Third Party URL Shorteners Leave Businesses Vulnerable

Everyone is trying to “keep it short” these days as more companies and their social media consultants have rushed to microblogging/social networking services like Twitter to get involved in the conversation and share ideas in the form of short status messages and links.urlshorteners

The problem is that in the frenzy to experiment with all of the latest social media apps and tools coming from darling startups that launched yesterday, we cannot forget we also need to look at things from a long term perspective and not just at the latest new shiny thing that received a rave review from the tech blogger set. Nowhere is this more important than when talking about URL Shortening Services.

URL Shorteners have been around for years but recently have seen a significant increase in use with the rise of Twitter and the necessity to send messages that contain links but also meet their 140 character limit.

How URL shortening services work is simple. Many enterprise and ecommerce sites have unnecessarily long URLs due to the nature of their CMS platforms such as: http://www.example.com/default/products/index.jsp?country=US&lang_locale=en_US&id=5462

These services take these bloated URLs and shorten them to something like http://bit.ly/P2XRi so they use fewer characters and can be easily shared in Twitter and other likeminded social spaces. Once clicked on these URLs then redirect on to the full URL.

As Twitter and similar services have grown in popularity third party URL shortening services have sprouted up rapidly; started by nimble startups searching for a viable business model to make URL shortening services a profitable venture. On the surface these services are free, but in reality the potential damage done to your organization and brand could end up being costly.

While many companies have thrown caution to the wind and have started using services like http://bit.ly and http://www.tinyurl.com extensively in their social media efforts, companies like Coca Cola, AMD, and Zappos have built their own branded URL Shortening services to ensure they have full control over their traffic.

It’s About Ownership

When a post is published on your corporate blog or your public relations team posts a news release on your web properties both the information and the actual URL that takes visitors to that content is the property of your organization.

But when you use third party URL shortening services to create a link to that release and post it on Twitter, in forums or anywhere on the web you are taking the ownership of those links and giving it to a third party with no warranty or guarantee they will continue sending people that click on the shortened URL directly to your website or at all.

In the short term you can be certain that visitors will get properly redirected to your site, but not years down the line when your company has posted 1,000+ updates with shortened links on Twitter and the service goes out of business leaving all the links to your website dead or the similarly bad scenario that they start serving interstitial ads before they get to your site so they can monetize the traffic.

Andrew Cohen, general manager of bit.ly one of the leading shortening services was quoted in a recent CNN article saying “Early on, we made a decision never to frame content, and never to run interstitial advertising,” he said. “Everything we do has to go with the grain of the product and community.”

That can be a reassuring comment in the short term, but bit.ly still has not defined its business model and at some point companies need to generate revenue to sustain themselves. (update 12.14.09 Bit.ly just announced their own “white label url shortening service.”) YouTube got its start in 2005 and differentiated itself by offering fast loading video without the annoyance of pre-roll advertising. Anyone who has been on YouTube recently knows things have definitely changed.

By building a URL shortening service that is hosted at a domain name that your organization owns you will be enabled to easily share links in social media spaces while still retaining full ownership of the links you are posting and the associated traffic.

It’s About Branding

Another significant downside of using third party URL Shortening Services is that it provides a poor user and brand experience. While short and convenient users are not able to know with certainty that they are going to a page on your web properties. What does http://bit.ly/P2XRi say about your brand? By having the URL shortener at a branded domain you are posting links that social media users can trust and know with certainty that they are being sent to the right place.

It’s Also About SEO

Search Engine Optimization is also an important topic to discuss while on the topic of the URL Shortening services.

For SEO it is actually best that you don’t use shortening services at all. If you can architect your site and URL structure so that your site naturally has short URLs from the start the links you post will carry more weight over the long term. Unfortunately for most organizations that simply isn’t a possibility or isn’t a strategy that makes sense. When SEO and URL shorteners are mentioned most consultants will tell you that as long as the URL shortening service you use, uses a particular kind of redirect (301) that it is inherently SEO friendly.

This is true, but it is also important to understand that a 301 redirect does dilute a portion of the weight a link carries and potentially carries even less value when it is on a different domain. Also if 5 years down the line all the links you’ve shortened suddenly go dead because the URL Shortener goes out of business, then likely so do any rankings that have been built up, in part by the links that have been generated.

It’s important to say that services like bit.ly and tinyurl.com do provide a valuable service and as their offerings evolve they are developing advanced analytics solutions and may allow companies to host their service on their own domain in the future.  For the everyday user, using a free third party service is likely not going to be an issue. But for corporations that have a lot at stake; the costs and resources needed to develop a service are small when looking at the potential gains and security gained.

Another important point is whether you have a branded URL shortening service or not, there is still the likelihood that social media users will go to your site and shorten urls using third party services on their own. It is important to integrate the service tightly with your site to make the shortened URL for each page easily visible to visitors and integrate it in with any sharing widgets active on your site.

URL Shortening services will likely continue to be an important weapon in any organization’s social media arsenal, but it is important that you use them wisely and have a strong strategy in place that protects your interests over the long term.