caution

Link Shorteners: The Short Version

cautionThe first link shortening service, TinyURL.com was launched in 2002 when the need for shortened links was avoiding line-wrapping issues, which could break long links in some email readers.  Now the number of link shortening services is approaching 200 all addressing the need short-links due to hardware issues or character restrictions on sites like Twitter.

A URL shortening service does a “301 redirect” to the full URL. That number stands for the code a web server issues to a browser (or search engine) when a URL is requested. A 301 redirect says that the URL requested (the short URL) has “permanently” moved to the long address. Since it’s a permanent redirect, search engines finding links to the short URLs will credit all those links to the long URL. — Danny Sullivan in URL Shorteners: Which Shortening Service Should You Use? also see Google URL Shortener Opened To The Public; Comparing To Bit.ly & Twitter,   (March 2011) interim update.

Obfuscation  leads to vulnerability

They may be convenient but issues have arisen as shorteners act an intermediary for destination websites. The truth is we do not know what may be lurking at the end of a shortened link so clicking can be risky.  It could be a phishing site, malware  site,  or could be cloaking affiliates as a short-link obscures the target address.  Without doubt  they assist spammers to do their dirty business, undermine googlejuice, and expose users to security vulnerabilities.  Eric Hellman has compiled a list of nefarious uses of short-links worthy of taking a hard look at.

Lifting the veil on short-links

While it’s true most link shortening services provide a preview option so the site behind the short-link can be determined not all do.   That’s why services like ExpandMyURL and LongURL and URL X-ray which reveal the destination behind the short-link have sprung up. If you are Firefox user then Long URL Please is an add-on that covers a broad range of  shorteners. LinkPeelr is for Chrome users that peels any short-link to reveal the destination.

Be sure to read See what is behind the shortened URLs for a good solution. The LongURL service and the LongURL Mobile Expander plugin for firefox.

Meet Flipboard
Flipboard for iPad is a social magazine that aggregates web links from your social circle and displays the content in magazine form.  Named Apple’s iPad App of the Year and one of TIME’s top 50 innovations of 2010, Flipboard is a fast, beautiful way to flip through the news, photos and updates your friends are sharing on Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader,Flickr and Instagram.

“The app goes into the URL and presents a preview of not only the actual URL but also gives the first paragraph or so of the article/website that is being tweeted. With such a mix of good and useless info on Twitter, not only is it safer to use Flipboard, it’s also a time saver.” — photodiction

Special note: The main reason for using Untiny is that some of the tiny services are blocked in some countries although the original long URL is not blocked. Untiny retrieves the original URL so you can access it – if it is not blocked too. Note that Untiny is NOT a proxy breaker!

Discussion

In a perfect cyber world every URL would remain in its full form and there would be no intermediary link shortening services.  Then we would not have to worry about security issues or the possibility of link shortening services going belly up resulting in “404s” to our articles.

Longevity is a concern. If a link shortening service goes down the tubes then all those short-links ie. redirects to our original URLs will be broken and every person who uses a search engine to locate them and click them will be faced with a “404″ (page not found). If bloggers are so ill-advised as to link to shortened links to our articles in their own posts, rather than linking to the full and correct original URL then if those links are broken that will result in a loss of page rank to our blogs.

Security is a concern. I have not experienced any short-links security issues. That’s probably because I don’t click links I have any doubts about.  But there are two short-links issues that have annoyed me. They are: affiliate sites hidden behind short-links; and clicking a short-link only to find I have read that same article which was sent to me by someone else who used a different short-link.

The URL shortener I use is TinyURL and I also tweet WordPpress.com shortlinks.

Have you had any negative experiences with short-links?

Which link shortening services do you use?

34 thoughts on “Link Shorteners: The Short Version

  1. VIP (very important post) TimeThief. Ironically I tweeted this VIP at @IndTraining and it used a short url to link back to your post. :>) I am like you, been careful or lucky so far. But so true about security and affiliate links. And to marketeers, the longevity is an important concern.

    So thanks TimeThief for pointing me to this post from my blogcatalog.com wall.
    Don

  2. FYI smLNK.com predates tinyurl.com as it was originally launched in 2001. A few years after however it appears they lost their domain. Check the way back machine if you dont believe me.

  3. Thanks for this post, TT.

    I’ve not liked link shorteners since the first time I saw them. It freaks me out not knowing the actual long-form URL of the link. I’m even wary about clicking on shortened links that people I know give me in comments. In fact, it’s got to the stage now at which I think I might put something about this in my blog, on a page or in a text widget on the side panel about not using them.

    I’ve not yet looked at the sites or services that show where these links come from/go to, so thanks for giving those. I just wish people wouldn’t use them in the first place. It all seems so insecure, but then it seems to me that this is what’s happening online. There seems to be a climate of ‘over trust’ which I, as an older person, frequently can’t cope with.

      1. Yes, saw that a while ago, thanks TT.
        :)
        I had a comment policy some while back but then decided to just wing it and see how things went. Am having a few thoughts about it again now.

