URL Shorteners: What is all of the fuss about?

by Joshua Odmark

Last week there was a plethora of coverage for URL shorteners just after bit.ly landed 2 million in vc funding.

When it was announced that bit.ly landed some investment money, the peanut gallery came alive.

As is my custom, I began to research URL shorteners (because I enjoy improving upon new ideas). I quickly realized how easy it is to create a URL shortener. I may have even created one myself, who knows. But more to the point, taking a long URL, and shortening it is a rather straightforward concept. Create a random 3 character hash that is tagged to the original long URL in a database with an auto incrementing id, and boom, you have a URL shortener. If you’re running apache, a simple rewrite rule will achieve the redirection.

As you can see, in a manner of a single day you can create a rather robust service that is now in high demand due to the popularity of Twitter which is now mainstream thanks to @Oprah.

When there is no barrier to entry, you can expect competition to grow like a wildfire. Which is exactly what has happened. I counted over 90 active URL shorteners in my research.

It was only a matter of time before a few of them stepped out from the crowd with additional features. Which is exactly what cli.gs, bit.ly, tr.im, and my favorite, digg.com, have done.  I like all of the url shorteners listed, but digg was the first to truly release an innovative feature, which was the digg bar.  Everything else lacks differentiation.

A majority of SEO gurus and webmasters have expressed concern over URL shorteners due to them essentially adding a step in the peer to peer relationship of a user posting a link, and a visitor clicking the link. Furthermore, because you have shortened the link, the visitor can no longer mouse-over the link to see where it points to.  I used to live by a strict code of ethics on the Internet.  If I couldn’t tell where a link was pointing, I wouldn’t click on it.  I have been forced to adapt because the only links you find on Twitter are the shortened ones.  The risk is clicking a link that has some sort of malicious intent.  The last thing I need is a hijacked computer due to some new super-virus.

Once you get past the fear of not knowing where the link will take you and accept that the relationship you have with the creator of the shortened URL is reliable, you can begin to enjoy all of the resources Twitter can bring to you (with the right followers).

Speaking of which, I saw @aplusk on @Oprah, and I was thoroughly impressed with how he explained his relationship with Twitter. I am probably one of the few people that would ever quote a celebrity, but if I feel it is warranted, I will. And when Ashton spoke of how he has a direct relationship with his followers which allows him to communicate with them directly, I saw an instant connection there. If we analyze this connection, it is a relationship of sharing pieces of information. By limiting yourself to 140 characters, it forces you to get to the point of what you would like to say.

I am following a number of people on my twitter account @JoshuaOdmark, many of which I enjoy reading what they have to say.  @mattcutts generally posts extremely valuable information on his tweets that include an outbound link.  The majority of the time I am bookmarking or adding things to my google account based on these links.  Social media seems to be an extension of the same power blogs bestowed upon the blogger.  It creates a direct relationship which completely solves the age old problem expressed best in the “Telephone Game”.  Create a chain of 10 people, whisper something from one end of the line to the other, and it will not be the same, guaranteed.

Now that we can see the value of a direct relationship, EVEN if it is one-sided, meaning, I can see @mattcutts Twitter updates, but he cannot see mine, is irrelevant to my point, the actual relationship of his authority on a webmaster topic and my desire to obtain that knowledge, creates an invaluable exchange.

Imagine if you will, if the medium in which we communicate, in this example, Twitter, has the capability of managing these relationships in such a way as to bring this authoritative information to the masses. They are involved from start to finish, all it takes is a little imagination and innovation to see a bigger picture.

URL shorteners are no different.

A grand innovation will occur in this market, you can bet on it.

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