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Business - Written by on Wednesday, December 16, 2009 8:00 - 20 Comments

Denis Hancock
I need someone to explain to me why URL shorteners are so important

I did a presentation on Twitter last week where I opened with a simple question – if you were a venture capital investor in early 2006, and the creators of Twitter came up to you and asked for start-up funding, would you have provided it? Most people said definitely not – and I was amongst this group. As I went through the various reasons why, I went on a tangent and touched on one particular element that continues to seem weird to me – why exactly are URL shorteners so important? And as you’ll see below, I’m genuinely looking for an answer here, because it has eluded me thus far.

The first answer I usually get is in relation to Twitter itself. It tends to go something like “Well duh, if you’ve only got 140 characters to create a message in, a service to shorten URLs helps save you space.

But wouldn’t something like a hyperlink be better for that? Think about it – most people know what hyperlinks are (and if you don’t, click on that underlined thing to both experience one and read about it). Anyone that’s ever written on a blog knows exactly how easy they are to create – press that little button that looks like the link in a chain, put in the URL, press a button and the text on the screen (usually) turns blue with a line under it. And if my math is correct, that process takes up exactly zero characters. So aren’t URL shorteners a step backwards in terms of saving space?

This question has bounced around in my head for awhile. I was reminded of it when I read the TechCrunch article about Bit.ly getting Fu.kd (yup, I was right – zero characters). Everyone’s getting in the game. The winner will be the one with the most unified view of all the data behind the links. But the question still nibbles in my mind – isn’t there a way to get all this data, and send all these tweets and other messages, using some kind of hyperlink?

I’m assuming that I’m just missing something here. What is it exactly? Something around data transmission? Certain technology interfaces?



20 Comments

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Alan Majer
Dec 16, 2009 8:45

I think it’s time twitter killed off these services by offering the ability to hyperlink as you suggest. It would be trivial for them to implement. The reason these VCs are interested in these services is because have the opportunity to take some of the open elements of the web (URLs) and replace them with proprietary extensions. Yes, it’s a business opportunity, but it is also wrecking some of the cherished open elements of the web: http://www.wikinomics.com/blog/index.php/2009/05/19/are-url-shortening-services-wrecking-the-web/

Vincent Clement
Dec 16, 2009 8:51

“But wouldn’t something like a hyperlink be better for that?”

No. The hyperlink is nothing more than a visual representation of a long piece of code. And that long piece of code counts toward the character count in Twitter.

The URL for your article is 120 characters long. Add the requisite html tag and you left with 6 characters.

That’s why URL shorteners are so important.

Clay
Dec 16, 2009 9:31

Denis – I agree. Great post.

Vincent – Denis is suggesting that twitter allow users to insert hyperlinks, which would allow you to link to any URL with any number of characters. Just like when you’re reading a web page or blog post and links are blue and underlined – not the whole URL.

If twitter could implement that and include bit.ly like analytics, that would be great.

Denis
Dec 16, 2009 10:15

Vincent – so the question is why does Twitter have to work like that? Couldn’t they just as easily set up the service using hyperlinks, where the long piece of code doesn’t count towards the character count?

Jude
Dec 16, 2009 11:11

I don’t think there are any major advantages of a URL shortener over a hyperlink, but there are enough small advantages that they attract people for usability reasons. You mentioned the convenience of having a small link to go into Twitter, but as you mentioned, Twitter could easily (and should) get around around this by having hyperlinks. I find the whole content management element of Twitter to be sorely lacking and rife with opportunity for internal development, or as we’ve already seen with things like Tweetdeck, for a competitor to come in and fill the gap. Facebook also has the same opportunity, I have no idea why they don’t have better filters and controls to take the wealth of content that gets posted as links, and setup a content distribution system that keeps people coming back to the site for social AND entertainment needs.

On URL shorteners: I’ve started to use them across all forms of social media – I generally don’t like the clutter of long links and the only universal tool across all websites that I can use to resolve this is a shortener (I use the one built into Tweetdeck that automatically does it). Yes I lose the value of the link’s name for people who want to preview what they’re clicking on, but if i’m describing it before I link it then this doesn’t really matter to me. I think the other main benefit is that passing your content through an intermediary lets you easily store and manage your content, and then share that data in aggregate with the world, similar to a Delicious, Digg or StumbleUpon. If you simply hyperlink something on Twitter, the data is local, whereas if the content is recorded through an intermediary (in a quick, user friendly way), it opens up a broad range of sources that can be managed and manipulated into a way that benefits users. For example, I got this link from your Twitter and came to Wikinomics, where there is now a thin toolbar from Hoot Suite. From there I can with 1 click, find other top tweets, rate your content, and other useful things that wouldn’t be possible without a source of information to draw from. If I take it a step further and go to Hoot Suite’s website, it looks like there’s a number of neat tools that take the sum of all users’ data, and translate it into a form that helps me immerse myself in the web.

