Link shorteners are common and they turn long and complicated URLs into short ones that take up less space, but is this a good thing and what are the advantages and disadvantages of shortening?
What is a link shortener?
A link shortener is a website, plugin or utility that turns a long URL, such as https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Talk_Like_a_Pirate_Day into a short one like http://bit.ly/2fb3Vbv. It does not matter how long and complicated the URL is, the short one is always short.
At one time Twitter used to count the number of characters in URLs as part of the 140 characters that are allowed in tweets. This made link shorteners popular because you then had more space for your message. It is no longer the case, but link shorteners have other uses and sometimes it is simply to make ugly URLs pretty.
The advantages of link shortening
Short and simple
There is something about a short and simple link that makes it more attractive than a long and complicated one. It is compact, neat and clever. Long and elaborate URLs can be offputting to people, which can happen with regular articles on your website where the title is used for the URL. Affiliate links are often ugly because they contain extra information that is meaningless to the reader.
Hide the link destination
If you want to hide the destination of a link on your site or in a social share for some reason, a link shortener will do it. What page does http://bit.ly/2fb3Vbv link to? It is impossible to tell. It is hard to think of reasons why you might want to hide the destination, but possibly affiliate links, or perhaps to avoid looking like you are promoting your own stuff. A shortened link on Twitter or Facebook is not obviously to your own site if you remove the preview and just have the link.
Analyse and count clicks
Perhaps the strongest reason for using shortened links is the easy way in which you can track clicks. Link shorteners count the number of people that click a short link to get to the destination. You usually need an free or paid account with the link shortening service, but then you can view the statistics for the links you share.
You could use different link shorteners to create links to the same page and share one on Twitter and the other on Facebook for example. The link statistics will tell you which social network got you the most clicks. That is valuable information that can lead to better shares and more visitors to your site. It is not the only way to track clicks on links and Google Analytics can do this for example.
More attractive links
Shortened links can be made to look attractive, although not all shorteners provide this feature. Bit.ly for example, enables you to create a branded short domain, and there are several others. An example of this type of shortened link is youtu.be – type that into the address box of your browser and it goes to youtube.com. Although youtu.be isn’t much shorter than youtube.com, it makes a big difference with the rest of the URL, such as https://youtu.be/tRcZ6yc1IMI which is much shorter than the full address.
The disadvantages of link shortening
The branding problem
If a free link shortener is used, it will have a general URL like http://bit.ly/2fb3Vbv and this is meaningless. Your site URL is part of your brand and when people see the domain name in URLs they know what to expect. That URL above is wikipedia.org and seeing a URL with wikipedia in instantly tells you what to expect. Short URLs do not. Branded link shorteners solve the problem, but there are fees to be paid for the privilege.
Beware of affiliate problems
You should read the terms and conditions of your affiliate agreement carefully before using link shorteners with affiliate links because they may not be allowed. Do not assume that it is OK to shorten them, check first or you could find your affiliate account closed and money earned is lost.
Too weird to memorise
Shortened links are very hard to remember and http://bit.ly/2fb3Vbv is a typical example. After the bit.ly is a random series of letters and numbers. Compare this to the real link, which is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Talk_Like_a_Pirate_Day, which is longer, but simpler and people are more likely to remember it.
Even if people cannot recall the full URL of an article on your website, they can probably remember the domain name. They might enter it to go to your home page and from there they can browse or search for the article they want. If people can remember at least the domain name of your site, you will get more visitors.
Spammers use shortened links
Spammers that promote junk and things you are not interested in will often use shortened links to hide the destination. Hackers and phishing may also use link shorteners to disguise the destination too. This means that some people might assume you are promoting junk if you use a shortener because it looks suspicious.
Beware of typing slips
People don’t often type in shortened links and mostly they click on them. However, if you put a shortened link on a business card for example, people may then have to type it in. A typing slip, which is easy when copying random letters and numbers in a shortened URL, could send them to porn, pirate content, malware and other dodgy sites.
Popular link shorteners
Social media automation tools
Many social media automation tools, such as Buffer, shorten links. This is partly to save space, but mostly to track clicks. The services allow you to view the statistics for shared links so you can see how your social shares performed. Ow.ly is the link shortener used by Hootsuite.
Google URL Shortener
Google URL Shortener is a simple service that offers basic shortening and tracking for anyone with a Google account like Gmail. It turns long URLs into short ones and shows how many people clicked them. It is recommended simply because it is Google and it is another way of letting Google know you have posted new or updated content on your website.
Bitlinks is a popular service and you can shorten links anonymously or create free or paid accounts. Your choice affects how much information you can access. A free account shows the total number of clicks a link got, and it shows clicks on a timeline, so you can see the date when people clicked. This could be useful for tracking the popularity of a link over time. It also shows the referrer, such as Facebook or Twitter, and the location, such as US or UK.
TinyURL is not as short as some, such as Ow.ly, but it enables you to create readable URLs. Instead of tinyurl.com/7eyah36g you could have tinyurl.com/veganrecipes, which helps the reader understand the destination of the link and helps them to remember it.
is.gd is just about as simple and as short a URL as you can get. However, there is more to is.gd than you might think and you should check out the FAQ for an explanation of the advanced features and shortening tips. You can see link statistics by entering a shortened URL into the browser and adding a – to the end for example. You can also create custom shortlinks like https://is.gd/mysite
McAf.ee is a link shortener from the security company McAfee, which you may have guessed from the name. It works, but every shortlink looks like it is an advert or promotion from McAfee and not from you.
Ad.fly is a link shortener that aims to earn you money. After creating an account at the website, you can then use it to shorten links. When someone clicks a link Ad.fly shows an advert for 5 seconds, then displays a Skip button to let people continue to the link destination. You get paid for that advert. However, to earn a lot of money you need a lot of clicks on your links. You also risk annoying people that click your links because mostly people don’t like adverts. However, it is worth considering.
So should you use a URL shortener? Bear in mind the drawbacks and only use one if you have a good reason to.