will disappear each year, too.

That leads to the question of “what is a link anyway?”

In general, when we talk about a “link”, what we actually mean is a resource. Hence the term “URL”, which stands for “Uniform Resource Locator”. (Which is not the same as a URI, a Uniform Resource Identifier, but I already said we weren’t going to go there.)

A resource is a thing: a photo, an article, an MP3 file, a video. That’s what you’re interested in, and that’s what you want to show someone when you say you will “send them a link”.

The link is just a signpost to the resource. The map is not the territory. If the resource still exists, and can be found by other means, how much does it matter if the signpost disappears? How precious should we be about permalinks and cool URI’s that don’t change?

To stick with the signpost metaphor: full URLs are official signs erected by the city council; short links are verbal directions from some dude on a street corner.

If you think about them like that, it’s clear that short links are ephemeral, and do have a genuine use, provided that they are treated as such.

It’s perfectly fine for me to send you an IM with a short URL if I just want to you take a peek at a funny cat picture (and feel the curious need to save bytes). It’s not fine for me to use that short URL if I write a blog post and want to reference the same picture. That’s what the full URL is for. The mode of conversation is significant: in one case it’s ephemeral, but in the other case stability and permanence takes precedence.

However, most people on the internet care about this distinction approximately as much as the difference between URLs and URIs, which is to say, not at all. Oh well.

There is one last aspect of (short) URLs that I’m particularly interested in, but which I’m going to save for my next article: On URLs, keywords, and memorability.

Further reading:

3 replies on “URL shortening is bonkers”

Short urls are also useful when creating QR codes. Shorter urls mean less data has to be put in the code, so they are easier to ‘read’ by qr-code-readers. Especially on phones without autofocus.

@Gerben – you are completely right. That is a good use case for short URLs, but in that case it is just to assist machine-readability. They’re not for human consumption.

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