I agree that there’s some downsides to URL shorteners though, especially in masking the destination of your source and potential stats recording issues for things like search engine crawlers (my auto URL shortener sometimes re-shortens URLs from competing services – I suspect that this can create a big mess if you’re trying to track this). In the end I don’t think that URL shorteners are critical, but they add an extra layer of manageability to an Internet that has grown very broad and it can be a good way of surfacing quality media. I think the real concern is one of standards – because everyone wants to get into the game, there’s so many competing services that all the user data gets divided in a way that becomes less and less meaningful. I would be willing to bet that in the near future someone will come up with a good way to unify all these data silos under one banner in order to access and redistribute the total data of all sources.

Tony
Dec 16, 2009 11:33

It’s nice to think that perhaps a simple hyperlink within a Tweet would eliminate the need for URL shortening. Unfortunately, technically it’s not that simple. The idea of twitter is not just that you squeeze your information into 140 characters–it’s that all the information you post fits into 140 characters. A competitor service could implement a hyperlink-enabled system exactly the way you describe, but Twitter presently has the luxury of simply assigning every Tweet a uniform amount of space: 140 characters + some meta data. Hyperlinks aren’t free–they’re more text. A hypothetically hyperlinked Twitter would need a variable amount of space which could far exceed the amount of space taken by a normal tweet (tip of the hat to Vincent). That would require a fundamental change in the architecture of Twitter, not a trivial change in coding.

An internet exepert
Dec 16, 2009 12:02

Vincent you’re being daft. The twitter API already allows for large message sizes. you can simply enforce the rule that the end message is 140 characters long if you stripped HTML.

This would mean you could publish the message: “I enjoy the videos on this [site]” using the markup: “I enjoy the videos on this site:http://vimeo.com” or even by embedding an anchor tag.

The only people affected by any change like this would be the SMS users, but it turns out that most cell users of twitter simply use the webpage or a client.

Nor Talk Too Wise » In defense of URL shorteners
Dec 16, 2009 12:18

[...] Hancock of Wikinomics recently posed the question, “Why are URL shorteners so [...]

Doug Hadden
Dec 16, 2009 13:37

Technical innovation – especially incremental improvements are constrained by previous standards. In the same way the stereo was added to FM, streaming video to IP, Twitter leverages the existing technology of SMS. Not elegant – but manages to leverage a medium with standardizes protocols.

Perhaps very few in the Twitterverse use SMS as the primary channel, even on PDAs. (But SMS remains the key standard in mobile technology in developing countries.)

So, URL shortening is a typical technical compromise created when extending an existing medium.

Another point: Web 2.0 in general exposes functionality to users in a programmatical fashion. The notion of exposing badges, widgets, XML data and URL shorteners enables simple and accessible customization.

Hayden
Dec 16, 2009 13:45

Denis – the information has to be sent somehow – I think the idea behind Twitter is to keep the amount of information transmitted to just 140 characters, and that was to help it keep in the confines of a text message. Some urls are incredibly long – much longer than 140 characters, and if you were receiving the message via text, it would flow over into more than one message. Hyperlinks would be fine if we were all using Twitter through a web browser, but as we all consume it in different ways, it is strictly 140 characters, without any ‘hidden’ code like hyperlinks. We often forget that what we consume through web browsers has much more data behind it to make it look the way we expect.

Haruspex
Dec 16, 2009 13:55

Twitter doesn’t use hyperlinks because it is important for it’s usage to be synchronous across all services. One of those services is SMS. When you SMS an update to Twitter, you are typing into a cellphone (not a smartphone), and have no access to a GUI for creating the hyperlink. In addition, the 140 character limit comes from the typical character limit from using SMS. So, even with a GUI, an SMS user would still be limited to the character limit.

Keeping messages raw (as in, no hidden code) and short is important for Twitter. All hidden code increases bandwidth usage. We all know Twitter goes down quite often. I don’t think increasing their data traffic is a good idea. URI shorteners help reduce data traffic. That’s a good idea. Good Twitter clients will reveal the URI to you before navigating, giving you a more transparent choice.

However, my biggest support for URI shorteners is that you can use them to track data. Shorteners such as tr.im and is.gd provide usage statistics so you can track what followers are interesting in when you tweet.

