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More...

URL shorteners are EVIL!

It appears that URL shortening service tr.im is closing its doors. So, what happens now with all the links out there that have been shortened using tr.im? The original sites you linked to are still there, after all. No harm done, right?

Wrong. What happens to shortened links is what was bound to happen with them from the start: They stop working by year's end. Whoever was surprised by this shouldn't be. All URL shorteners do, is add a second point of failure. Instead of the actual site you are linking to going away, you now have two servers that show up in the equation: The shortening service and the actual site. If the shortening service's site goes down, your links are now just as broken as if the original site had disappeared.

Was that such a surprise? No, not at all. URL shortening is not a business: People who want short URLs can easily register their own domain. If they want short URLs for other sites that are longer, it would not be very expensive to pay a kid starting out in programming to set up a little PHP script that saves a URL and redirects to it. If you're willing to pay for short URLs, you're willing to pay for a domain name and your own script. Put your blog on it and all is fine. If your original site goes down, your links to other sites will be gone anyway. No additional point of failure.

The majority of people, of course, wouldn't pay for shorter URLs. A long URL is not that bad if you just want to tell a friend where to find something that most people would fork over money to reduce the pain. So unless there's some kind of advertising you show before you forward, or which you show around the page linked to (both things the destinations linked to will generally not appreciate and try to prevent using a frame-buster script), there's no way to make revenue.

So unless you can make Google pay you to get your list of URLs to help in prioritizing its database and find new sites (something that's not only unlikely but also not very likely to stay un-abused once it becomes public knowledge), URL shortening is a niche thing. Twitter might do it to let you get around the 160 character limit. But they could just run a shortener on one of their own servers to help with whatever revenue stream Twitter has.

Okay, so much about the business side of things that makes it very likely that URL shorteners will go out of business. But what about the features? Surely the advantage must outweigh the disadvantages? Well, no. I see exactly two advantages:

  1. URLs are shorter and more easily transmitted over non-digital channels (with a custom alias they're even a tad more memorizable than most longer URLs, but only as long as the namespace isn't used up yet)
  2. The intermediate server can perform hit counting, logging, or offer warning/thumbnail preview/landing pages etc. if my server doesn't provide that feature.

Compare that to the disadvantages:

  1. It is not at all obvious if a shortened URL is one I already know. I have to click it to actually find out what it is. The presence of several shortening services means I could visit the same site three times a day, and only realize it once I've been forwarded. Worse, most short URLs are alphanumeric hashes that don't at all indicate what's on the other end. That's how the rickroll was invented, after all.
  2. There is an additional server between me and my site. What is a boon to people on cheap hosting plans can actually be a security issue or at least a privacy issue.
  3. The additional server between me and my site can go down temporarily, or due to the company running it going out of business. All of a sudden, all my links are broken. Even though none of the sites linked to have gone away, nor has my site doing the linking gone down.
  4. Link forwarding causes additional (and strictly spoken unnecessary) internet traffic.
Still want to shorten URLs?

Please, don't link through shorteners if you can avoid it. Your web site will remain much more easy to maintain, and people clicking your links will arrive at their destination more stealthily, more reliably, and won't cause unnecessary traffic on servers they've already been to.

Update: Dave Mark seems to agree: tr.im is dead. So are your legacy links...

Reader Comments: (RSS Feed)
Ted Wise writes:
I believe the best option is to host your own shortened URLs. There are several link shortener plugins for WordPress and there are options for other platforms as well. I'm using one that works for everything. My links don't expire, I track the link hits and I get to decide if I want to delete them or not.
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Created: 2009-08-10 @381 Last change: 2014-11-21 @539 | Home | Admin | Edit
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