  4. Hi, Timethief

    I never thought of it this way. I can see the frustration in reading the same post repeatedly under different URLs. And worse, pointing to an unsafe site. That’s another reason why I use an anti-virus search tool. But I usually don’t use it when I’m viewing information directly on another site.

    That would be something if every short link stopped working!

    Thanks for the useful post.

    1. Hi Allyson,
      While getting multple shortlinsk to the same site is an annoyanace it’s not a threat. The main concern is longevitiy and the secondary one is the security issue. Using an anti-virus search tool makes sense.

      1. Oops. Sorry, that’s what I meant. You’re right, not all sites are unsafe just because they are short links. Thanks for the clarification.

  5. Hi TT,

    I agree that the links we post on blogs should use the full URL. I can’t think of a reason why that wouldn’t be the case.

    Fortunately, I haven’t had any bad experiences with link shorteners, but one recently annoyed me. It was a short link in a tweet for one of those twitter ad on services (I can’t recall which one). When clicked, it brought me to a full-page version of the tweet. It wasn’t a tweetmore page, rather it was just a page that had the exact tweet I just read under the banner of the service. In order to get to the ultimate destination, yet another click was required. “How silly,” I thought, as I closed the window.

    Ray

    1. Hi Ray,
      I feel the same way but the reality is that shortened links are happening and have become the staus quo when social networking. I have also experienced what your decribe and it annoyed me as well.

  6. The shortened URL is one reason why I usually do all my Twitter reading through my iPad in an app called “Flipboard”. The app goes into the URL and presents a preview of not only the actual URL but also gives the first paragraph or so of the article/website that is being tweeted. With such a mix of good and useless info on Twitter, not only is it safer to use Flipboard, it’s also a time saver.

    1. Hi photodiction,
      I have never heard of ‘Flipboard” and thank you for sharing that you use it and how it works. I will edit and add it to my post above.

  7. Great article.

    I made a private link shortener a few months ago.

    I tried the URL un-shorteners you referred to and most would not handle my link shortener, but URL X-ray did the trick.

    1. Hi Sandra,
      I don’t think many bloggers realize what they are, how they work, and the vulnerabilities they create. As you can see there are the multiple security vulnerabilities, the scammers, spammers, and affiliate sites, etc. hiding behind shortened links.

      If a link shortening service goes down the tubes then all those short-links ie. redirects to our original URLs will be broken and every person who uses a search engine to locate them and click them will be faced with a “404” (page not found). If bloggers are so ill-advised as to link to shortened links to our articles in their own posts, rather than linking to the full and correct original URL then if those links are broken that will result in a loss of page rank to our blogs. I already see bloggers doing this when backlinking and I hope no bloggers who link to my articles in posts of their own link to the shortened links redirecting to mine.

      Another thing I see is multiple short-links from different link shortening services that all are redirects to the same original URL. I dislike te advent of that kind of confusion. Like I said in my article in a perfect world only the original permalinks would be used everywhere.

      So this is what I plan to do:

      1. In the case of wordpress.com blogs I will use the wordpress.com short-links as the blogging platform is not likely to disappear any time soon.
      2. Whenever and where ever possible I will be using the original URLs when I post to Twitter.
      3. On my blogs I will not use shortlinks at all when I backlink to another blogger’s article in post of my own.
      4. I will use the services I listed abobe to lift the veil and look behind every shortlink before clicking it.
      5. I will un-follow any Twitter follower who tweets me “bad” shortened links.
  8. These services are very important as you cannot know if a url in a tweet or any other place directs you to some strange site which can contain malicious scripts. I found a strange link in an Orkut scrap and used the LongURL service to unveil the destination. I would like to share this post from my blog which talks about this thing. Many people do not know about such services and clicks on the link to unveil the final destination which can be dangerous.

  9. I had no idea URL X-Ray existed. For that same purpose, I used to go through a website that renders what your site would look like on different version of IE. Thank you!

    1. You’re welcome. It was news to me as well. The whole idea of my URLs being permanently redirected to third party sites makes me uncomfortable. I use the wordpress.com shortened links as I don’t believe it will disappear overnight.

      I had friends who have experienced the consequences of clicking shortened links and having malware instantly downloaded onto their sites. This has not happened to me but I became interested in the topic so I spent two days reading everything I could find on link shortening. That’s when I discovered URL X-ray as well as the other sites that can be used to “lift the veil” on shortened links and I posted links to them in the article.

  10. I use J.mp
    I like it’s url, it’s short, it’s easy to remember, & it looks like “jump”.
    J.mp is the same company from bit.ly. It provides detail history for each link, like how many clicks for the link. Group several links into one short link. I can find those links back from the dashboard if i need it later.

  11. I haven’t had a lot of success with URL shortener, mainly due to their service unavailability on important occasions. :) So, started using my own (thanks to yourls.org). It works just great with WordPress too.

    1. Are you concerned about what happens to those links ie: they may all be broken in the event that the site goes belly up? I think that is the most important consideration when it comes to choosing any link shortening service.

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