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Business - Written by on Tuesday, May 19, 2009 10:00 - 7 Comments

Are URL shortening services wrecking the web?


…my first confession: I really like those URL shortening services. They’re helpful for taking an otherwise gigantic URL and compressing  it into a tiny one  to tidy up an email link, but even more valuable for squeezing a hyperlink into the 140 characters permitted by twitter.

Yet, what bothers me about is that these sites completely undo one of the best features of the web, a publicly available address owned by the content provider. The problem is that what used to be an open public resource now falls into private hands. If  any one of — tinyurl.com, is.gd, short.ie, ow.ly, tri.im, or kl.am (or numerous others) fail — then they will bring down tens of thousands of URLs down with them.

It’s a no win situation because either these services have two choices:

 1) Operate these services as a public good, funding them out of their own kindness

 2) Figure out a business model that makes sense

In the first case, we have to ask whether that generosity might someday end, and even if it doesn’t – whether the lack of funding might one day cause the link service to fail anyway. In the second case, once we have a for-profit business model, suddenly we have for-profit proprietary extensions to the web itself. For example, some sites like ow.ly have an option to put the underlying page in a frame where you never get to see the original URL in the address bar at all. Now, that’s handy for retweeting, rating the site (and yes, the full address is still available via clicking if you want it), or sharing with others – but turning a public address into a private index that takes over the web’s basic interface seems to run counter to the Internet’s open beginnings.  It reminds me a bit of stumbleupon.com for example, useful, but ultimately shielding us from the open structure of the web by hiding its addresses.

Maybe I’m overreacting, and this is a little like people clinging to the old command line interfaces over a GUI, or perhaps insisting that the headers of email remain visible. In both those cases, most of us manage to get along just fine without a connection to the stuff that’s “under the hood”.  But does moving the structure of the web itself “under the hood” start to cross a new line? Are we in danger of losing the Internet’s open beginnings?

Part of what makes it such a wonderful resource is the fact that content owners (not distribution channels) allow a direct line of communication with end users. Search engines certainly preserve that connection. But URL shortening seems to be more of a slippery slope – one that could ultimately disintermediate web pages themselves.  Thoughts?


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Naumi Haque
May 19, 2009 11:12

Google has been doing this for years with its image searches, but for some reason it seems more transparent because they have a “remove frame” option and they show you the source of the original content. I completely agree though – control over the address is an important factor on the Web, especially when everything is link-driven.

Doug Cornelius
May 19, 2009 12:27

Alan -

It has puzzled me why Google has not bought one of the shortening services or created their own. There is a tremendous amount information that can be captured about the relevancy of a site.

Although the shortening is needed for Twitter, I don’t think it should be used elsewhere. I see some site using it to expose the URL, but I think it is counterproductive. You see a short string, but have no idea where you are headed. That could lead to viruses and other bad sites. tinyurl.com/prettyflowers could lead to a porn site. Exposing the URL gives the reader some information to decide on whether to click on the link.

Hartger Visser
May 20, 2009 16:26

The short URL’s actually make my life easier developing sites. Think of it as your personal bookmark site! tinyurl.com/sitelogin etc… actually freaked out last week when on a demo the local admin didn’t allow access to tinyurl and I needed a login to one of our development sites. (usually having an extremely difficult url to remember)

May 21, 2009 4:24

The public address or URL, is already a synonym for an IP address, which is translated for you by a DNS server; very similar to what Tinyurl and other services are doing for you. Granted, when they go down there may not be a backup service such as with the DNS system.
Nevertheless, these shortening services are addressing a need which is there, because current publicly available addresses are too long to be easily copied.

Besides, even all public URLs are subject to link-rot.
You have to accept that the web is not static, but its becoming a real time information river; URL shortening services fit in perfectly, as an additional service.

David Bradley
May 22, 2009 11:57

You can, of course, run a plugin on your site that will make your domain a URL shortener. WordTwit has this built in *and* lets you tweet your new posts automatically with a shortened URL, great for retaining branding.


There are other plugins that just do the shortening using your domain. Unless you have a two letter domain and two letter TLD they’re not going to be as short as tr.im et al, but v useful nevertheless.

Grant BlahaErath
May 25, 2009 16:39

The design work done on Xanadu in the early 90s focused a lot of effort on maintaining the integrity of links over time. It seemed like overkill at the time to me, but successive iterations on the web demonstrate the foresight of that team. Sadly, it’s hard for me to imagine any manner of refactoring of the web to where it could preserve link integrity over time using the Xanadu tumbler line model. The problem isn’t so much as a technical one, but one imposed by the complexities of social relationships.

That being said, technologies like massively parallel search engines (Google, etc.) have all infrastructure needed to reconstruct these link relationships. If a popular link shortener did go belly up, Google or Microsoft have all the data needed to reconstruct the data. Similarly, Twitter could record all the link relationships in their own logs and restore them if any should die. In fact, if I were twitter I would do that since a portion of their value prop is directly related to their role as a link archive. If any of these services die they would loose some portion, admittedly unknown, of their value.

Wikinomics» Blog Archive » Social network analysis: Cool tools from a couple of cool dudes
Jul 18, 2009 22:56

[...] I think this is an awesome way to add value to traditional link shortening services that typically mask provenance. Check out the preview [...]

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