1. What is a short URL?
A short URL (Unique Resource Locator, or website address) is a truncated website address that redirects to a longer address when clicked. For example, the address of this page is http://blog.karenhenry.com/2010/03/01/3-things-to-know-about-short-urls and using a free URL shortening service this can be reduced to http://bit.ly/cFi23e
There are many free URL shortening services online, such as bit.ly, which provides useful click-through statistics, url.ie, which suggests a link of Irish interest or snipurl.com, which allows URL customisation.
YouTube recently launched its own short URL: YouTu.be, using the Belgian country code as a ‘domain hack’*. Google (goo.gl) and Facebook have followed suit: type fb.me into your address bar to reach your Facebook page.
2. How are short URLs relevant to your business?
When including a long link in an email, you could provide a short URL alternative as a courtesy to the recipient, and to increase the click through rate, as these links can ‘break’ into two or more lines which, in a plain text email, have to be manually pasted into the address bar. Wrapping lines of a web address in an email or blog post can also be unsightly and confusing.
Services such as Twitter and LinkedIn have a character limit, and using short URLs means this space can be used for your message rather than a long website address.
Short URLs are also easier to read out over the telephone, or for casual or viral referrals.
3. Any downsides to using short URLs?
The potential downsides to using short URLs are expiry of the shortened address and security issues.
Most URL shortening services do not automatically expire the shortened URL, but there is the possibility that they cease their service, so the shortened web address no longer works. Therefore, it is not advisable to use short URLs for critical, long term purposes, such as in printed manuals.
The delightfully named EphemURL.com addresses the opposite problem, creating short URLs with specified expiry dates, which is useful for test or draft sites, competitions and so on.
As for security, there may be a reticence to click on a short URL, as it could be masking a harmful web address. This may be mitigated by customising the address, consistent use of the service and that old chestnut, expectation management. A brief explanatory note at the foot of a page or email may reassure readers who are not familiar with short URLs.
* A domain hack is a domain name that uses a clever combination of letters with country code top level domains (ccTLDs), such as “.ly” (Libya), “.to” (Tonga) to spell out popular terms e.g. blo.gs, del.icio.us. As well as being trendy, they also have the advantage of being shorter and of creating URLs for which the .com version may have been snapped up long before.