SteveG
Dec 16, 2009 16:32

Many good comments. I most line-up with @DougHadden and @Haruspex – it’s a compromise and it’s a tracking solution. In my opinion, practically speaking, it’s all about whoever provides the better data. See: http://guengerich.wordpress.com/2009/08/03/url-shorteners-choose-ur-wpn/ Also, as @AlanMajer says, as soon as Twitter decides to incorporate the better capabilities of these services and kill them off, then this topic will be done and we’ll move on to the next.

Denis Hancock
Dec 17, 2009 9:26

Thanks for all the comments – an interesting and illuminating conversation!

It seems that SMS integration is the biggest issue. I find this particularly interesting for one main reason – this innovation seems to be focused on making something work for a legacy technology, rather than optimizing the latest and greatest. Most innovations I’ve seen, particularly online / in the Web 2.0, tend to go the other way.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out – I do understand some of the benefits in (say) developing economies. But I believe, for many people with relatively recent devices, this whole URL shortening thing represents a step backwards.

AAAAAARRRRGGGHHH
Dec 17, 2009 15:27

Most people ‘tweet’ via mobile and inserting hyperlinks is impossible this way, unless you have some super geeky phone?

It would be nice to have an option of a hyperlink on the API though, I will give you that. It’ll happen but it won’t happen soon. Now that they’re so hugemongus they have to cater to the tardoids who won’t even know what a hyperlink is until they make some spazzy little video of cardboard people sending hyperlinks in tweets.

blogbrevity
Dec 17, 2009 21:46

Denis, a URL shortener like bit.ly provides analytics that show you how many people opened your link and can also give you relative information for others who have also tweeted that link (thereby showing influence.) As content curation grows in importance, so will the significance of the data that supports it. If content is king, data is queen. See more detailed explanations in two posts on my blog: http://bit.ly/4ILBKW and http://bit.ly/4RyZ0G. I look forward to your comments!

Denis
Dec 18, 2009 9:32

AAAARRRGGHHH – it’s true, right now it’s incredibly hard to do without a “super geeky” phone. But for those of us with a moderately geeky phone, one would think it would be a relatively easy fix – taking a link and having it shortened just doesn’t seem like it should be that much easier than taking it and putting it in as a hyperlink.

blogbrevity – thanks for both your links and comments. Will be taking a look shortly…

Tel
Dec 21, 2009 9:42

As others have pointed out, the character limit of Twitter is designed to remain compatible with SMS and it isn’t a display limit it is an actual character transfer limit. Mind you, SMS would probably be the lowest bandwidth and highest priced (cost per bit) communications medium in the world, but convenience is king and people obviously like it so that’s what free markets deliver.

Short URLs are good for blogs that don’t allow traditional HTML hyperlinks and good for situations where a URL contains wonky special characters (like quotes, etc) that cause software to freak out. When you don’t have cut-and-paste between two machines but you want to save a URL for later then a short URL can be typed in (you could also email it, but maybe you don’t have convenient email at hand or whatever).

See also, http://pastebin.com/ and similar services — popular when people have some big multi-line chunk that they want to share with others without pushing an overly verbose message.

Neen
Jan 5, 2010 10:35

for me it’s as simple as twitter is a cut and paste engine for hyperlinks etc- there is no checking of a URL and no way to tag/link words to a specific URL string. It just knows when it sees a ‘http’ etc that it is a URL & displays accordingly. This is the same principle as using the ‘@’ for people & ‘#’ for a topic within twitter. There lies the frustrations and the simplicity of the service.

Lady Geek
Jan 7, 2010 19:32

The most complex communication is up and down the protocol stack… whether we are discussing humans or networks.

With humans, it’s easy to imagine telepathy, but the implementation is a bit tricky, as we have yet to invent the transmission media to allow this. We tend to be stuck with the imperfections of language.

As for twitter, to maximize its reach, you minimize its function and cost, and live with the resultant lingua franca. Network hardware and protocols are boring, but they matter immensely. Legacy may suck, but it’s free. Just ask any dsl technologist why there is still no fibre to the home (Hint: compression algorithms cost less).

Oh, and neurologists and psychologists out there…, does ANYONE know why we are so interested in what others are having for lunch? If we had this answer, we’d have been able to predict the rise of twitter, understand the business case and pay to build out networks to accommodate more sophisticated functions.

Edmundo Llopis
Jan 14, 2010 13:03

The major disadvantage of introducing URL shortener over a hyperlink is the introduction of another point of failure into the system. The Mean Time Between Failure of a system is determined by aggregating the failure rate of all the components. Less components will translate into higher reliability for a service (same for process, less steps in the process will diminish the failure rate). I always wondered why people would introduce another point of failure (url shorteners) into their system. I think this is a great question that Denis is posing.

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